Improving America’s Image Around the World

Uncle Sam National Comics #1 (1940) Slate‘s Fred Kaplan surveys his readers for ideas on improving America’s image around the world. Most of the suggestions revolve around travel and cultural interaction, such as expanding foreign student exchange programs, Fulbright grants, the Peace Corps, and the like.

While those things are valuable in and of themselves, their impact on reshaping world opinion would be infinitesimal. There are six billion-odd people in the world and the fraction of them that we could possibly interact with in that way is negligible. Moreover, those who would participate in such exchanges would necessarily be from the elite classes who, for the most part, already have substantial contact with Americans and those who have met Americans.

The reason that America and Americans are so often viewed with hostility is that we’re a global leviathan that imposes our culture, value, and policy preferences on the world through the sheer dominance of our economy, entertainment industry, and military.

Some of the former great powers in Western Europe resent that a comparative young upstart has risen to those heights and/or think we’re reckless in the use of that power. Furthermore, our interests and theirs often simply clash.

In the developing world, a different set of problems exist. In some cases, we’ve supported oppressive dictators when doing so aligned with our larger strategic objectives such as containing Soviet Communism or fighting against Islamist terrorism. In others, our movies and music portray a decadent, wealthy society that’s sharply antagonistic to local mores. This is exacerbated by state controlled media that find the United States a convenient target for deflecting anger at the failure of the regime to provide basic services.

So, yes, expanded cultural exchange will persuade a few people that Americans, as people, are decent, hard working, and mean them no harm. It might also persuade a few Americans that more engagement with the world’s problems is in our interest. But it’s not going to change the basic facts of America’s place in the world.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Education, US Politics, World Politics, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t think that any of the measures suggested will have the effect desired. We’ve already got more students from overseas in our schools than probably any other country in the world and have had for decades. Many like it here well enough that they never go home.

    We probably have more Americans travellling overseas than any other country in the world and that doesn’t seem to have had the desired effect, either.

    Doing less will just leave a vacuum into which people not particularly friendly to us will move.

    I think that in the developed world and in the developing world just as here in the United States most people form their opinions based on what other people tell them, on hearsay, and I think we should expect that to continue. And in much of the world the media are rather strictly controlled by their countries’ governments.

    So my suggestion is that we consider how America and Americans are portrayed in government-controlled media in other countries as a serious foreign policy issue. They don’t know nothin’ but what they read in the newspapers. Or watch on TV, to update Will Rogers.

  2. Steve Plunk says:

    I agree with Dave Schuler but would add our own press into the mix as a cause of poor perceptions around the world. Of course we can’t do anything about them other than expose the anti-American bias they possess.

    The recent trend of Hollywood movies casting us in a poor light doesn’t help either.

    Whenever I hear talk of our bad reputation I always temper it with the fact many of the worlds people would love to live here.

  3. Christopher says:

    I disagree with the basic premise that America is viewed badly. This is a liberal dream-that America sucks-that they have been promoting to our own media and bought by gullible organizations like OTB. Anyone polled the billions? I don’t think so. OTB just “assumes”. Way to do your job, guys!

    James, you should be ashamed of your statement that the US is “a global leviathan that imposes our culture, value, and policy preferences on the world through the sheer dominance of our economy, entertainment industry, and military”. NONE of that is true, and if you believe it is you should abdicate your citizenship and get the he** out!

    And what do we care how the world views us? Only idiots would believe that the US is bad. And “young upstart”? OMG we have the oldest constitutional democracy in the world! (Just another example of the world’s so-called intelligence).

    But…to promote the US, maybe we should send billions in aid around the world. Promote freedom and fight for it where possible. Allow in to the US large amounts of immigrants legally here every year (who are dieing to get in anyway), and give aid to the illegal ones. Promote freedom and democracy everywhere we can. Host the UN and be it’s main benefactor. Fight oppressive communism tooth and nail. Lead the world in capitalism and the economic boom it provides to every level of society. Provide jobs everywhere around the world. Maybe all this would…oh wait! We ALREADY do all that…

  4. just me says:

    I agree with Dave and I also agree with Christopher.

    I don’t think any of the things suggest are going to do much of anything towards changing the perception of America around the world.

