America’s Image Abroad

Many Americans like to ask: Why do they hate us? I don’t think foreigners hate the American people. It’s American foreign policies that they hate. If the American people fail to change their government to making more sensible policies, this question will be asked for generations to come.

Why should we care about our image? A country’s image is like a person’s credibility. Do you care about your own credibility? What is the big deal about credibility? It makes life easier for you, such as securing other people’s trust, cooperation and help.

Does a superpower need credibility? The more power you have, the more credibility you need. The simple reason is that your power depends on other people’s respect, not on love or fear. When they lose respect for you, they will not cooperate. They will even undermine and sabotage your undertakings. Look at all the big corporations around the world. They spend millions every year in advertising to boost their images and brand names. Cultivating a good image does not mean kissing everybody. It means behaving responsibly and fairly to win other people’s trust and respect.

A good image does not guarantee friendly response. “A bigger tree attracts more wind”, so goes a Chinese saying. There always exist other countries or groups wanting to challenge a superpower for one reason or another. They never want to challenge a small country like Singapore or Denmark for it does not generate much news.

The 9/11 terrorist attack is an extreme case that deserves plenty of reflections for the US. Within a few days after the attack, most of the world expressed sympathy and solidarity with the US. One major French newspaper, Le Monde, even proclaimed, “We are all Americans.” Note that the French are not usually warm toward the US but they were with us. What has happened since then? All the sympathy and solidarity have evaporated, because the Bush Administration has squandered this political capital by invading Iraq and acting irresponsibly. How can we succeed fighting terrorism originating from abroad without other countries’ cooperation? There are many positive things associated with America, but the government has failed to capitalize on them through its cocky foreign policy, as illustrated below.

America’s positive image comes from its history. The American Republic was born out of rebellion against British imperialism in 1776. This revolutionary past represents a common heritage with many developing countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The countries of South and Central America also share this revolutionary heritage (against Spanish imperialism). Unlike many European countries, America is by no means a full-fledged colonizing power. However, because America is predominantly white and allied with Europe, especially with Israel, the non-white world thinks that they are all the same colonizing bunch. They have a point in thinking that way because America often looks like a white bully through its military ventures overseas.

America is the oldest democracy in the world with liberty, human rights, and rule of law written into the US Constitution. The rest of the world understands these powerful ideas as many of them are still struggling to achieve the basic elements of democracy. Around the world, many governments exist by oppressing and abusing their people. They fear liberty, human rights, and rule of law while their people aspire to having them. However, the US government usually allies itself with those oppressive governments for political convenience. Hence US foreign policies make friends with the bad regimes while making enemies with the people.

The world understands America as a land of opportunity. America’s economic dynamism and technological prowess attract foreigners to come using whatever means to stay, even illegally. They also understand that we offer better opportunities than other industrialized countries due to our diverse racial mix, immigrant population, and more open-mindedness. They also see a country changed from slaves owning to racial segregation, then to civil rights legislation, and finally to a black president like Obama. This represents a powerful image of opportunity and progress. The recent anti-immigration sentiment whipped up by the Republican Party does not help promoting this positive image.

The spread of American pop culture is interesting because it cuts both ways. It includes Disney animated characters, Hollywood movies, Coca Cola, and McDonalds, etc. Many conservative foreign cultures hate them, while the young generation finds them new and interesting. Inadvertently, American business has created a culture war globally. At the same time, it has introduced conflicts between the young and old in foreign societies through its pop culture. It is hard to say whether it is a positive or negative thing, but it’s unintentional in view of globalization and the inherent aggressiveness of American business.

American military adventurism definitely has a negative effect on its image abroad. The huge private defense industry in the US needs to find domestic and foreign buyers. How can they sell more weapons in peacetime especially with the end of the Cold War? Obviously they must invent a condition and a need. They will find a way to do it, especially through corrupting foreign government officials, and financial contributions to politicians. The large military establishment in the US is always a willing collaborator with the domestic defense industry. No wonder the US government always seems willing to undertake foreign military ventures despite getting burned badly multiple times such as in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finally, what foreigners see on television everyday may form a negative image of America. This includes: frequent gun murders even in schools, sex and violence, poverty in inner cities, government gridlock, nonsensical political debates, etc. So the rest of the world gets the impression that America is a chaotic country full of ignorant, selfish, violent, and self-righteous people. They never see the silent majority who don’t make news on TV but are fully occupied with work to make ends meet for their families.

(January 2012)

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