America’s reputation remains up for grabs

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All of us like to be loved — perhaps Americans more than others.

We like to recall the many good things the United States has done for the world, including helping to defeat militarism and fascism in two world wars, defending Western Europe from totalitarian communism during the Cold War, and providing vital food aid when famine has threatened many parts of the globe. Some of our politicians even stridently misquote the sermon of the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, by proclaiming America is a “shining city upon the hill,” a model to lesser countries. It therefore hurts to see mobs burning the stars and stripes in a far-off land while chanting “Death to the USA!”

One of the haunting questions asked after 9/11 was, “Why do they hate us?” Some issues involve attitudes in Muslim countries towards the U.S. over which we’ve got no control. Others are issues where we do have choices, such as our policies in the Middle East. And it can come as a surprise to Americans traveling in Western Europe when people you meet see America not as a shining city upon a hill but as a country wracked by gun violence, addicted to the death penalty (banned throughout the European Union) and, until recently, unique among advanced democracies in not guaranteeing all of citizens health coverage.

Many Europeans, Canadians and Australians even feel that their nations have been democratic as long as the USA and don’t see ours as a political model. In fact, they often take a dim view of our gridlocked politics. This negative take on our system of government was reinforced by recent politically driven events in Washington, notably the deadlock over raising the debt ceiling.

Of course there are legitimately positive reflections, too. There are still French villagers who remember the U.S. dropping arms to the resistance or liberating their town. Older Europeans still recall how the Marshall Plan brought prosperity to the post-war continent. Millions of ordinary Britons travel here every year, reveling in Florida sunshine, the excitement of Manhattan, or the incredible scenery of the Southwest. And then there’s all of those Hollywood movies and TV shows the world just loves (or loves to hate).

In short, reactions to America are neither all positive nor all negative. Our standing in the world remains up for grabs. So what’s underlying the situation?

Let’s start with some generally accurate observations of the United States. First, there are genuine differences in public policy that separate us from many countries. For example, we allow more freedom to gays than many people in Pakistan would accept. We differ from Europe on the death penalty, the generosity and comprehensiveness of our welfare state, and by and large on attitudes to guns (though some European countries, such as Switzerland, have widespread gun ownership). And we tax ourselves less than the French, the Germans, and, of course, the Scandinavians
But note some misperceptions related to the complex, indirect way we approach problems through the tax code or regulations rather than through upfront government programs. Health care is a good example. Many Europeans assume the uninsured here have been left to die in the streets. They don’t realize that federal regulations required pretty much all hospitals with trauma centers to provide immediately necessary health care without regard to ability to pay. Similarly, it might appear that the U.S. is indifferent to climate issues. But our tax code has provided significant incentives to adopt cleaner, more efficient uses of energy. We often approach public policy problems in such an indirect way that even Americans don’t fully appreciate what is being done. Foreigners can be excused for understanding even less.

Our political system also baffles foreigners — as well as many Americans. The sharing of powers (separation is a totally inaccurate description) between three branches of government can result in messy, out-in-the-open disputes as we just saw over the debt ceiling. In almost every policy area, the president, House and Senate can block each other, and the courts also often are waiting to pile on. This is, of course, what the writers of the Constitution intended, but it can easily result in deadlock and stalemate.

Indeed, our system requires compromise to work, something too many recently seem to have forgotten. It’s easily overlooked that probably all forms of government — and certainly all democratic systems — also must make compromises and can struggle to reach agreements with wide enough support. But in parliamentary systems, for instance, disagreements and bargaining often are carried on more genteelly inside the cabinet, at meetings of the governing party, or in bargaining between coalition partners.

In this country, agreement will come after much blustering and posturing in the form of an agreement that can pass the House, the Senate and be signed by the president. The process looks much messier because it is more public, but the conflict around the cabinet table of a parliamentary system can be just as intense.

But remember that attitudes towards the USA reflect what’s going on in the observer’s home country. Sometimes these local developments make foreigners more sympathetic. For instance, the British used to be somewhat critical of the inculcation of values and traditions applied in the process of gaining citizenship in the U.S. More recently, as they have struggled to absorb a large immigrant population themselves, they’ve consciously copied many American procedures.

Some part of anti-Americanism in the Middle East is linked to frustration and even shame over the backwardness of a region that a thousand years ago was at the forefront of civilization. Some European criticism of the U.S. is linked to the attempts of what was once the world’s dominant region trying to carve out a new purpose and an identity now that power has shifted. Both European claims of moral superiority by virtue of having better welfare states and opposition to American unilateralism in foreign policy link to this need to find a purpose and a role. Europe may no longer rule the world but its nations can claim to be kinder, gentler and more cooperative.

At the end of the day, the fact is that most people in Europe and many people around the world do actually like the USA. Recent polls by the Pew Research Center showed that, in 23 countries surveyed, on average 60 percent of people had a positive attitude toward the United States. Our favorability ratings took a hit during the Bush presidency but have recovered significantly since. Perhaps surprisingly to many Americans, France now leads in Western Europe with 75 percent of those polled favorable to the USA, compared to 62 percent in Germany and 61 percent in Britain. In former communist-controlled countries such as Lithuania, pro-Americanism is high, with 75 percent favorable. In Japan, the U.S. is even more popular with an 85 percent favorability rating. It is by and large in Islamic countries where the our rating tanks — 20 percent in Egypt, 13 percent in Jordan and 12 percent in Pakistan.

For all of recent history, the strongest power in the world — first the UK, now the USA — has been a country characterized by high degrees of freedom, political debate and the capacity for self criticism. This did not save either nation from mistaken foreign adventures and misconduct. But it did make it more likely that over time those mistakes would be acknowledged and corrected. This is not likely to happen in China. Likewise, there have always been substantial anti-war movements in the United States — regarding Vietnam, Iraq and even World War II. No such movement can develop in China critical of its Tibet policy.

So, deep down, most foreigners know that if the world is to have a superpower, the USA is the best one around.

- Graham Wilson is the Chair of Boston University’s Political Science Department


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