    But I also don’t think that perception is as bad as some want us to think it is. I think in some places there is a lot of hostility-hard to deny that, but I would imagine in most places “Mr. and Mrs. Average citizen” probably have an in general postive or at least neutral view.

  5. floyd says:

    How about worldwide distribution of “Lions for Lambs”? Ya think?

  6. Wayne says:

    I heard many complaints about the U.S. in my travels. However when you delve a little deeper the pictures changes.

    For example, I heard many complaints about American T.V. and movies. I then ask why not watch their or other countries shows. They reply because they suck worst than U.S.

    They complain about the U.S. getting involved in everyone’s business all the time. However ask about specifics like at the time why U.S. should get involve in Bosnia and why other countries couldn’t handle it. His or her replies were because no one else can be trusted.

    I think much of the dislike comes from having to hear about the U.S. all the time. It is about like media O.J. types fixation. It gets on my nerve having to hear the same thing over and over.

  7. cian says:

    America has never been so unpopular. That’s a fact. Whether this fact matters is an entirely different question. To some yes, to others no. As far as Little Americans like Steve and Christopher are concerned, the rest of the world can go dump its ungrateful head in a big bucket of warm manure and that’s fair enough, but accumulating enemies at the rate we have under this administration is not a sound or a sane way to run our affairs. My own feeling is the world doesn’t so much dislike us as pity us and is standing back amazed and saddened by what we are doing to ourselves and our hard fought for and long cherished ideals of what it means to live as a free people.

  8. Wayne says:

    Germany and France did replace their anti-U.S. leaders with pro-U.S. leaders.

  9. mannning says:

    After living in Europe for a total of thirteen years, and having spent weeks at a time in most of the EU nations, I found a number of negative attitudes towards Americans and America.

    Some of these were superficial objections to things like how we dress, our manners in a foreign land, and our seeming obsession with ourselves, or running down the comforts of European hotels and services. There are ugly Americans: One Brit commented on the “Pink Polyester Pantsuit Parade” all Summer, as our older female tourists overran the sights, and complained loudly about everything and everyone. They could not understand why so many of these women affected polyester pantsuits, especially pink!

    However, there were dark and deep hatreds of America being indoctrinated in the schools. This I witnessed first-hand. It was a regular practice to pick out the very worst story that could be found about the US, and generalize it into a full condemnation every day. My oldest daughter spent the better part of a semester trying to defend against this propaganda being promoted by leftist teachers. I was asked to take her out of the school because of the disruption she caused (translation: they didn’t want her opinions to counter their weird views of America).

    We found the same practice almost everywhere we went. If you multiply this effect over the 60 or so years since WWII, you have generations of students that have been heavily biased against the US from their earliest school experience, now reaching positions of power and influence throughout the EU. This cannot help showing up in dealings with our nation today. No, not all students accept this bias, but a significant number do. Could this be a major contribution to the negative views of America in Europe? I believe it is.

  10. mannning says:

    I hasten to add: terrible influences are apparent that are caused by our media, especially the NYT and its stringer papers; the movies they all watch that are mostly negative on life, the US, and other nations; and the view of the US as a bunch of cowboys willing to saddle up and ride to battle at a moment’s notice. Then, too, much of the EU press is dismally negative about the US, its politics, and our leaders.

    You don’t reverse this kind of thing in a few years, if ever. Just learn to live with it, and act like a decent human being in foreign contacts.

  11. Grewgills says:

    I’ve been living in the Netherlands for a while now and my experience is quite a bit different from manning’s. The US was quite popular here during the Clinton administration. The big change in attitude here happened in 2003. I’ve lost count of the times I have been asked how it was that Bush was reelected.

    As far as complaints about tourists go Americans come in third behind Germans and Brits.

  12. Tano says:

    The simplest thing that we could do to improve our image around the world would be to elect Barack Hussein Obama as president.

    Wouldn’t even matter what he did. Just the image of this man – of African and Kansan background, who grew up in part in Indonesia with muslims, whose mother was an athiest, who is himself a christian, who in his genes can unite Dick Cheney and the poorest of the poor in East Africa, and who can so eloquently articulate American values, and sell those ideas to the rest of the world – just the sense that such a huge percentage of the people in the world would have of identification with and aspiration toward America and it’s president – that alone would re-establish, in a more powerful manner than ever before existed, the identity of America as the ideal abstraction of the world, rather than just another hegemonic superpower caring only for its own interests.

