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America In The World

Does the world like us? Do we care? Should we? James Surowiecki takes the pulse of the planet

In the summer of 1867, Paris was flooded with visitors to the Exposition Universelle, one of the first of what would eventually come to be known as World's Fairs. Inside the Palais du Champ de Mars, the massive iron-and-glass main hall, people could wander among tens of thousands of exhibits from around the world featuring everything from exotic foods to new perfumes to fantastic new technologies. As the historian Arthur Chandler describes it, in a single day one could examine the canvases of Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier and Jean-Léon Géron, check out jewelry settings and vases from around the world, and marvel at the giant cannon that Krupp, the German arms maker, had brought to Paris. And then, if you were of a certain mindset, you could worry about the Americans.The U.S. government had committed itself to putting on a good show in Paris, in part as a way of winning more customers for American products, but also as a way of convincing skilled European workers that the United States was the best place to ply their trades. And put on a good show the Americans did. Their exhibits included Samuel Morse's remarkable new telegraph, demonstrations of the country's rich store of natural resources, and Cyrus McCormick's reaper. Although the Americans had less exhibition room than five other countries, they ended up winning four grand prizes at the Exposition. They also made some observers very nervous about what the future might hold. In the wake of the Exposition, Edmund and Jules Goncourt-two brothers whose co-written journals offer a brilliant impressionistic picture of Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century-wrote that the fair represented "the final blow in the Americanization of France, industry triumphing over art, the steam engine reigning in the place of the painting." For the Goncourts, the quintessentially American pursuit of technological progress guaranteed the eradication of quality and, ultimately, the destruction of culture. As the critic Rob Kroes has put it, America became the symbol of everything that was unsettling and dismaying about the advent of the modern world.Accompanying the dismay, though, was also a deep respect for the fruits of American ambition and inventiveness. The French government had actively encouraged American participation in the fair; the French commissioner in charge of the Exposition said (perhaps with a touch of exaggeration) that Napoleon III, France's ruler, "had been very much astonished by the marvels of ingenuity and skill which he had observed in the United States." And the crowds that thronged the American exhibits-as well as the judges who awarded the prizes-must also have been impressed by what they saw. A world with telegraphs and mechanical reapers, it seemed, was surely better than one without them.Almost a century and a half has passed since the Exposition Universelle, but the profound ambivalence America provoked there continues. Today Americanization-a word the Goncourts apparently coined-may be associated more with McDonald's, Hollywood, and the cult of the free market than with agricultural machinery, but fears remain of American culture and of American power running roughshod over local customs and creating a lowest-common-denominator world. These fears have been compounded by America's now overwhelming military power (which ensures no external check on its behavior) and by its tendency to act alone.Since 2002, the Pew Research Center has been conducting an annual global attitudes survey, in which it polls thousands of people in countries around the world on a wide range of questions, including their attitudes toward their own countries, toward their neighbors, and toward the United States. The surveys show that dislike of America currently runs both wide and deep. This is not solely or even principally due to the policies of the Bush administration (although they have undoubtedly made things worse). Instead, it stems from a distrust of American power, both military and economic, and from concern for how American businesses are affecting the world. Perhaps the most troubling thing about these results is that, in the past, people drew a clear distinction between the American government and Americans; hostility toward America was typically pegged to bad policies. Today the hostility tends to reach beyond the government and attaches itslef to Americans as a whole. In other words, in a lot of the world, they don't like us. They really don't like us. (Thankfully, there are still a few places in the world-Great Britain, Canada, and Poland-where a majority of the people have a favorable view of the U.S. And Indians absolutely seem to love us.) The stereotype of the Ugly American has been commonplace since the end of World War II, but the world's view of Americans has never been quite this bleak.If there is one trait that seems to characterize American behavior, and which contributes to global distrust, it's unilateralism, the American unwillingness to be bound by anything outside of one's own will. This has been accentuated in recent years-think of the decision to go to war in Iraq without a U.N. resolution, the refusal to ratify the Kyoto treaty, and the initial decision to ignore the Geneva Conventions in the war in Afghanistan. But it's hardly something the Bush administration invented. On the contrary, there is a deep strain of American thought that rejects the idea of being fettered, in any way, by non-Americans, and that sees going it alone as the only reasonable course of action.There are two factors that make American unilateralism especially troubling in the eyes of many. The first is simply the breadth of American power. While no one is nostalgic for the Cold War, a majority of people in every country that Pew surveyed (U.S. excluded) believe that it would be better for the world if a country or group of countries emerged as a rival to U.S. hegemony. Whatever the dangers of superpower conflict, apparently they're preferable to having most of the world's military might in the hands of one nation.The