America Leads by Living up to Its Ideals

On the eve of the pivotal 2020 U.S. election, optimism about America’s unwavering belief in openness and diversity.

American University in Cairo President Francis J. Ricciardone Jr.’s Part 1 interview with the Cairo Review of Global Affairs Senior Editor Sean David Hobbs on November 2, 2020.

In a few days millions of Americans will decide the country’s destiny in what many say is one of the most critical presidential elections in the nation’s history.

Whether they vote for the incumbent President Donald Trump or his Democratic challenger Joe Biden, the fact remains that the United States has done much soul-searching in the past four years with many more obstacles ahead for one of the world’s superpowers.

In the lead up to the election, Cairo Review senior editor Sean David Hobbs sat with American University in Cairo President and former United States Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, and the Philippines Francis J. Ricciardone Jr. for part one of a three-part series of podcast interviews on America’s health today.

Cairo Review: You have lived through two election years (1968 and 2020) which have arguably seen the most internal conflict in the modern history of the United States. When you think back to 1968—a time when the United States was divided over the Vietnam War and Civil Rights—and where we were then and where we are now in 2020, what is similar and what is different? Based on what you saw of how the U.S. public responded after the 1968 election, are you hopeful or pessimistic for the future of our nation post this 2020 election?

Francis Ricciardone: That question of are you hopeful or pessimistic is always a great journalistic opener and lead in. But it’s also interesting that you picked those couple of years. I’m no historian, but people talk about inflection points in years and what really, as you look back, turned out to be big shifts in the direction of the world or in the direction of a country. For me personally, the big difference is I was 16 in 1968 and I’m not 16 anymore. So it gives me a very different perspective on the world. I was a young observer learning about it. Now, I’ve been a participant in all these events. 

In terms of the United States and the other countries; of  course in 1968, even as a 16 year old, I knew things were going on in France and Czechoslovakia. So there was social turmoil that was political. Race was an issue both times. Economic factors were there. 

There was also a sense, I think, of an emergence of a generational shift. At least, we felt it then. I was involved. I remember my high school copybook having a bumper sticker for Eugene McCarthy, who was a reformist candidate in the Democratic Party. My father was horrified because he was against President Johnson within his own country. It was all about the Vietnam War, etc. The Democratic Party at that time was still coming out. Johnson had really changed the nature of it. They’d spoken of the solid South for the Democratic Party because it wasn’t the party of the Republican Lincoln. And that started to get shaken up when Goldwater ran against Johnson. 

Those times (the 1960s) were just really different times. But there was a feeling that us baby boomers were reaching our teens and preteens, it felt like a generational shift. It was time for the World War two generation, who were at their prime, people like my dad, they had their time building the country, set  the foreign policy terms and got us into Vietnam. And we thought we knew better, of course. I remember those times of protest. When I went to university, I had a beard and long hair and protested the Vietnam War. I did all that stuff. 

Now we have  not just the millennials, but those that follow who are brought up in a different world; grandkids of the other World War Two generation, the kids of the baby boomers. They’re brought up with social media (with) different ways of interacting. Whereas we were brought up in a time of rising middle class, a better distribution of wealth, when people without university education were able to advance and have a good life. Blue collar jobs were well-paid. There seemed to be a more equitable distribution. 

Now, in the United States, in the past at least 20 years there has been rising income inequality; a rise in  immigration. In my time, there were people who didn’t speak unaccented American English. I grew up with grandparents who didn’t speak very good English and I learned an appreciation for foreign languages from them. 

Now, there’s a pride actually in where we had come from, but a pride in being American and in the melting pot thing. America is now more diverse than ever, but there seems to be a reaction to that and younger people are leading the way. I think in a way, it makes me very happy and proud of America. 

Going back to your question, am I optimistic? Yes, I am. The younger people are carrying forward something that is very American: an appreciation of diversity: appreciation of other cultures; religions; languages; skin colors; races. Even gender diversity, not just gender equality, but diversity. People don’t conform to one or the other stereotypes of either the two genders. That’s what seems to be there in the atmosphere now and underlying a lot of our politics in the US. 

