Hi, I’m Mike. I’m a nice guy. Please don’t blow me up.
RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Fred Kaplan over at Slate recently asked readers to write in with suggestions on how the United States can improve its image in the world. Everyone ought to read the results, because they are a powerful illustration of just how little we as Americans understand about how the world sees us. “To Know Us Is ...
Fred Kaplan over at Slate recently asked readers to write in with suggestions on how the United States can improve its image in the world. Everyone ought to read the results, because they are a powerful illustration of just how little we as Americans understand about how the world sees us.
“To Know Us Is To Love Us,” Kaplan declares in his headline. It summarizes the dominant theme of the more than 100 suggestions from his readers: If only all those angry foreigners could meet more real Americans through travel and exchange programs, they would like us better. It’s a variation on a refrain any traveled American has heard a thousand times: “We like Americans, but hate your government.”
It’s comforting to think that Americans don’t get blamed for everything their government does. But the next time someone in a foreign country tells you this, remind them that it was Americans—ordinary ones—who died on 9/11, not their government or government leaders. As Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami puts it, “it is of Americans and their deeds, and the kind of social and political order they maintain, that sordid tales are told in Karachi and Athens and Cairo and Paris. You can’t profess kindness toward Americans while attributing the darkest of motives to their homeland.”
Part of the problem with Kaplan’s experiment is that many of those writing in are Americans living overseas who see the world through the one-dimensional prism of wherever they happen to be. For instance, Kaplan writes, “Several readers emphasize that many foreigners, even those with high levels of education, have no concept of American life. They don’t know that most Americans are religious people.” Whoever said that must never have been to Europe, a secular continent where the United States gets viciously mocked for being overly religious. Meanwhile, in the Arab world, America is hated for the decadence and infidelity it represents. We can’t win, friends.
And there’s the real problem with the suggestion, “to know us is to love us.” It ignores reality. One Dutch student wrote to Kaplan: “America must (re-)consider itself an ordinary country—special and of great importance, but not playing in a league of its own.” Sorry, but America, by virtue of the power of its economy, military, and culture, does play in a league of its own. Being huge inspires hatred; just ask the Yankees, Wal-Mart, or Microsoft. Pretending that isn’t so will hardly fix anything.
For now, America must bear the burden of being both loved and hated at once. Our embassies will at once be blown up and packed with locals seeking visas. I’m all for exchange programs, but they aren’t enough to cure this ill. If you heard Karen Hughes or Condi Rice tell you that the solution to the U.S. public diplomacy problem is that foreigners just don’t understand how wonderful Americans are, wouldn’t you laugh her out of the room? You ought to do the same with Kaplan’s experiment.
(Hat Tip: James Joyner)
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