State of the Union January/February 2006

Misfit America

Many of the values and cultural attributes that once made the United States unique have eroded; those that remain look increasingly ugly to some foreigners. Is our evolving national character a liability in our foreign relations?

The Arab and broader Muslim world, the most problematic terrain today, seems a natural place to start. Since 9/11 there has been considerable debate over whether Arab resentment of the United States results from "who we are" or "what we do." Without a doubt, what we do has not always helped our position. In both the Arab world and other Muslim lands America is widely seen as unfaithful to its own founding principle of justice for all, largely because it favors Israel at the expense of Arabs, but also because of its prisoner-abuse scandals, including Abu Ghraib, which have come while the United States presses Egypt and other countries to improve their treatment of prisoners. The American double standard affords a wide opening for hateful tirades by Islamic radicals. Conceivably, America could narrow that opening by living up to the values it claims to cherish.

But changing our behavior would be unlikely to solve our problems in the Middle East; our permissive social values are in fundamental conflict with its traditional ones. This conflict will no doubt persist for a long time, as Edward S. Walker Jr., the president of the Middle East Institute, in Washington, explains. Over the course of four decades Walker has served as ambassador to several Middle Eastern states, including the United Arab Emirates. These are "societies that have just come out of the desert," he told me. "When I graduated from high school, in 1958, it was the first year that the UAE had a high school." This perspective, even more than Islamic culture, shapes their attitude toward American values.

The Arab world, already prone to distrust America as an imperial successor to the British, now tends to focus on—and sometimes fear—the export of American culture. Hollywood portrays Americans as alarmingly expressive and permissive in every corner of their lives, from the bedroom to the classroom. "We are seen as an agent of change—in some sense as attacking tradition," Walker says. This is particularly the case with respect to images of the "liberated" American woman. In Saudi Arabia, remember, women still are not allowed to drive.

As for China, a largely secular yet in many ways traditional, family-oriented society, the operative mode has been ambivalence. "Chinese images of America are positive and negative simultaneously," says David Shambaugh, who directs the China-policy program at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs and wrote a 1991 book, Beautiful Imperialist: China Perceives America, 1972—1990, on this theme.

The balance of opinion these days, however, leans negative. In a June 2005 Pew Global Attitudes survey only 42 percent of the Chinese gave America an overall favorable rating, though 70 percent viewed Americans as inventive. They liked America better back in the 1980s.

In part this negative rating represents a communitarian society's opinion of America as distressingly individualistic. "They have had an increasing amount of contact with the United States, and that contact has not increased their admiration," Shambaugh says. "They perceive racism, crime, inequality, neglect of the elderly, and many other negative aspects of American society."

China's disenchantment could have long-term consequences. The Chinese already seem to be shifting their sights away from America and toward Europe as a place worth befriending. Since Europe and China announced their "strategic partnership" to bring about a multipolar world, in 2003, Europe has become China's No. 1 trade partner. And many of the Chinese students who might have flocked to the United States now get their degrees in Europe, where tuition is cheaper and visas are easier to come by. China may adopt elements of our capitalist model, but it is unlikely to come to view itself as our protégé.

America's religiosity, which helps frame our view of the Chinese, is not a major factor in their view of us. Western Europeans, however, are apt to see America's religious values as a defining mark of character—and not a positive one. Respondents to the Pew survey in France, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Germany think we are too religious. Many Europeans view the United States as a kind of crusader nation, wreaking havoc in the world. That picture is a caricature, and Europeans—whose media have informed them that blue America is nearly as big as red America, and that the war in Iraq has become unpopular in the States—undoubtedly know it. Yet they fixate on their differences with us, and they are faithful, sometimes gleeful, chroniclers of every American deviance from the Jacksonian creed, such as our growing economic inequality and the corruption of our political system by big money.

But such criticism masks the convergence of American and European attitudes on issues of personal autonomy, including abortion, euthanasia, and gay rights. And though desert Arabs may obsess about sexually (and professionally) empowered American women, the modern women's movement is a transatlantic production, as much Simone de Beauvoir as Betty Friedan. Even on the death penalty, a long-standing bone of contention between the United States and Europe, America is moving in a European direction, as the Supreme Court cites European precedent in decisions curtailing capital punishment for juveniles and the mentally retarded. There is still no global region with which America has more in common than Europe.

Europe emphasizes differences over our similarities because its perspective is warped by envy, which has been evident since the reports of the earliest European visitors to America; the calm, clear-eyed Alexis de Tocqueville is a notable exception. Historically, the most envious have been not the French but the English—which should not be surprising, since we emerged from their womb only to defeat and then to surpass them. (Typical in this regard were Frances Trollope and her novelist son, Anthony, who on their visits to the new nation took issue with virtually every aspect of the American "persona," including the demand of the "adult infant" for "fresh ice in his water.")