I choose to be optimistic. I think it shows the energy of the United States, a resilience that has been part of our American identity, our brand, if you will. It hasn’t always been pretty. It’s sometimes been ugly. There’s been violence. There’s been injustice. There’s been hate. There’s been people who have fed on that over the centuries. We were founded as a slaveholding country and episodically we’ve lurched into improvements and sometimes lurched backward. It’s part of the American story. 

What I find gives me confidence in America is we do have an openness to change. We embrace it even as we react to it. Whether we like it or not, every four years, our top leadership changes, and every two years, so do the House of Representatives and the Senate (the Senate only renews by one third every two years). But we force renewal. Sometimes we lose good people and sometimes we lose people who we want to lose. 

(laughs)

Sometimes we get great presidents. Sometimes, you know, we get less great presidents. But always it’s a reflection, one way or another, of the American people’s perceptions of their self-interest and their national interests.

So, I’m not a flag-waving jingoist. But the country has a system that most other people, many other people would prefer to live under. We still have people lining up to be immigrants. Every American embassy has a long, long list of people who want to visit or emigrate to the United States. 

Some people say it’s changing, that the prestige of America’s falling, the attraction. (That) the story of America has been tarnished. I think, again, if you don’t take the long historical view, you can see the anger and noise of the moment and think that that defines the place. It’s part of the definition of America. But I think the core is still solid:  an openness to others, an openness to change, a desire for debate, a fierce commitment to individual freedom, intellectual freedom. All that, I think, is solid and positive and will see America through.

CR: Former-Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderez famously called for Turkey to be a “little America”. Should the United States’ system of democracy be an example for other nations in the world? If yes, in what ways? If not, why not? How could emulation of the United States work and how does it not work?

 FR: Clearly, at that time and in the mid 1950s, America was quite an example for emulation and inspiration to much of the world. I think it still is in many ways. 

Along the way, maybe a certain arrogance crept in. And of course, there was the Cold War where we were offering competing examples between the United States’ system of democracy and open societies; versus what the Russians, the Soviet Union, was offering by way of sort of a dirigiste, more state controlled, collectivist, closed mentality. And when the Soviet Union and its system finally visibly failed to everybody, it let loose a new paradigm for the world to all figure out, okay, what’s working and what doesn’t work. 

My own view as a former American diplomat that very much believed and still believes in the American system for Americans, is a lot of the way America conducts itself can be valuable for others. But it’s sort of like a world of farmers. Farmers look and see what the next farmers are doing and whether it’s working for that farm before they adopt it. 

I think America is at its most influential in terms of spreading its values when its example is obviously succeeding for itself. So when it preaches tolerance of diversity and elects a black president, how many countries have members of minorities and especially disadvantaged minorities rise to lead not only the state, but the government? We combine the two roles into one. 

That’s a striking example. (Obama’s presidency) hit a lot of people even who might not have liked American policies or our style. That was still an undeniable, interesting fact that inspired a lot of people. 

So with regards to whether America should play a certain role, my own view is, as an American, it is a good thing to be a superpower. It is not enough to be a superpower by having the strongest military, which we still do. Clearly, that’s not enough to protect even your national security, much less your economic interests. And it’s certainly not very useful for promoting your values. You can’t use the military to bring democracy to Afghanistan, for example. It is ludicrous to imagine that. 

But by proclaiming our ideals and living up to them, we may be able to help bring others to share the conviction that individual freedom is a good thing. Well regulated free markets are a good thing. Gender equality is a useful and good thing for everybody. We seem to be living up to it in the Hollywood version of America that people were getting, even as we were not always, even as there was racism and bigotry and less than gender equality in the 50s and 60s. 

