The Foreign and European Affairs parliamentary committee’s recent visit to the USA could not have had a better start than attending a presentation in the form of an introduction to US Culture by Dr Gary Weaver, Professor of International Relations at the American University. An expert in inter-cultural communications, he set the tone for most of the meetings that followed.
The point was made that one first needs to understand US culture if one wants to understand its policies and its basic values. In America there is no such thing as the American culture or a mainstream culture but rather a mixture of cultures.
In spite of its strength and military muscle, the US is still reeling from the vulnerabilities exposed by the 9/11 trauma, particularly since prior to that bloody mass terrorist attack they had always felt secure, with the consequence that their sense of security had found itself shattered in a few hours in one day.
Weaver explained how the Americans loved melodramas and not tragedies and how they always emphasised evil when talking of their adversaries – cases in point being the axis of evil referred to by Bush and the evil Soviet empire Reagan used to mention in his speeches.
The Americans love trials much more than they love news.
They also love people who take risks, in sharp contrast with the EU which is somewhat risk-adverse.
For them there is a big divide between a risk and an irrational gamble. The worse thing is to do nothing, as this weakens the chance of moving forward.
In America if you are wealthy it means you have worked hard.
The point often came up as to whether individual liberties needed to be restrained to boost security. One senatorial aide argued that America’s challenge is how to protect its democracy without destroying it through the abrogation of certain civil liberties.
In fact one over-riding question that came up was whether the fear of terror will cause a change in the ways in which America governed itself.
Although I have visited the US on various other occasions, both my colleagues and I were struck by the politeness across the board we came across, even from ordinary people in the street – none of them showing the brashness that unfortunately characterises the archetypal American.
American society came across as one big mosaic and tapestry, where all the elements come together when the country happens to be facing a crisis.
With former ambassador Gioia, who does not now have the restraints of holding office, we were able to assess the strengths and weakness of Maltese-US relations. In the meetings we had, one overriding point came across: that Malta is doing a bad job in promoting itself tourism-wise in the US. The closure of the Malta Tourism Authority office certainly did not help.
It would have made more sense if, rather than keeping an Empire State Building office, more modest offices had been found while increasing the promotional budget.
Targeting Washington and New York alone for inward investment is not enough. It makes more sense to zoom in on specific counties. A case in point is Montgomery County in Maryland, where the top economic players all turned up to put forward ideas on how we can work together.
In the USA we were not there to play the role of an alternative government but rather to serve as catalysts. Unless certain initiatives discussed are followed up, most of the proposals made will unfortunately fall on deaf ears.
On the subject of the double taxation agreement, the US authorities are still waiting for government to identify US companies prospectively interested in investing in Malta who feel hampered by the lack of such a DTA.
Two of the most important meetings we had were with the UN deputy secretary-general, with whom we had a frank discussion in the absence of Kofi Annan, who was in Indonesia, as well as a very intensive working luncheon with senior officials at the State Department where both bilateral and multi-lateral issues, as well as regional topics, were discussed at great length.
One area which definitely needs looking into is the relatively slack security at the Freeport – something about which various Americans we met complained.
On the assistance that has been offered to our Customs authorities, they made it clear that there was nothing altruistic in such aid, since it also addressed their security concerns in the region.
I must admit that Malta’s role in the EU has enhanced the country’s profile in the US, although there are still many people at lower levels who have not heard of Malta.
Some knew little of our economy while others did not even know whether we had a Malta Tourism Authority or not.
We did our best to promote Malta as a logistical base for the families of US would-be operators in Libya, given the quality of life, respect for the rule of law and sense of security in our country.
Having promoted Malta intensively as a centre of excellence for IT in the Med, I was shocked to read the way Minister Gatt tried to rubbish Alfred Sant’s fair comment on the IT industry when he recently visited the flagship Megabyte company.
Although I found a meeting which we had with AIPAC – the Israeli-American lobby group – very interesting, balance was sacrificed in the sense that no counter meeting with the Arab lobbyists was included in our programme. This was something which we had actually called to be remedied from the very outset – but to no apparent avail!
In all our meetings we were free to comment, criticise and make suggestions, even if these ran counter to the opinions of certain opinion-makers whom we met.
While the general feeling was that Abbas needed to be shored up, there was no complete reassurance that if he faltered, Sharon would not try to follow up the Gaza disengagement plan with a unilateral accord on the West Bank. This is something which, in my opinion, would be disastrous as the road to a solution to the Palestinian problem is a two state solution focusing among other areas on the future of the West Bank.
Although the European Constitutional Treaty featured very little in our discussions, the Americans decidedly saw it as a treaty rather than a fully-fledged new Constitution.
What came as a surprise to us was the way the Bolton affair evolved. I say so because before his confirmation was rolled over to mid May, even democrat leaders were expecting the ratification process to be relatively plain sailing.
One of the most interesting meetings we had was with the Congressional Research Service which gave us an insight into the highly professional manner in which this network of information works. The rationale behind such a service – which we should try to emulate within our budgetary constraints – is that the key to democracy is an effective legislature and that the key to an effective legislature is the knowledge and information that will enable you to fulfill that role. You cannot have effective policy-making without such back up information of the first order.
The CRS not only helps develop alternative solutions to government programmes but also comes up with studies on the effects of such alternative solutions. For this reason they hire the best people, in the hope that senior analysts will not be poached by the executive. They even try to anticipate what is likely to come up as a bill. Among their other powers is that they can sub-poena information from the executive branch, unless it happens to be of a classified nature.
One of the most prestigious think tanks we met was the Council for Foreign Relations. They bluntly admitted that Israel was not giving Abbas enough confidence-building measures, both regarding border issues as well as prisoner releases. The general feeling was that the China storm with Japan would blow over and not impact on inward FDI while the C. Rice appointment was expected to change the internal dynamics rather than any matters of substance in US foreign policy. The only difference was that she could speak for President Bush while Powell was not so well integrated.
The final meeting we had was one of the most important being held as it was at the White House with the Director for Europe and NATO of the National Security Council. Discussion was frank and replies were promptly forthcoming. For my part, I asked three pertinent questions to which I obtained more than satisfactory replies:
Now that Libya is almost fully reconciled with the international community, what major security threats did the NSC see in the Mediterranean apart from the fragility of the M. East peace process?
In Iraq, did the NSC consider the pull out of troops from the coalition countries to be merely symbolic or did they have any impact on security responsibilities in the country?
Did the NSC consider the Iraqi chain of command to be viable enough to make a significant drawdown of US troops more likely in Iraq?
While we were in the US we witnessed the election of the new Pope. Although there were mixed feelings in the initial reaction of the American people, by the time we came to leave, most US Catholics supported the choice, in spite of the fact that they expect him to defend the traditional policies and beliefs of a church that many members say is out of touch with their views.
While more than eight in 10 Roman Catholics broadly supported Ratzinger’s selection to replace Pope John Paul II, nearly as many, 73 per cent, said they were enthusiastic about the new pontiff, though only one in four said they were strongly enthusiastic about the choice.
A word of thanks goes to the American Embassy in Malta that made this visit possible as well as to the US State Department that put together what was described as: ‘US foreign policy – an international visitor leadership project for Malta’.
Leo Brincat is the opposition spokesman for Foreign Affairs and IT