Love us or hate us?
What the world thinks about America might be changing
Americans have long been known as thin-skinned and arrogant, unhappy about criticism and over-eager for praise. This, to my mind, is one of the reasons the “Make America Great Again” slogan has been so effective. The loss of empire rankles. Many Brexiteers seem to long for the days when the sun never set on the British Empire. Putin wants to be master not of the Russian Federation but a revitalized Russian Empire.
I don’t think we were looking this year to restore American relevance on the world stage. There were too many other things on our plate, both in Washington DC and across the country. But events have unfolded in a way that gives President Biden a chance to show the best of US diplomacy, a new style perhaps, less showy, more effective.
I lived abroad for years in part because I wanted another vantage point on the world. But the last few weeks have made me feel both more of a global citizen and more American, in a 21st-century way. I’ve been thinking about what is it that makes this country, flawed as it so often is, meaningful and important to the people around the world.
When we hosted a forum called LoveUShateUS.com (thus the daisies, based on the children’s game “she loves me, she loves me not”), which generated fascinating comments from around the world, we also included quotations about America:
“America is a large, friendly dog in a very small room. Every time it wags its tail, it knocks over a chair.” —Arnold Toynbee
“America is one of the finest countries anyone ever stole.” —Bobcat Goldthwaite
“Ninety-eight percent of the adults in this country are decent, hard-working, honest Americans. It's the other lousy two percent that get all the publicity. But then--we elected them.” —Lily Tomlin
“Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn't block traffic.” —Dan Rather
The United States was founded on principles that were intended to make it possible for people with different beliefs and backgrounds to live together harmoniously. That’s why President Zelensky (“Zel,” as the tabloid New York Post calls him) spoke to us on Wednesday about American values as human values.
To be sure, America does not live up to its values. But we have in our constitution values, explicitly stated, that speak to human needs and aspirations, written with awareness of human flaws and failings.
And the Ukrainians, led by President Zelensky, are putting values into action. My Delta Force brother used to badger me, a budding environmentalist, about whether I was walking the talk or talking the walk. The Ukrainians are walking the talk of freedom, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.
They’ve made me see how much we long for heroic figures, and how seldom we see them. I hope the example of brave Ukrainians—men, women, and children—will make us more likely to take a heroic path in life, to fight for worthy causes, to protect those more vulnerable, to stop grasping and start giving.
I want to see the millions of refugees able to return and rebuild their beautiful, devastated country.
One thing I’ve learned about immigrants that anti-immigration people haven’t grasped, is that most people don’t want to live in America. They want to live in their own countries, with their friends and families, familiar and beloved places, the smells and tastes of home.
When I meet someone who doesn’t speak English well - mostly Spanish speakers here in the Berkshires - I always ask where they come from and then about their home. “Ah,” I’ll say (in Spanish), “I’ve been to Guatemala. It was beautiful.” Or I’ll say, “I’ve never been to Ecuador, what is it like?” They get a faraway look and tell me I should visit one day, that it is very beautiful and, always, that there is wonderful food.
They are homesick.
All this has made me think hard about my job, my mission, as a publisher focused on global affairs and international relations, and of course sustainability. It seems to me that I need to do more to help students, teachers, and people who aren’t so much immersed in geopolitics. The world is a scary place right now, no question, but it’s scarier if you don’t have some grasp of relevant history. My abject ignorance of Ukraine, not to mention military strategy and logistics, has been painfully clear over the last couple weeks.
And I’ve been looking at Berkshire Publishing’s Global Perspectives on the United States. We put it together with a remarkable international team while George W. Bush was in office, and global opinion of the United States had tanked. Here’s a little from the introduction to the third volume:
Only 20 percent of U.S. citizens have passports, a very low percentage compared with Europeans, and, with the exception of recent immigrants, few U.S. citizens are truly proficient in a second language. But these facts, used to criticize the United States, need context. The United States is a large, diverse nation separated from Europe and Asia, the other major world regions, by oceans. The United States is also the only nation that throughout its history has seen its ethnic and religious diversity as a source of strength. . . .
It is not our intention to be anti-American, and we are not suggesting that the problems of image and relationship that the United States has today are solely the responsibility of the current administration. The United States, like other powerful countries, naturally faces international scrutiny, experiences criticism, and is tested by events in ways that smaller and less powerful nations are not. We see our effort to inform and elucidate as representative of one of the fundamental principles of the United States—that the free exchange of ideas is an essential right, and that all individuals have a right to their own opinions. . . .
After Americans declared themselves free of English rule in 1776 and prevailed in the subsequent war for independence, the newly established democratic republic became a beacon of freedom, democracy, and liberty for people around the world. Later events enriched this image. U.S. involvement in World War I and, more significantly, in World War II added the roles of liberator and rebuilder to its global image. Many people around the world yearned after the American way of life. True, there was also a dark side to the U.S. image: its history of slavery, continuing racism, and support for despots during the Cold War. But most people in most nations thought highly of the United States. In 2003, this changed. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in March, without the support of the world community, people everywhere began to question American values, motives, and even competence.
I included this photo of a British front page story from 1991 about the race riots that followed the Rodney King arrest and beating by Los Angeles police.
American racism is a stain that has affected global opinion of the United States since the 19th century. War has also played a major part in shaping global opinion, and that makes today’s conflict, and the role that the Biden administration is playing in building a global coalition, so interesting. Here is the opening of Leiden University professor Philip Evert’s chapter on “Use of Force Internationally, Views on U.S.”:
The U.S. has lost much of its international prestige in the twenty-first century, mainly caused by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the actions of the Bush administration, and the U.S. status as the last remaining military superpower.
Even the most powerful nation cannot base their foreign policy solely on the old maxim oderint dum metuant—let them hate us, as long as they fear us. Public support in other countries is indispensable for a nation’s foreign policy to succeed. “To win the hearts and minds of other people” has therefore become a recognized goal of foreign policy and public diplomacy around the world. The United States, as a major world superpower, needs international cooperation to pursue its interests effectively and to address common issues. Studies of public opinion have shown, however, that the United States has suffered in recent years a loss of much of its international support and trust it enjoyed among other nations, allies in particular.
Sympathy for and trust of the United States were high at the time of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in the immediate aftermath, even still as the U.S. went to war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan soon after. But since then U.S. foreign policy—particularly its decisions leading up to and throughout the Iraq War—have met with increasing criticism, both in Europe among its allies and in the world at large. Since that time, the United States has taken on an approach of unilateralism based on a fundamental distinction between “good and evil” on which to base its actions. In contrast, many countries around the world and particularly in Europe, support a multilateral approach to international affairs taking into account the complexity of global relations. The majority of Europeans agree that the United Nations, a multilateralist institution, has suffered as a result of the Iraq crisis. The U.S. use of military force in Iraq has raised the question in the minds of many of whether the United States is still qualified to be a global leader.
You’ll find a PDF of the article here.
Energy use and energy independence is, yet again, a major factor in global conflict. During World War II, the Office of Price Administration urged Americans to carpool in order to conserve badly needed gasoline and rubber with the slogan, “When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler.” Some of my train and transportation friends have been circulating an updated version.
Here in the Berkshire Hills, the snow has melted and the first flowers are blooming - snowdrops and winter aconite. This makes the photos and videos from Ukraine even more heartrending. This is the best list I’ve come across of ways to donate. If you know of better ways to help, please share them.