second factor is that the U.S. now regularly circumvents or ignores many of the international institutions that, paradoxically, it played a major role in creating. The United Nations, the various institutions designed to combat genocide and war crimes, the Geneva Conventions, the World Trade Organization-the U.S. was instrumental in the development of all of these. Yet in just the past decade, it's refused to ratify the International Criminal Court, refused to vote for a resolution banning land mines, refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, until recently declared the Geneva Conventions inapplicable to enemy combatants, and so on. From the perspective of American interests, each of those decisions may have been the correct one. But, to many, each also smacks of hypocrisy, making it seem as if the U.S. is happy to play by the rules only as long as it's guaranteed to win.Take the question of free trade, the one cause that, more than any other, the U.S. has been unremittingly committed to over the past decade and a half. Without the U.S., much of the good work that has been done in lowering trade barriers and doing away with subsidies in the global economy would never have happened. Yet in 2004, in order to placate voters in steel-producing states, the Bush administration slapped tariffs on foreign steel. These were tariffs the administration knew to be in violation of World Trade Organization rules, yet it went ahead and imposed them nonetheless.So Americans, it seems, are hypocritical, power-hungry, and self-serving. You can add "violent" and "greedy" to the list, two adjectives that, in the Pew surveys, majorities in many countries associate with the United States. And yet, when you look closer at the facts, you see flashes of the ambivalence that characterized the French reaction to the American exhibits in 1867. In almost all the developed countries and in India, most people see Americans, whatever their faults, as "hardworking" and "inventive." A study of global opinion leaders in 24 different countries found that America's economic dynamism and technological and scientific prowess were deeply appealing, and that the vision of America as a land of opportunity retains a powerful hold on people in most parts of the world. One of the reasons why Americanization is often seen as so threatening is precisely because so many people in other countries are drawn to American products, technology, and culture. At the heart of much of the world's relationship to the United States is a profound mix of attraction and repulsion.\n\n\n
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There is a deep strain of American thought that sees going it alone as the only reasonable course of action.
The stereotypical view of Americans, by contrast, is that they feel no attraction to the world at all. According to Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes, pollsters who have done much of the work for Pew and who have written a book based on that work called, tellingly enough, America Against the World, most Americans "downplay the importance of America's relationship to other nations" and are "indifferent to global issues," even in the midst of a war. They also tend to exhibit "an inattentive self-centeredness unmindful of their country's deepening linkages with other countries." It isn't really that we can't see ourselves the way others see us: most Americans know that their country's global reputation is not good (whereas in some countries people are more optimistic about their reputation than they should be-the French, for instance, believe that they are more loved by the world than they actually are). Most Americans also tend to agree with the rest of the world about their own flaws: almost half those surveyed in the U.S., too, describe Americans as "violent" and "greedy." The difference is that it doesn't seem to matter much. Most Americans are happy with their country, if not with their president, and most think that the good things about the place-including its economic opportunities, its technological inventiveness, and its level of freedom-outweigh the bad.The same is true, as it happens, of most places in the world. While Americans are usually thought of as exceptional in their self-regard, people in many countries have a similarly positive view of their own societies. (For example, 88 percent of the Chinese think their country is great.) Nor does Americans' self-regard translate, as many assume it does, into a desire to remake the rest of the world. While American policymakers over the past few years have emphasized the need to spread American values-often thought of as "universal values"-most Americans describe themselves as uninterested in that kind of missionary work. This is hardly surprising. American exceptionalism has historically manifested itself in two different forms: on the one hand, the desire to evangelize the rest of the world, showing it the truth and converting it to the American way, and on the other, the desire to remain aloof from the rest of the world, free of entangling alliances and complications. If the Bush administration seems in thrall to the first vision, most Americans seem more comfortable with the second.\n\n\n
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It isn't that we can't see ourselves the way others see us: most Americans know that their country's global reputation is not good. The difference is that it doesn't matter much.
The rough picture we're getting is that the rest of the world is unhappy with and distrustful of the United States, while Americans-although they'd probably prefer to be liked-don't really care. But once you start to look beneath the surface-and, in particular, to look not just at what people say, but at what they do, and at the everyday reality of their lives-it becomes impossible to accept that there really is a fundamental alienation between the U.S. and the rest of the world. The paradox of American existence today is that for all the unilateral actions and rhetoric, and for all of the supposed indifference to the rest of the world, Americans have never been more reliant on other countries, in large part because of the integration of the global economy over the past three decades.