Europe's envy of America is probably forever, but it isn't and never has been an insurmountable obstacle to amicable relations. America is now in part being punished for the sin of re-electing George W. Bush; presumably there will be some forgiveness if post-Bush America is governed by a less easily cartooned figure.

A variant of the envy distortion can be found in post-Soviet Russia, a humiliated land now gripped by survival values. As a foreign correspondent I was based in Moscow for four years, from 1999 to 2003, and I was surprised at how the Cold War seemed to live on for so many Russians. Rich, powerful America is resented, and perhaps not so much disliked as distrusted. In the Pew survey 52 percent of Russians gave the United States a favorable opinion rating—slightly lower than the British but higher than the Dutch, the Germans, or the Spanish. Yet Russians are wary of U.S. efforts to exploit the Soviet collapse, and of the expansion of NATO to include former Soviet satellites.

If Russia can put the Cold War in the past, the two countries could build a genuine friendship—one based on something more than Russia's oil and America's interest in consuming it.Religious sensibility is returning to Russia; one of the more intriguing trends in post-Soviet Russia is the revival of the Orthodox Church, whose culturally conservative outlook is something like that of America's religious right. The ordinary Russian shares the ordinary American's fear of Islamic terrorism. And the most enterprising Russian businessmen I met were fans of freewheeling American-style capitalism over the more state-regulated European variety.

If Western Europeans and Muslims harp on America's failure to measure up to its ideals, others, rather amazingly, seem to regard us as arguably more innocent and selfless, truer to the best of the Jacksonian spirit, than we actually are. Indeed, the last, heroic view of America is retained in countries that have chafed under other imperialists and apprehend America as different and better. That perspective is especially prevalent in the former Soviet empire—in places such as Lithuania and Georgia. In his speech last May in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, Bush was raucously cheered by tens of thousands, much as John F. Kennedy was in his iconic "Ich bin ein Berliner" address in West Berlin, in June of 1963.

In such countries, I've found, discussion of America's values inevitably starts with a rant against cruel, conniving, supercilious Moscow. Reform-oriented elites can relate to America's founding in a rebellion against a colonial power; they read the U.S. Constitution and the Federalist Papers without irony. Indeed, leaders such as Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili—the maker of the country's pro-democracy Rose Revolution in 2003—proudly advertise their connections to Washington insiders. When I visited Saakashvili in Tbilisi before the Rose Revolution, I saw on his wall framed photographs of his meetings with Ted Kennedy and other Washington figures. There is undoubtedly an element of geopolitical calculation in small Georgia's eager alliance with America, but the admiration for U.S. political institutions is genuine.

A romance between the Georgias of the planet and America is nice, but is that the best we can hope for? Are we destined to be disliked, resented, envied, or feared by all the world's larger powers? No. One very large power has values remarkably well aligned with ours: India, a democracy of more than a billion people, an economic titan in the making, a nuclear state. In the Pew survey 71 percent of Indians registered a favorable opinion of both the United States and Americans—highest on both counts among the sixteen foreign publics surveyed. When asked where they would go "to lead a good life," only Indians named America as their top choice. (The Poles picked Great Britain, and the British picked Australia, as did the Canadians, the Dutch, and the Germans.) A survey-high 58 percent of Indians—compared with 35 percent of Chinese—said they regarded Americans as honest.

India was a reliable ally of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Cynics may say that its heart has warmed toward America merely in response to the influx of dollars from outsourcing arrangements. But as Chinese attitudes indicate, dollars don't necessarily buy affection. So why do Indians like America and Americans? I asked Miriam Rajkumar, an Indian citizen who is a South Asia and Middle East nonproliferation analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington. "The Indian public has always been enchanted with the United States," she said. "Many families have someone out here who has done well" in fields like science and high technology.

Of course, the same can be said of other immigrant groups. But perhaps India also thinks well of America, Rajkumar suggested, because it understands from its own history how important an ideal like freedom of religion is. Indians tend to be highly religious, even more so than Americans—and, like Americans, they live in a multicultural, democratic federal state. Moreover, India has Britain, not America, to blame for its trials under colonialism. And America's post-9/11 rise to the challenge of battling Muslim extremism aligns with the long resistance of India to what it views as a Pakistan-inspired Islamic insurgency.

Another element may be at work as well. In international relations—as sometimes in personal ones—too long an acquaintance can be an irritant. But except for some testy episodes in the 1970s in which America sided with Pakistan, the United States and India have little history to mar the honeymoon atmosphere. Indians, unlike those hectoring Europeans and smoldering Chinese, seem content to take America as it is, without judgment. This is a relief. As much as we want to be liked, we are happiest when we are allowed to be our natural selves. In that we are exactly like everyone else.

Paul Starobin is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His profile of Nursultan Nazarbayev appeared in the December issue.
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Paul Starobin

The writer is a contributing editor to National Journal and the author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age.

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