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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The World's View

One of the many refreshing things about this US election is an uncommon level of acknowledgement that there is an entire world beyond American borders.

I was standing in the village pub, last night, talking with a friend of a friend. He asked me if Americans understand how the rest of the world views them. With the caveat that I haven't lived in the US for much of the last 20 years, I told him my impression that Americans are more aware now than in the past, but mostly they don't know and they don't care.

I didn't mean it to sound that harsh. When it came out of my mouth, I instantly realised that I sounded like an arrogant, elitist, ex-pat prick. I tried to wind back to a more sympathetic way of expressing what I meant. Harsh though it might have sounded, however, my unedited initial statement was, I think, right.

There is a certain group of Americans who proudly don't give a flying brief intimate encounter what anyone else thinks of them. I almost admire their self-assuredness, their confident isolationism. I kind of suspect, however, that they are the same folks who want to impose "American values" on the rest of the world. "We don't care what any foreigners think of us, because we're the greatest country on earth. Everyone else in the world ought to live more like us."

Frankly, however, I doubt many Americans give it that much thought, nor would be that arrogant if they did. Rather than considering the rest of the world's view irrelevant, I reckon most Americans just don't consider it at all. Why would Americans give much thought to the rest of the world, day-to-day? Rather than rejecting a global view of the United States on its merits, most Americans may not ever be moved to reflect that one even exists.

Yet in this election, occasionally you do hear the candidates discuss America's standing in the world. Mostly you hear it from the Democratic side. They're invested in "restoring America's global standing" or similar phrases. The Republicans tend not to mention it so much, because it's politically dangerous to stipulate that America has lost global standing since their folks have been in power.

Discussion of America's standing in the world doesn't quite embrace the importance of how others see America, but it goes half way. It tacitly acknowledges that America's power is compromised if its "standing" slips. The concept of "America's global standing" is also sometimes expressed as "America's moral leadership". This rhetoric appeals to the progressive base of the Democratic party because it implicitly puts the moral offences of the Bush Administration on the table: torture, imprisonment without trial, unjust war, etc. Yet the phraseology is gentle enough not to make people defensive, especially those middle-ground voters who regret having voted for Bush two elections in a row.

I say it goes only half way, however, because discussion of America's standing in the world still presumes a mental model in which America is the central concept. It is a model in which "standing" is subtle code for America's power and influence over others. Most of the rest of the world doesn't work from that mental model. Imagine walking up to an Italian on the sidewalk in Rome and asking what they considered to be America's standing in the world. It's a kind of geo-political question, demanding a high-fallutin', egg-headed wonk of an answer. Now, imagine asking instead what he thinks of America and Americans.

The former question is abstract. The latter is personal. I think the latter question matters more. It is at the personal, emotional level where American soft power is built and wielded. That's why they call it "winning hearts and minds".

For that reason I reckon it is in Americans' best interests to give more thought to how the rest of the world sees us: what the rest of the world thinks of us and our country. For about a century, we Americans have been able to pretty much presume that the majority of the world either loved or envied us. Understanding why that has become less true might be a useful lens for Americans to look through as they grapple with the many crises that confront the nation.

For as long as Americans have shouted "We're number one!" with nationalistic bravado, it's been pretty much accepted as a statement of fact. Yet, as Bill Maher devastatingly pointed out some time back, being number one is empirically verifiable. America is sadly not number one on too many measures of a national greatness. And some of those where we still lead, like military spending, don't reflect the kind of leadership many of us aspire to.

I'm not for a second suggesting that Americans should look to any other nations for cures to its ills. I'm only re-stating that old progressive trope that seeing from another's point of view often enlightens one's own.

Should more Americans take up that suggestion, however, they need to be prepared not to like what they see in the global mirror. Don't worry; it's not that the rest of the world hates us. By and large, they don't. But they don't adore us, either. Many folks overseas have found us, at least for the last eight years, frightening. They watched as some of us supported policies they found bluntly dangerous, and saw most of the rest of us put up only mild resistance.

If The Economist (see below and/or click through) is to be believed, almost every nation on earth wants Barack Obama to win. No doubt, many Republicans will see this as a damn good reason why folks should vote for John McCain: to stand righteously independent from world opinion. Personally, I can think of a few dozen possible messages behind the world's preference, and I'm sure the message is different for lots of different people in lots of different places.

Mostly, though, I choose to interpret it like this: The world *wants* America to be great again. The world wants America to be that beacon on a hill: a place where liberty and justice prevail, where individual opportunity is celebrated alongside public good, where merit is celebrated above privilege, and where international standing is used to serve more than self interest.

The world just doesn't think it will see America return to that stature under McCain. The international judgment on the Bush Administration, and on America under it, has been harsh. But that should be no surprise. Bush's domestic approval ratings are hardly kinder (or gentler). In fact, Americans and foreigners are pretty united in their opinions about Bush's leadership, if for different reasons.

The world's view of the United States and its people is not as simplistic as the US media sometimes frames it. It is not pro-America or anti-America, in the main. Most of what I personally encounter is a combination of befuddlement and hope. Some foreigners are more resigned than hopeful -- especially since the 2004 election -- but most still aspire to America's greatness in some form, even if they currently see it as potentiality rather than reality.

That view is neatly distilled in this interview clip with John Cleese, of all people.

In the pub last night, after my harsh comment about most Americans not knowing and not caring about what the rest of the world thought of them, the guy I was talking to was more sympathetic than most Americans might have expected. He hadn't spent a lot of time in the US, but had loved traveling there. He reflected, "You know, Europeans think it's kind of an indictment that so few Americans even have passports. But you live in a country that is so big, and has so much variety, it's easy to understand why so many people would wonder why it would ever be necessary to leave it."

"Still," he said, "I don't think Americans realise how out of touch with reality they've looked for the last eight years."

Nor, I thought to myself, how out of touch with the better angels of our own nature.


Comments on "The World's View"


Blogger Almost American said ... (12:23 AM) : 

"mostly [Americans] don't know and they don't care [how the rest of the world views them]"
You may have been out of the country for most of the last 20 years, but I'd say your impression is accurate.

Even many of the well-educated and well-travelled people I work with simply cannot wrap their heads around the fact that there are many people in the world who have no interest in living in the US, or living like Americans. They are so confident that their way of life is so much better that they cannot conceive of someone NOT wanting to live here, and they are offended when foreigners who move here want to maintain some of their traditions from home.


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