Now our flaws in living up to our ideals are more obvious and harder to hide thanks to modern media, let’s say. People are more interconnected than ever before. So we really have to be living what we proclaim if we want to be effective in convincing others, I would say at this time. 

CR: How is the present political divide between Biden and Trump, left and right, viewed by non-American public policy makers and leaders?

FR: I’ve only visited a few other countries—like Turkey—(that have) any degree of political discussion for some seminars and conferences in the years since President Trump was elected. So I spent most of my time here and I have been in touch. I haven’t got into in-depth discussion with officials about U.S. politics, but I have been in touch with opinion leaders whom I’ve known: journalists, intellectuals, public intellectuals of Egypt, writers, artists, professors. Of course, lots of professors, activists. 

So it is hard to say that there’s a general impression. There are many who are apprehensive about what might happen. There are many who perceive that relations between the United States and Egypt are good now, or at least relatively tranquil, and are anxious that if Vice President Biden is elected, that that might disrupt that relatively, let’s say, tranquil period as they perceive it. And that perception rests on what I think is true, a pretty good personal chemistry at the top levels between the two leaders. 

That is not to be undervalued. Personal relationships between leaders really do have an impact even on modern state relations, which are much more complicated than in the days of kings, let’s say. Right. This is an intricate relationship of many, many, many people interacting every day. We know each other better than we did in the past. So I wouldn’t over state the value of personal relations among leaders. But it’s still consequential.

I think the relationships between Egypt and the United States rest on the foundations of our own strategic interests of the two countries as not only the top leaders see it, but ultimately as their peoples understand them. So I think people perceive that the tensions between Biden and Trump correctly reflect a division in America that is starker and angrier and noisier than at any time, probably since 1968, as you started out with. So that’s there in the United States. It’s undeniable. 

We can talk about what that might mean if one or the other is elected. But I think people are dismayed in a way. People had an idea that America, through the rough and tumble of its politics and its democratic system, was better able to sort things out. At least in terms of policies that affected their countries; whereas they now see America as kind of flailing about a little bit, inconsistent. 

The things that Egyptians used to be able to count on America to support, the levels of engagement, -never mind the specific policies- but the way we engaged, the level of engagement, the level of interest in world affairs; people, I think, perceive a kind of pulling inward on the part of the United States. I think there’s something to that. It predates President Trump. Even President Obama in some of his foreign policy statements reflected an American refocusing on American interests as more nationalistically defined. 

“Why waste all that money on foreign development assistance”, for example. That’s not a new theme. It was there long before President Obama and he (Obama) made foreign development assistance a point of his policy. But there was always an undercurrent in the United States of, you know,“those foreigners, why are we doing so much for those foreigners?” 

So that American feeling, that isolationist tendency, was always there. Under President Trump, he’s played to that. There are other elements of his own party, the part that President Bush, both father and son represented, was the internationalist camp, as it’s called. And the Democrats had their own version of that. 

Back to your question. Most foreigners that I’ve dealt with, most non-Americans, Turks and others where I’ve lived among them, have, over the years, come to expect America to act toward their countries with enlightened self-interest. To be engaged with competent people, with their senior officials, secretaries of state or their diplomats and be able to understand their interests better and respond to them. 

That’s what I perceive. That they see the division in America now as playing out not in a good way with respect to their countries, a kind of more narrow self-interest than the enlightened self-interest that they expected in the past.

Francis J. Ricciardone was appointed the 12th President of The American University in Cairo and began his term on July 1, 2016. He had served as a Foreign Service Officer from 1978-2014, including appointments as U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Turkey, and the Philippines, and Chargé d’Affaires and Deputy Ambassador to Afghanistan. After graduating from Dartmouth College Summa Cum Laude in 1973, he received a Fulbright Scholarship and taught in American international schools in Trieste, Italy, and Tehran, Iran. From 2014-2016 he was Vice President of the Atlantic Council and Director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He was a distinguished scholar at the US Institute of Peace in 2008-2009. He speaks Arabic, Turkish, Italian, and French.