Yanks! You either love 'em or hate 'em. Or (like me) both. Until I went to live and work in the US some 12 years ago my experience of Yanks was confined to meeting them at conferences and spending time as a tourist in their midst. The US is a vast country. Most of its citizens do not have passports and so have never ventured beyond its borders. As a tourist I found Americans helpful and eager to please. As a non-resident alien I found them warm, sincere and tolerant of difference. But I also found them brash, insular and ignorant of the world outside of their own city or state. Of course these are sweeping generalisations. I lived in New York, which as a teeming multi-ethnic metropolis is quite untypical of the US. Typical America, however, is small-town America: friendly up to a point (being an English alien certainly helped) but basically suspicious of outsiders and contemptuous of foreigners.
Mitt Romney, who served for four years as Governor of Massachusetts and who will in November challenge Barack Obama for the presidency, is a case in point. True, Romney can lay claim to some international experience since he once worked as a missionary for the Mormon church in France. But that was a long time ago. Romney's faith - his religious faith - in the "exceptionalism" of the US is total, without qualification.That is to say, he believes that the US is the most perfect example we have of a liberal democracy, and that it is the mission of the US and of its citizens to spread the values of this democracy to the rest of mankind. By extension (as it were), the US has little, if anything, to learn from others. This creed may sound exceedingly strange to our ears, but I assure you it is a doctrine widely proclaimed throughout the US, and a dogma widely espoused well beyond the circle of the Mormon faithful.
Last month Romney visited the UK for the opening of the 2012 Olympics. He made some insensitive and (as things turned out) quite ill-founded remarks about London's readiness to host and was - qui-te rightly - taken to task both by Prime Minister David Cameron and by Mayor Boris Johnson. Back in the US the Democrats made the most of these gaffes ("Romneyshambles"), as they were of course entitled to do.
On his foreign trip, Romney also visited Israel. At a fundraising dinner he referred in what I assume were deliberately unmistakeable terms to "the hand of providence" that in his view had watched over the Jewish state, and to its underlying cultural values that - again in his view - had resulted in its marked economic success compared with its Palestinian neighbours. And speaking against the backdrop of the Old City he referred to Jerusalem as "the capital of Israel".
These remarks were met with shock, horror and outrage from both Palestinians and tothers. But they were no gaffes. As I had to remind one media inquirer, no less a body than the US Congress passed in 1995 (and by overwhelming majorities in both Houses) the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which binds the US to recognise Jerusalem - undivided - as the capital of Israel and calls for the American embassy to be relocated there.
Typical America is basically suspicious of outsiders
Romney was therefore merely reiterating what is already enshrined in US law. As for Israel's regional economic superiority, this is an undeniable fact. We have it on the authority of the World Bank that in 2011 Israel's per capita gross domestic product was roughly $31,000, while that of Gaza and the West Bank languished at a little above $1.5,000 - figures that are in fact better (from an Israeli perspective) than Romney had alleged.
Palestinian spokespersons were quick to insist that this disparity was entirely the fault of 'the occupation.' But the Palestinians' choice of war over peace can hardly be blamed on the Jewish state – to say nothing of the economic corruption that is rampant in Palestinian-controlled territories.
Of course Mitt Romney was electioneering. Of course he was courting the Jewish vote. But so was Barack Obama when (on July 27) he authorised the granting to Israel of additional military aid amounting to some $70 million. Earlier this month Matthew Gould, Britain's ambassador to Israel, declared that international support for Israel was eroding. Not in the US, Your Excellency. Not in the US.