    As for the current war of hearts and minds – they got Osama, we got Obama. We win that, hands down, in every back alley of the undeveloped, and developing world.

  13. Steve Plunk says:

    Cian,

    I’m curious what makes a “Little American”? Is it different than a big American?

    It would be nice to see what words I used that would be interpreted as asking the rest of the world to “go dump it’s ungrateful head in a bucket of warm manure”?

    I offered my opinion of why the world may have a dim view of us and followed that by noting how many people in the world would love to live here. If you are going to attempt insults do it right and catch us saying something stupid, don’t make it up.

    I see many here agree with the idea that our own mass media has a great deal to with portraying us poorly around the world.

  14. Christopher says:

    Cian

    If you hate it here so much and think we are so unfree, why don’t you move to N. Korea? They’d love ya there!

    Tano:
    Elect Barack Hussein Obama president? lol yea! The European socialists WOULD in fact love that! I find it reprehensible though that you would want to use the election of our highest office just to possibly become the popular kid on the block. I can only imagine the depths you must have sunk to in order to increase your own personal popularity. (are your knees dirty?)

  15. Dale says:

    How about we quit caring about what the rest of the world thinks about us? Who cares? They still buy our products, they sell their products here, and many millions of people around the world try to immigrate – legally or illegally – sometimes at great personal danger.

    We should do our thing, look out for our national interests – whatever they are deemed to be – and quit worrying about what everybody thinks. We are the world leader like it or not and that means that we sometimes have to say or do things that are not popular but need to be said or done nonetheless. Thats leadership.

    The rest of the world will come around eventually.

  16. mannning says:

    Just for laughs, I would bet that GG has lived in the Western or Southern part of Holland, most likely in Den Haag or nearby, or just perhaps Eindhoven. Plus, I would bet he hasn’t been near a K12 set of schools. The rest of Holland, its interior, and especially near the German border, is quite different from the Randstadt in outlook and in sophistication.

    Then, too, it is who you are in close contact with that counts–close enough to hear frank talk about the state of affairs–and in which language you are conversant. If you can’t read or speak Dutch, you will miss an enormous amount of slanted information that somehow does not come through in English very clearly.

    I will grant that most Dutchmen are neutral to positive about the US, and are very curious about everything American. Many have traveled to the US and toured extensively.

    But in perhaps one case in four or five you will meet a hostile soul that does not wish America or Americans well. In my opinion, the communist party has done a good job of spoiling the well for that group.

    I am glad that GG has apparently not been too involved with that group, but rather with the usual Dutchmen that live, eat and breathe politics. I forget the saying exactly, but it takes two Dutchmen to make a political party, and three to make a religion.

    We have to remember that Holland is a Socialist nation, and thus has decided leftist tendencies; hence, targeting Bush is nix nieuws.

  17. Grewgills says:

    manning,
    Well other than me living in the Southern or Western part of the Netherlands, a safe bet as that is where almost everyone lives, you would have lost that bet. I live just outside Leiden and the Leidse are not so cosmopolitan in their outlook. I have spent considerable time doing research in Amsterdam, Texel (NW), Wageningen (SE), and Arnhem(SE). The labs I have worked in draw researchers from all over Europe (mostly southern and western Europe), parts of Asia and Africa (primarily Kenya) and a few from the Americas (mostly Columbia). My wife is Dutch and teaches elementary school in Rotterdam.

    My experience would put the number of those openly hostile about America at less than 1 in 10 and politics is a frequent topic of discussion. Most of those conversation are in English as that is the one language shared by everyone in the labs.

    The Communist Party doesn’t have so much influence, but the Socialist Party did quite well in the last election (3rd behind CDA and PvdA if memory serves).

    As long as we’re sharing translated Dutch sayings my favorite is, “I thank you from the bottom of my heart and from my wife’s bottom.” If you haven’t seen it yet “I always get my sin” is a very funny collection of these sayings and I’m sure if you spent much time here you have already read “the Undutchables.”

