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31 January, 2009

Obama’s ‘friends’ strategy should include New Americans

New America Media

Editor’s note: The ability of foreign-born U.S. citizens to speak multiple languages, combined with their understanding of both American and foreign cultures, can be an unmatched tool in enhancing America’s relationships. Edwin Okong’o is NAM’s communications director.

One of the multiple ways President Barack Obama’s journey to the White House made history was its ability to awaken a new breed of the American voter: foreign-born U.S. citizens. Before Obama’s candidacy, most of these new Americans – an estimated 15 million strong – shied away from U.S. politics although, like their fellow citizens, they held jobs, ran businesses and contributed to the building of America.

A 2008 U.S. Census report analyzing data from 1996 to 2006 shows that in every election year, more native citizens than naturalized Americans registered and went out to vote. For instance, in the 2006 election, 54 percent of naturalized citizens registered to vote, compared to 69 percent of American-born citizens. In the same year, 49 percent of native citizens reported voting, as opposed to 37 percent of foreign-born citizens, according to the report.

As an immigrant from Kenya, I can testify that before Obama, most new Americans from my home continent saw themselves as having neither the need, nor the ability to change anything in the United States. They were more involved in the politics of Africa, mainly because they still had families there.

What Obama’s candidacy did was remind naturalized citizens that what happens in the United States affects them and their homelands directly. A declining economy, for instance, means that the new Americans, too, risk losing jobs, hence fewer remittances to the families they left behind. Obama’s message – coupled with becoming the first son of an immigrant to be elected to the White House – resonated across the nation, and sent droves of foreign-born citizens who had never before voted to the polls.

President Obama now has an opportunity to make sure that these new Americans do not sink back into obscurity, that they continue to participate in the remaking of America. On Jan. 21, the president’s first full day in office, he directed members of his administration to “find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans – scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs – because the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives.” That effort should include tapping the talent and expertise of foreign-born American citizens, many of whom, according to census data, are highly educated and qualified.

One specific area where foreign-born citizens can help effectively is in America’s renewed quest to once again become “a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity,” as the president promised during his inauguration speech.

Some of the mistakes America has made in the last half century are a consequence of appointing envoys and other diplomatic representatives who know very little about the cultures of the countries where they are deployed. Such diplomats often rely on stereotypes and go in with the sole intention of dictating and advancing what they claim to be American interests – rather than building relationships based on mutual respect. What follows are unnecessary conflicts, leading to the many coups the United States has orchestrated abroad through the Central Intelligence Agency.

In many cases, ill-informed U.S. representatives abroad have earned America enemies by helping to depose democratically elected leaders and replace them with dictators. For example, in 1953, the CIA led the ousting of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran and replaced him with the Shah, who, for 25 years, ruled that country with an iron fist. That coup was the root of the current U.S. conflict with Iran.

Even in coups that managed to depose autocratic leaders like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the United States has become an enemy of the people it “liberated” because of its failure to distinguish between dictators and the people they oppressed.

Having President Obama at the helm now presents America with a chance to redeem itself. America needs to move away from the aggressive policies of the last half-century, which were based on the false belief that America could single-handedly solve the world’s problems. Here, at last, is an opportunity for America to learn that people of other countries are capable of governing themselves and that among them are extremely intelligent people – “scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs” – who can partner to create a more peaceful world. There is no shortage of such intellectuals among new Americans, and having them in all levels of U.S. diplomatic corps will be a signal that indeed America is serious about making every nation a friend.

Foreign-born citizens often spend decades both in their countries of birth and in America. Their ability to speak multiple languages, combined with their understanding of the cultures of both countries, can be an unmatched tool in enhancing America’s relationships. They can use these exceptional skills to persuade Americans and people of other nations to dispel myths about each other, which, in my view, are the source of many of the conflicts.

The new Americans can help move the country away from the flawed notion that people from other countries want Americans to “apologize for our way of life,” as the president stated in his inaugural speech. They can assure America that, in truth, millions of people abroad envy the American way of life – that, like Americans, they want to dwell in peaceful neighborhoods and be able to feed, clothe and educate their children. And, like Americans, they want to live with dignity, free from oppression – foreign or domestic. From the new Americans, American-born citizens can also learn that what people of other nations hate are the exploitive government policies that collectively condemn people, wage unprovoked wars, and nurture corporate greed.

As much as people abroad complain about Americans stereotyping them, they too have misconceptions about America. People in many parts of the world still think that every American is extremely wealthy and that all Americans support the exploitation of people abroad to maintain that status. Naturalized citizens can correct this myth too by informing their relatives abroad that most Americans are good people whose hospitality has made it possible for the new Americans to pick up where the corrupt governments of their birthplaces have failed. From foreign-born citizens, the world can also learn that millions of Americans, too, often become victims of the same vices that have wreaked havoc across the world.

Through President Obama, America now has a chance to lead the world toward restoring security, equality and respect for human rights. If the president fails to include new Americans in the process, it is highly likely that his efforts will be in vain, and that this rare opportunity will never arise again.

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