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?

Let's try to think of an original American tableau—the sort of scene, not happening elsewhere, that shows just how very different we are from all others. We might point to the wide-bottomed twelve-year-old, fresh from his double cheeseburger with fries, plunging into the neighborhood pool. Or to the pasty-faced workaholic, hunched over his computer in a lonely cubicle late at night. Death row comes to mind (few other countries routinely execute criminals), and so do images of people freely doing things that would land them in jail elsewhere. No other nation is as legally tolerant of Holocaust deniers, flag burners, and users of the N-word—not even our progenitor the United Kingdom.

But in a shrinking world it is getting harder to think of distinctive American scenes without invoking the Grand Canyon or Maine lobster. It is particularly striking how few of the cutting-edge things in American society are uniquely American. Male teenagers the world over ogle the same pornographic images on the Internet. Circles of friends swap digital photos on their mobile phones in London, Moscow, and Hong Kong just as they do in Los Angeles. Worried about our video-game addicts? It was a South Korean who recently dropped dead after playing the battle-simulation game StarCraft for nearly fifty hours straight. Much of what Americans may now think of as culturally or technologically novel has already happened elsewhere: the kind of WiFi system that San Francisco aims to establish in its public places already exists in Tokyo.

As for the things the United States did invent, such as the melting pot and popular democracy, they are being widely (if not always successfully) imitated. Consider, for example, Australia—a fast-growing democracy that has a higher percentage of immigrants than America, and is emerging as an important experiment in multiculturalism. The pro-democracy group Freedom House rates fifty-eight countries as comparable to the United States in political freedom.

If American culture and society are losing their historically distinctive cast, perhaps it is good news—at least for our foreign relations. America has long stood out from the crowd, in ways that seem to have complicated as much as helped our relationships with other states. If a global culture is slowly emerging—if our values have blended with others through some subtle osmosis—we might expect our international relations to become less fractious.

And yet, as a bruised Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, can attest, many foreigners not only view Americans as fundamentally different from themselves but also seem to despise the United States. And even though much of that antipathy stems from unpopular U.S. foreign policies, misgivings about America's culture figure prominently too—even among Europeans.

If American culture is less distinctive than it once was, it nevertheless remains unusual in several fundamental respects. Unfortunately, those unique qualities that have faded were usually attractive to foreigners; and many of those that remain are viewed today with discomfort or even disdain.

American exceptionalism, the idea (and the reality) that America is unique, is rooted in part in the populist values arising from the Jacksonian revolution of the 1820s. Frontiersmen battling both the Cherokee and the Boston banker, in a revolt of the muddy boots, drove the country westward and seemed to permanently dispel the Old World vision of America held by Alexander Hamilton and other Founding Fathers. In a speech extolling the wisdom of the "rich and well-born" in matters of governance Hamilton said, "The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right."

The Jacksonian spirit, the notion that every man is a king, still helps to set America apart. It is evident in the continuing popularity of referenda for settling contentious political issues in a number of states; in many Americans' devotion to gun ownership; and in the particular brand of kick-ass patriotism—sometimes accompanied by Confederate-flag waving—on display in the South, Andrew Jackson's home turf.

But much of the Jacksonian ethos has been lost, especially when it comes to the idea of America as an equal-opportunity society—a basic tenet of this creedand, for that matter, of the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence.Economic mobility has been declining for three decades: a study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in 2002 found that since the 1970s U.S. families have been significantly less likely to move up the income ladder, prompting questions that "go to the heart of our identity as a nation." (Indeed, by some measurements income mobility is now higher in Canada, France, and the United Kingdom.) One reason is that the children of better-off families begin their schooling with huge advantages over everyone else. The melting pot may still dissolve ethnic differences, but it has accommodated itself to class-based divisions.

These divisions are getting harder to overlook. In luxury-box America an afternoon at the ballpark is less often the class mixer it used to be. Jury duty may be the only experience left in which America's starched shirts and blue collars sit and sweat together—and it's mandatory. Just ask the have-not victims of Hurricane Katrina—the ones who were left to fend for themselves in the New Orleans Superdome—about a classless America. The disaster exposed the kind of squalid lives familiar to travelers to Haiti and readers of Graham Greene's harrowing tales of the Third World.

At the same time, Hamilton's ghost has returned in the form of a fixation on status and privilege. Although conspicuous consumption is not new in American life (we've long had our robber barons), it has spread to sectors of society that are supposed to embody an elevated public-spiritedness. Thus the Louis XIV—type behavior of American University's president Benjamin Ladner. At a New Year's dinner to celebrate the engagement of his son, paid for by the university, guests enjoyed truffles and caviar washed down by Cuvée Palmes d'Or champagne. The appalled trustees eventually ousted Ladner, but his actions speak to a larger phenomenon: as the late social critic Christopher Lasch wrote in the mid-1990s, a new and dandified aristocracy of talent has arisen in America. Its members are continuing to remove themselves from common life.

