What America Can Learn From the Rest of the World

Americans are often skeptical of policy ideas from other countries. Why?

Hillary Clinton tours a canal in Copenhagen, Denmark, as secretary of state. (Saul Loeb / Reuters)

During the recent Democratic presidential debate, Bernie Sanders suggested that Americans “look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.” Hillary Clinton, however, thought the policy solutions would be found closer to home. “We are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America. And it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system.” Commentators declared that in that moment, Clinton “clearly gained the upper hand” and “walloped” Sanders. But is it really so crazy to suggest that Americans could copy a thing or two from foreign lands?

There’s a deeply ingrained resistance in the United States to the notion of emulating policies from other countries. Of course, Americans vary enormously in their openness to outside thinking. But as Hillary demonstrated, even the Democrats are often wary of borrowing foreign ideas. Meanwhile, many Republicans would scoff at the notion that the rest of the world could solve America’s challenges in health care, transportation, or education. In 2011, Mitt Romney declared: “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers.”

Not all countries are like this. British politicians routinely tour their European neighbors to discover how the Finns handle education or the Germans run their train system, and then loot any smart ideas they stumble across. The British recently introduced a new early-childhood education system: Sure Start. The name might ring a bell. It was partly modeled on the American Head Start program. But U.S. politicians rarely go hunting for ideas abroad, and many would never dream of naming an initiative after a foreign program.

Why are Americans often skeptical of learning from policy solutions implemented elsewhere? U.S. identity is founded on a sense of political exceptionalism. The United States is seen as a unique repository of ideals under God’s watchful providence—the city on a hill. And America’s national success has only reinforced popular resistance to looking abroad for inspiration. Over the course of the 20th century, the United States bested every major rival and became the world’s sole superpower. Why copy British decline, Japan’s stagnant economy, or Greek debt? Ideology also comes into play. As other advanced democracies have embraced extensive welfare systems, the United States has become a relatively conservative member of the Western club. Today, the American right fears that copying fellow democracies means lurching to the left.

But here’s the catch: Shunning overseas policy innovation is dangerous. The United States is an incredibly successful country in many domains, and has an enormous amount to teach the world. Yet Americans also have a great deal to learn.

After all, it’s not as if Americans are enamored with the current state of government in Washington. Polls show that large majorities believe the country is on the “wrong track.” The United States has endured a run of failed wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The American Dream is receding, and social-mobility rates are actually higher in Canada and Europe than in the United States. On indicators like infant mortality and poverty, the United States lags far behind its peers.

Could the solution to some of these problems lie outside American shores? Given that only 5 percent of the world’s population is American, is it possible that the other 95 percent have a few smart ideas Americans could use? Putting on intellectual blinders may have been justified when the United States was one of a handful of democracies in the world. But now around half the world’s countries have representative regimes. These states face similar challenges, and it’s useful to see how the other guys are doing.

Perhaps Americans might learn from France and Germany’s foreign policy—after all, their warnings about the dangers of regime change in Iraq back in 2003 turned out to be quite prescient.

Or Americans could look to Australia’s experience with gun control, which has all but eliminated deadly gun rampages there.

Or Americans might consider how Canada avoids gerrymandering by using an independent body for electoral redistricting.

Or Americans might send a fact-finding mission to examine Asia’s education systems, since Asian countries came in first through fifth on a recent global schools ranking, with the United States stuck down in 28th place.

Or Americans could look at how Norway invests its oil wealth in a vast pension fund to help future generations—a fund that is now worth $900 billion (or roughly $175,000 for each of Norway’s 5.1 million people).

Or Americans might examine Brazil’s “redemption through reading” program, where prisoners can reduce their sentence by four days for every book they read and book report they write.

In a highly competitive world, where the United States faces a number of rising powers like Brazil, India, and China, interest in innovation can’t end at the water’s edge. Other countries are willing to copy ideas from any source, and this potentially gives them a huge advantage.

The irony is that Americans are happy to learn about politics from foreigners—so long as they physically come to the United States first. Immigrants have profoundly shaped American political life, including Alexander Hamilton (born in the British West Indies), John Paul Jones (a Scot), Joseph Pulitzer (a Hungarian), Felix Frankfurter (an Austrian), Henry Kissinger (a German), Zbigniew Brzezinski (a Pole), and Madeleine Albright (a Czechoslovakian). If Americans listen to people who were born abroad and then immigrated to the United States, why not also learn from people who were born abroad—and then stayed abroad? After all, wisdom is not something you’re injected with at Ellis Island.

Change shouldn’t be too difficult. Step outside of the policy realm, and the United States is far from isolationist. Americans are extremely open to emulating foreign cultures. Universities like Princeton and Yale ape the Gothic architecture of Oxford and Cambridge. Wealthy Americans fill their homes with European paintings and antiques. A book on the Japanese art of tidying up was recently a bestseller. American businesses are also intensely focused on their international competitors, benchmarking their performance and copying their best practices. When the Korean firm Samsung demonstrated that consumers wanted larger smartphones, Apple came out with the much bigger iPhone 6. In a globalized economy, any U.S. corporation that refuses to assimilate good ideas simply because they’re foreign won’t last long.

Americans should view other countries the way Apple looks at Samsung. Which states lead the pack in education and health care? Who has effectively balanced free markets with protections for consumers? Who has embraced green energy most successfully?

Other countries can be laboratories of democracy. The point is not to transplant alien ideas wholesale into America’s distinctive soil. Instead, imagine the potential benefits if foreign innovations inspired Americans to think more creatively—or were adapted and given a uniquely American flavor.