  18. Grewgills says:

    manning,

    Well other than me living in the Southern or Western part of the Netherlands, a safe bet as that is where almost everyone lives, you would have lost that bet. I live just outside Leiden and the Leidse are not so cosmopolitan in their outlook. I have spent considerable time doing research in Amsterdam, Texel (NW), Wageningen (SE), and Arnhem(SE). The labs I have worked in draw researchers from all over Europe (mostly southern and western Europe), parts of Asia and Africa (primarily Kenya) and a few from the Americas (mostly Columbia). My wife is Dutch and teaches elementary school in Rotterdam.

    My experience would put the number of those openly hostile about America at less than 1 in 10 and politics is a frequent topic of discussion. Most of those conversation are in English as that is the one language shared by everyone in the labs.

    The Communist Party doesn’t have so much influence, but the Socialist Party did quite well in the last election (3rd behind CDA and PvdA if memory serves).

    As long as we’re sharing translated Dutch sayings my favorite is, “I thank you from the bottom of my heart and from my wife’s bottom.” If you haven’t seen it yet “I always get my sin” is a very funny collection of these sayings and I’m sure if you spent much time here you have already read “the Undutchables.”

  19. Tano says:

    Dale,

    I really don’t think you understand the concept of leadership. Leadership does not entail simply doing what you want and expecting others to “eventually come around”. Would you “come around” to follow some powerful force that did nothing but follow its own interests and stated explicitly that they didnt care what you thought?

    If you are a normal person, you would tell such a force to go screw themselves. And that is the reaction that your attitude would provoke in others. Now maybe you don’t particularly care about that, since we are so powerful, but we certainly know, from experience, that one doesnt have to be powerful in order to inflict damage on the powerful. Nor can we have any expectation of shaping the world toward our values if we provoke such an attitude in people.

    We are the great power in the world, and we are in the position to lead, but we do not become leaders simply by occupying that position. We could just as easily become the target of anger and frustration. And that severely undermines our goals for moving the world toward our values, and threatens our security as well. I think your approach would be a disaster.

  20. mannning says:

    GG: We seem to be converging somewhat in any event. I suspect that the socialist party has benefited from votes by the communists, simply to give their left-side gains in the government.

    Well it was just for kicks, anyway–and I lost!

    Has your wife observed the biased teaching I posted about? It was apparent in Enschede, Hengelo, Almelo, Amsterdam, Arnhem, Apeldoorn, and in Belgium near Brussel, as well as in the UK outside of London (Kingston-on-Thames), in France in Essone and in Perpignon, all by personal observation.

    Many of my fellow engineers at Philips and in other firms in the EU with whom we did business admitted their concerns about this trend, but felt helpless to effect a change. Admittedly, these people were university graduates working in the defense industry mostly, so their outlook was probably more, ah, conservative than usual 🙂

  21. Grewgills says:

    Has your wife observed the biased teaching I posted about?

    She has not noticed this, but she is in the political mainstream here (a bit to the left of me) so her opinion of bias and yours quite likely differ. She has not seen the anti-Americanism that you mentioned. We have friends with elementary school to high school aged children, mainly in Leiden and Amsterdam and some recently graduated from high school in Arnhem, and none of them seem to have attitudes that would indicate that they were taught in this way, though I have not had in depth discussions with them about their curricula. I recently had a discussion with a middle school and a high school child (children of a family friend) who recently moved from the US to the UK. We talked for a while about the differences that they found between their schooling in the US and UK. The main differences they saw were in difficulty of courses (I was a bit surprised that they found their math classes easier). They also talked about some climate and culture differences, but had noticed no anti-Americanism in school.

    Where your and your friends children attending international or local schools? She teaches in the local school system and we have little experience in the international school system here.

  22. mannning says:

    My oldest daughter first attended what we were told was a Catholic school. This was where the hotbed of anti-ism showed itself. When she transferred to a different (public) school she said the Anti-American attitudes were much less hostile, but ever present. My youngest daughter attended public schools from the outset, and was incensed by the attitudes she found, so much so that after two years, she was allowed to go back home to live with family friends, eventually graduating from George Mason University. The oldest graduated from the University of Amsterdam. Both were good students, and did not let the anti stuff interfere.