The connection between the U.S. and the rest of the world is, to begin with, a concrete financial reality: the U.S. now buys $600 billion more a year in foreign goods and services than it sells of its own goods and services. It also sells hundreds of billions of dollars a year in stocks, bonds, and property to foreign investors. Our quality of life, in other words, depends heavily on the work of people in other countries, and on the willingness of foreigners to invest here. That also means, of course, that much of the well-being of people elsewhere depends on us. They may dread the voraciousness of American consumerism and materialism but, without our seemingly bottomless appetite for stuff, plenty of economies would grind to a halt. We are not the breadbasket of the world. We are the consumer of last resort. As the historian Charles Maier puts it, if America is presiding over an empire, it's an empire of consumption.Similarly, the remarkable renaissance of American business over the past two decades is impossible to imagine without the impact of management techniques imported from abroad (most notably from Japan), including an emphasis on quality, the focus on lean manufacturing, just-in-time production, and a greater emphasis on involving workers in the decision-making process. For all the talk and concern over outsourcing and offshoring, millions of Americans now work for foreign companies in the U.S., including workers at some of the most productive factories in the world (like Nissan's and Toyota's). Abroad, meanwhile, the hostility to the United States has had surprisingly little effect on American companies, even among firms whose appeal seems fundamentally tied to their status as American icons. McDonald's, for instance, is now more successful in France than anywhere else in the world, with the exception of the U.S., while three-quarters of Coke's sales come from abroad. And although American companies have not remade the world in their image, as the spectre of Americanization threatened, they have created tremendous value by sending their technological and managerial savvy abroad-just as foreign companies did in the U.S. More than enough has been written about the way American companies are changing places like Bangalore and Shanghai, but the benefits of American know-how are being felt even in Europe. European divisions of American companies, for instance, are significantly more productive than similarly-sized divisions at European firms.\n\n\n
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The paradox of American existence today is that for all the unilateral actions and rhetoric, Americans have never been more reliant on other countries.
Culturally, too, the connections between the U.S. and the rest of the world appear to be growing tighter, not weaker. Globalization in the field of culture is often thought of as a one-way process-Hollywood trampling over domestic industries. But the traffic runs very much in both directions. Some of the biggest American pop-culture successes of recent years, including Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Big Brother, and American Idol, were all imported from abroad (which may sound like a good reason to keep the borders closed). And mainstream culture in general is increasingly influenced by foreign imports, from Japanese manga to reggaeton music. The internet has obviously played an important role in this process, by making it easier to discover new and interesting work and by making it economically feasible to distribute it in the U.S. And even travel, after falling sharply in the wake of September 11th, is on the rise. Last year, foreign tourists spent a record amount of money in the U.S., which is now the third most popular destination in the world (though still well behind both France and Spain), and the number of foreign visitors was close to the peak it hit in 2000. And as of 2004-the most recent year we have statistics for-Americans, despite the fact that they get almost no vacation time and have to deal with the declining value of the dollar, were spending more money on international tourism than anyone but the Germans.The point is not to suggest that all is well between America and the rest of the world. Global distrust of the U.S. and fears of American imperialism have only been magnified by the United States' seeming disdain for multilateral solutions and its willingness to flex its muscles when necessary. But underneath the rhetoric, there are indelible connections between the U.S. and the world, and these are changing in ways both profound and beneficial. In the long run, these connections are likely to have more of an impact on the relationship between the U.S. and other countries than are the policies of the Bush administration. One potent sign of this may be that hostility toward the U.S. is actually much weaker among younger people. This may seem curious, given that we typically associate rebellion and protest with the young, but it reflects the simple fact that as the years pass, the world becomes more cosmopolitan, not less.There is still a lot that can go wrong. If we think of the Exposition Universelle and that mix of horror and impressed fascination with which Europeans viewed Americans in 1867, we might recognize that either of those reactions can come to dominate. In thinking about how to keep the world more fascinated than horrified, one useful recommendation might be for the U.S. to play to the strengths that the world already seems to respect, including technological savvy and entrepreneurial vision, while trying to solve problems that have a genuine global reach. In this regard, it matters that important work in the field of public health and economic development is being done by Americans in the nonprofit sector, most prominently by the Gates Foundation, but also by scores of smaller groups that are taking the skills and techniques of American entrepreneurialism and applying them to the problems of the developing world. Coming up with a vaccine for malaria isn't going to solve the reputational challenges created by American hegemony, or the war in Iraq, or the Bush administration's penchant for going it alone. But it will make a difference. So, too, will an acknowledgement by the U.S. that solitude can be overrated. As Gertrude Stein once wrote, "Don't you forget, a country can't live without friends."
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