How the World Perceives the New American Dream

And why today’s dream doesn’t export as well as the original

A poster promoting the movie "American Dreams in China," in Shijiazhuang, China (Reuters)

The American dream has always been global. In 1931, when the historian James Truslow Adams first introduced the concept, he credited the dream with having “lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores.” Yet in recent years, a troubling gap has developed between this original dream and a new one that speaks far less eloquently to the rest of the world.

The original dream has three strands. The first is about prosperity: the classic saga of penniless strivers working hard to lift their families into the middle class. An integral part of this saga is continuity between generations—with parents sacrificing so their children can succeed, and successful children never forgetting “where they came from.” Needless to say, this dream of hard work and intergenerational mobility is shared by the 95 percent of humanity who are not American. But it is called the American dream because the United States was the first nation in history where it actually came true for large numbers of people.

The United States is also the nation where the deliberate exclusion of any individual or group from the dream came to be condemned. This points to the second and third strands: democracy and freedom. For the dream to function properly, the basic rights of individuals must be respected. On this point Adams is clear: “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable.”

It’s important to note that Adams was writing during the Great Depression, and that these inspiring passages are accompanied by a long list of economic and social ills, and recommendations for reform. At the same time, he warned, the greatest danger was that Americans would not make the necessary effort to save the dream, because “too many of us … have grown weary and mistrustful of it.”

A recent poll commissioned by The Atlantic found that, while Americans are feeling quite optimistic about their own lives, that optimism does not extend to the American dream. Indeed, the poll found that a large majority is losing faith in it. This, too, is dangerous, because if these Americans now feel weary and mistrustful of the dream, they will not make the necessary effort to share it with others.

During the Cold War, the U.S. government invested substantial resources in “public diplomacy,” a term that covered a host of overseas activities—from libraries to lecture tours, art exhibits to world’s-fair-style expositions, international visitor programs to radio and TV broadcasts meant to undermine Soviet censorship. As conducted by the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the State Department’s Division of Cultural Relations, these activities sought to convey what President Harry Truman called “a full and fair picture” of American history, culture, society, and political institutions—including the American dream as experienced by generations of immigrants.

Today, this form of diplomacy is sometimes dismissed as propaganda. But that is unfair. Having witnessed the extreme propaganda emanating from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the men and women who crafted America’s Cold War public diplomacy generally knew the difference between outright lies and truthful attempts at persuasion.

But then, amid the triumphalism that followed the end of the Cold War, public diplomacy was judged obsolete. Between 1993 and 2001, funding for the U.S. government’s cultural and educational exchange programs was cut by more than a third, from $349 million to $232 million (adjusted for inflation). Overseas, this meant the closing of libraries and cultural centers that had long served as meeting places and free-speech zones. In 1999, the USIA  was dismantled and its activities scattered throughout the State Department.

With hindsight these cuts seem unwise because, contrary to certain predictions made in the 1990s, the whole world did not rush to embrace the American dream. Indeed, during this same period, a new breed of authoritarian leaders—exemplified by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Deng Xiaoping in China, and (later) Vladimir Putin in Russia—were busy separating  the strand of prosperity, which they wanted, from the strands of democracy and freedom, which they most assuredly did not want. Today, almost all of these regimes are increasingly corrupt and repressive. But at the turn of the 21st century, the new authoritarian model was looking pretty good.

Then came the 9/11 attacks and America’s disastrous, costly attempts to impose democracy by force on Afghanistan and Iraq. These military efforts were accompanied by numerous studies calling for a new public diplomacy fitted to the challenges of the new century. But these calls have not been satisfactorily answered. So far, the U.S. government’s main innovation has been to deploy social media—something America’s enemies do just as well, or better, than the U.S. government. This in a world flooded with sophisticated Chinese, Russian, and violent jihadist propaganda, where it is more important than ever to reaffirm all three strands of the American dream.

Here we encounter a challenge rarely acknowledged in the debate over public diplomacy. The post-Cold War spending cuts left a vacuum, which was quickly filled by America’s most successful export: commercial entertainment. Everywhere in the world, people view the United States through some kind of screen, whether a big one in a movie theater or a small one in a television or computer. And what appears on those screens has the power to shape foreign opinion of the American dream and what it stands for.

This does not bother most Americans because, after all, jazz, rock and roll, and Hollywood films played a positive role in the Cold War “battle for hearts and minds.” Plus, the export of popular culture imposes no burden on the taxpayer—indeed, it makes a hefty profit. Ever since World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson described film as “a universal language [that] lends itself importantly to the presentation of America’s plans and purposes,” the export of popular culture has been considered both good business and good public diplomacy.

But is that still true? Between 1989 and 2010, foreign sales of U.S. films and TV shows increased fourfold, from $3.6 billion to $14.2 billion. So business is still good. But if the chief goal of public diplomacy is to project all three strands of the American dream, then this export is not succeeding.