    They both had many friends, and brought them home at any excuse. Seems that the kids loved American cooking, so we usually had quite a gang at dinner a few nights in the week. This was were I became directly aware of some of the attitudes–through chats around the table and after dinner. It was a trying experience to listen to some of those kids without counterattacking them, or even gently pushing them away from their fantasies about the US.

    For example, we were accosted by a friend who said: “is it true that my oldest was an indian princess and had to go home to marry an indian prince she was promised to marry?” That took a lot of unscrambling!

    One of the friends of the oldest was arrested for subversive behavior by the Dutch authorities, and we never saw or heard from him again.

    But these are little stories. There are lots of bigger ones, but this isn’t the place for them.

  23. mannning says:

    One simple incident from my youngest I just remembered. In her first school, she kept very quiet for months because she had no Dutch. Finally, her teacher said to the class in a very sneering manner: “Oh, that dumb American can’t learn a damn thing.” My daughter stood up and said in perfect Dutch that this was an insult and she didn’t have to take it from a teacher. She stormed out and went to the office about it. So we moved her to another school, too.

  24. Grewgills says:

    They both had many friends, and brought them home at any excuse. Seems that the kids loved American cooking, so we usually had quite a gang at dinner a few nights in the week.

    I’m sure your meals were a welcome respite from the traditional Dutch meals consisting of boiled potatoes, boiled vegetable and overcooked meat. The Dutch don’t generally invite others to dinner. Were these dinner invites reciprocated?

    The Indian princess thing seems to be a standard bit of misinformed school rumor. I’ve seen a number of similar incidents teaching in American high schools.

    One of the friends of the oldest was arrested for subversive behavior by the Dutch authorities, and we never saw or heard from him again.

    That is curious. Do you know anything more about that incident?

    Finally, her teacher said to the class in a very sneering manner: “Oh, that dumb American can’t learn a damn thing.” My daughter stood up and said in perfect Dutch that this was an insult and she didn’t have to take it from a teacher.

    My guess is that the teacher would have said similar about a German or French student that they felt had not learned Dutch. Regardless, that is terribly inappropriate coming from any teacher anywhere. It is also quite impressive that your daughter was able to perfectly say the ‘g’s and ‘sch’s. As soon as I speak my accent is noticed and the person I am talking to usually switches to speaking English.

    It is quite difficult to separate anti-Americanism from simple misunderstanding and ignorance about far separated cultures. I have noticed this living and teaching in various regions of the US (AL, CA, and HI). The ideas that American middle school and high school students have about people in these different parts of the US are mind boggling. Ask them about people in most other countries and their ideas are often even further off base.*

    Re: pop culture forming opinions
    I remember an exchange student from Iceland attending high school in AL in the 80s who had formed all of her opinions before she came from watching “the Dukes of Hazzard.” She was initially surprised that our roads were paved.

    * This is also true in the reverse.

  25. mannning says:

    You are right that cultural differences create tensions that have nothing to do with anti-US attitudes. But, it is just the encounters that added an anti-US bias that stood out for me.

    I cannot add to the story of the young man that was arrested. This was at a time when there was a lot of unrest and demonstrations from leftist groups, and they tore up the town center, while surrounding my plant and trying to break in. Many young people were bussed in to the city from all over Europe to march and agitate. There were a number of arrests at that time, including this fellow.

    Both daughters became very proficient in Dutch–my wife and I far less so. They were mistaken for Dutch girls most of the time. They could pass the Scheveningen test with ease. We oldsters could fool no one.

    I would say that our dinner invitations were reciprocated about half the time, but we went to a restaurant not a home in most cases. This was standard. Good friends did invite us to their homes, much as in the US, after we became close. We learned about Indish, outsmyters (sp?), and hutspot from them, as well as pannekoeken.

    One factor that hasn’t been brought up are the events surrounding WWII. American bombers having met bad weather for their primary target, diverted to this secondary target, literally wiping out the town next to us without any warning, killing a lot of Dutch civilians. Some of the victims’ families could not reconcile that, which one can understand.

    I encountered just one of these people, and he was very, very bitter, even so long after the fact. My friends knew of this group that bore ill will for Americans, probably to this day.

    C’est la vie!