To appreciate the arc we have traveled, just recall the "secular Scripture of the United States," as the critic Harold Bloom has called Leaves of Grass. In 1855 Walt Whitman used the first poem in the collection, "Song of Myself," to celebrate America as a Jacksonian jumble of disparate types sharing the same adventure.

Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.
I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

Whitman's poetry also evokes an innocence that once seemed to brand America as refreshingly different from jaded and war-prone Europe; but with America's climb to global prominence, that, too, has faded. Paradoxically, historians may one day look back on America's achievement of superpower status—on the arrival of the "American Century"—as the beginning of the end of America's claim to distinctiveness. The development of the atomic bomb, the landing of the first man on the moon: these were impressive technological achievements, but not marks of national character.

Power tends to make uniform demands on its aspirants. In America's case the imperatives of power—building the secretive infrastructure of the national-security state, transforming provincial, sleepy Washington into a fortresslike imperial capital, diminishing the role of Congress in war-making decisions—have eaten at the fiber of popular democracy.

For a time the Cold War masked this. The Soviet Union served as a nearly perfect foil for the United States. Stalin's monstrous crimes and the lesser evils of his Bolshevik brethren, not to mention the torpor and sheer inanity of so much of Soviet life, highlighted many of the better and more historically distinctive American qualities, including a commitment to human rights and personal liberty and an aversion to strong state controls. Those ideals may seem less vivid since the fall of the Soviet Union, while the realities of American power unchecked by any rival have been thrown into relief.

Unbridled power tends to breed arrogance and greed no matter who holds it. Perhaps the lesson is that a nation may seek to be either powerful or original, but it is difficult to be both.

So is America still an exceptional country? The answer is yes. Our remaining exceptionalism resides in our culture's striking combination of deep religious faith and nearly libertarian social permissiveness. These qualities don't rub elbows easily, and their twinned presence separates the United States from nearly all other countries, rich or poor.

It is well known that Americans are more deeply religious than the citizens of just about any other affluent post-industrial society. In a typical assessment the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that 59 percent of respondents in America answered the question "How important is religion in your life?" with "Very important," compared with 33 percent in the United Kingdom, 30 percent in Canada, 27 percent in Italy, 21 percent in Germany, 12 percent in Japan, and 11 percent in France. Across the past several decades religiosity has fallen steeply in all these places except America. And although Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that religion is very important to them, religious belief is still far more intense in the blue states than in the rich, modern patches of ground outside the United States.

Of course, that doesn't mean the United States is unique in its religious character—just that it is unique among rich nations. In this regard America is more like, say, Chile and Turkey. We are also like those countries, and unlike Europe, in our attachment to certain conservative social values that tend to be associated with traditional religious conviction. Thus America, Chile, and Turkey—but generally not the countries of Western Europe—score high in surveys of such values as patriotism and the importance of family. These aspects of our culture are not vestigial; they are active and self-renewing.

Of course, America is culturally quite different from Chile and Turkey in other core respects. Unlike the inhabitants of those relatively poor countries, or of Egypt and Pakistan, most Americans are not preoccupied with economic survival. An emphasis on survival, economic or physical, tends to draw societies inward and make them fearful of outsiders and of change. Cultural conformity is often valued, and duty to family and community preferred over individual pursuits. Survivalist societies also tend to welcome state ownership of industry, and tend not to value educating women or protecting the environment. America has had survivalist periods, but since World War II survivalist values have held little sway.

Rather, Americans—like the Swedes, the French, the Australians, and other rich peoples—focus on the infinite variety of leisure and educational activities that our wealth permits us to pursue. The ascendant value in this domain is one that has always been dear to the American character: personal autonomy, the ability to do one's own thing.

Having a foot in both fixed traditionalism and permissive modernism makes us still something of an outlier nation—astride both camps and at home in neither.

Some may argue that the coincidence of interests, not values, is what counts in foreign relations. But values are interests of a kind; shared values might dispose other nations to help achieve America's purposes in the world, and deeply conflicting values might limit trust and cause other nations to ascribe the worst motives to the United States. Whatever "realists" may think, good will is important both in maintaining alliances and in avoiding crises.

In the current climate, marked by widespread ill will over the Iraq War, our unusual combination of values probably works against us: traditional societies tend to see us as more permissive than we actually are, and permissive societies as more traditional than we actually are. And in an age of shared global experiences American values may come to be defined as those that others don't want. The future may therefore look friendless and isolated for superpower America, even after George W. Bush leaves office.

Fortunately, however, things are not quite as bleak as they look. In a less contentious time America's unique blend of qualities might cause some societies to reach out to us. Every nation has at least one important value in common with multifaceted America—and the natural bond between the United States and some other powers, both established and rising, is stronger than one might think. A brief tour of the world, with values in mind, reveals a lot about our likely future relationships.

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.

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

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