That’s because, instead of showing the interdependence of prosperity, democracy, and freedom, contemporary popular culture tends to single out freedom and portray it in ways that are very entertaining, but often also very alien to the concerns of most people in the world.

After 9/11, for example, many studies were done of America’s tarnished image, and one, headed by former U.S. Ambassador Edward Djerejian, quoted an English teacher in Syria asking, “Does Friends show a typical American family?” The question was odd, given that Friends, which ran on NBC from 1994 to 2004, was notable for not showing a family. This did not prevent Friends from attracting a huge global audience, though. According to its producers at Warner Brothers, Friends has been telecast in 135 countries, reaching an average of 14 million viewers per telecast. And these figures are only for the more lucrative markets. When I pressed the producers for the total number of “gross views” (one-off exposures to a single episode), they came up with the astonishing figure of 17 billion!

That figure was doubtless a joke, tossed out to a pesky researcher. But as I discovered in talking with over 200 producers, consumers, and observers of popular culture in 17 countries around the world, the TV genre represented by Friends and its many successors, from Sex and the City to The Big Bang Theory, has been tremendously influential in projecting a new American dream—one that, unlike its predecessor, requires no connection with either political freedom or democracy.

In this new dream, the saga of one generation working hard to raise the prospects of the next is replaced by a fantasy of young, unattached men and women living in an upscale urban setting with little or no contact with their families or communities of origin, and enjoying a degree of affluence and personal freedom, including sexual freedom, that is unheard of in most societies. As described by the creators of Friends, it is about “sex, love, relationships, careers … [at] a time in your life when everything’s possible … because when you’re single and in the city, your friends are your family.”

The set of the Central Perk coffee shop in Friends, in SoHo, New York (Brendan McDermid / Reuters)

Consider, for example, the stunning absence of parents, siblings, or other relatives from Sex and the City, a program that was legally broadcast in 33 countries, including Turkey, India, Indonesia, and China, and illegally pirated in many others. In the series, the four female characters’ estrangement from their families is virtually total. As the lawyer Miranda says, “My family lives in Philadelphia and I don’t like them.” Through 94 episodes, two feature films, and a couple of weddings, the main character, a newspaper columnist named Carrie, is depicted as having no family at all.

This picture can be alluring, if you’re an unmarried Egyptian or Nigerian or Indian living with your extended family and subject to their many demands. But there is also a downside to the picture, when viewed from the perspective of people enmeshed in extended, multigenerational family relationships. In Cairo I met a young woman, a student from a Bedouin village, who told me that she was nervous about her impending first visit to the United States because, as she put it, “In the media, Americans are always alone.”

This summer I was in Nigeria, meeting with Hausa-speaking journalists, when over lunch the subject of movies came up. One young man, recently returned from covering the ravages of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the country’s northeast, said that he and his wife disliked Hollywood movies because they were “too immoral.” Most Nigerians, Christians as well as Muslims, prefer Bollywood films, he told me, because they are about topics tradition-minded people can relate to, such as generational conflict over arranged marriage.

That young Nigerian was not a religious radical, and neither were most of the people I met overseas. Indeed, many were ardent fans of American popular culture. But even the most ardent fans take a somewhat dim view of the values that culture portrays. In the United Arab Emirates, I spoke with an engineering student who told me that his personal goal was to help his family, not to follow the American way and “seek only the pleasure of the moment.” In India, I heard praise for all things American, accompanied by polite dismissal of the hyper-individualistic lifestyle depicted in its entertainment.

These subtle criticisms of American pop culture should not be confused with a reactionary attachment to the traditional family. In my travels I have heard similar comments from feminists seeking greater rights and opportunities for women. And it should be stated that these media portrayals are not entirely inaccurate: Americans are marrying later and less often today than in the past, and similar trends are occurring in many other countries.

But perceptions matter, because these cultural exports are now the main lens through which billions of people judge America’s intentions and ideals. What bothers people in many non-Western societies is not some feminist or socially liberal message embedded in American popular culture, but its sheer callowness. Why, they ask, are Americans so obsessed with the stage of life between adolescence and maturity? Why do so many American movies and TV shows focus on characters who seem neurotically afraid of commitment and responsibility?

The original American dream appealed to adult men and women willing to commit themselves to a risky path of hard work, sacrifice, and hope for a better future. The new dream panders to adolescents and post-adolescents who are fearful of growing up. This is not an accurate or full picture of American life, and neither is it appealing to many people whom America needs on its side. To say this is not to recommend censorship—there is already far too much of that in the world. But it is to recommend some self-reflection, and maybe restraint, on the part of the producers and consumers of American entertainment, which, like it or not, is now this nation’s de facto ambassador to a turbulent and skeptical world.