HOW AMERICA IS VIEWED BY OTHERS -- AND DOES
Paul Kennedy, the Yale historian, is author of "The Rise and Fall
of the Great Powers."
NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- "By what right," an angry environmentalist
demanded at a recent conference I attended, "do Americans place such
a heavy footprint upon God's Earth?" Ouch. That was a tough one because,
alas, it's largely true.
We comprise slightly less than 5 percent of the world's population; but
we imbibe 27 percent of the world's annual oil production, create and
consume nearly 30 percent of its Gross World Product and -- get this --
spend a full 40 percent of ALL the world's defense expenditures. By my
calculation, the Pentagon's budget is nowadays roughly equal to the defense
expenditures of the next nine or 10 highest defense-spending nations --
which has never before happened in history. That is indeed a heavy footprint.
How do we explain it to others -- and to ourselves? And what, if anything,
should we be doing about this?
I pose these questions because recent travel experiences of mine -- to
the Persian Gulf, Europe, Korea, Mexico -- plus a shoal of letters and
e-mails from across the globe all suggest that this American democracy
of ours is not as admired and appreciated as we often suppose. The foreign
sympathy for the horrors of Sept. 11 was genuine enough, but that was
sympathy for innocent and beloved lost ones: the workers at the World
Trade Center, the policemen, the firemen.
There was also that feeling of pity that comes out of a fear that something
similar could happen, in Sydney, or Oslo, or New Delhi. But this did not
imply unconditional love and support of Uncle Sam.
On the contrary, those who listen can detect a groundswell of international
criticisms, sarcastic references about U.S. government policies, and complaints
about our heavy "footprint" upon God's Earth. Even as a write
this piece, a new e-mail has arrived from a former student of mine now
in Cambridge, England (and himself a devoted Anglophile), who talks of
the difficulty of grappling with widespread anti-American sentiments.
And this in the land of Tony Blair!
It's lucky he's not studying in Athens, or Beirut, or Calcutta.
Many American readers of this column may not really care about the growing
criticisms and worries expressed by outside voices. To them, the reality
is that the United States is unchallenged No. 1, and all the rest -- Europe,
Russia, China, the Arab world -- just have to accept that plain fact.
To act as if it were not so is a futile gesture, like whistling in the
But other Americans I listen to -- former Peace Corps workers, parents
with children studying abroad (as they themselves once did), businessmen
with strong contacts overseas, religious men and women, environmentalists
-- really do worry about our earthly "footprint" and the murmurs
from afar. They worry that we are isolating ourselves from most of the
serious challenges to global society, and that, increasingly, our foreign
policy consists merely of sallying forth with massive military heft to
destroy demons like the Taliban, only to retreat again into our air bases
and boot camps.
They understand, better than some of their neighbors, that America itself
has been largely responsible for creating an ever more integrated world
-- through our financial investments, our overseas acquisitions, our communications
revolution, our MTV and CNN culture, our tourism and student exchanges,
our pressure upon foreign societies to conform to agreements regarding
trade, capital flows, intellectual property, environment and labor laws.
They therefore recognize that we cannot escape back to some Norman Rockwell-like
age of innocence and isolationism, and fear we are alienating too much
of a world to which we are now tightly and inexorably bound. After my
recent travels, this viewpoint makes more and more sense to me.
So what is to be done? One way to clearer thinking might be to divide
outside opinion into three categories: those who love America, those who
hate America and those who are concerned about America. The first group
is easily recognizable. It includes foreign political figures like Lady
Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev; businessmen admirers of U.S.
laissez-faire economics; foreign teenagers devoted to Hollywood stars,
pop music and blue jeans, and societies liberated from oppression by American
policies against nasty regimes. The second group also stands out. Anti-Americanism
is not just the hallmark of Muslim fundamentalists, most non-democratic
regimes, radical activists in Latin America, Japanese nationalists and
critics of capitalism everywhere. It also can be found in the intellectual
salons of Europe, perhaps especially in France, where U.S. culture is
regarded as being crass, simplistic, tasteless -- and all too successful.
Since there is little that can be done to alter the convictions of either
of those camps, our focus ought to be upon the third and most important
group, those who are inherently friendly to America and admire its role
in advancing democratic freedoms, but who now worry about the direction
in which the Republic is headed. This is ironic, but also comforting.
Their criticisms are directed not at who we are, but at America's failure
to live up to the ideals we ourselves have always articulated: democracy,
fairness, openness, respect for human rights, a commitment to advancing
Roosevelt's "four freedoms."
It is interesting to reflect on the fact that three times in the past
century most of the world looked with hope and yearning toward an American
leader who advocated transcendent human values: for Woodrow Wilson, Franklin
D. Roosevelt and John Kennedy made hearts rise abroad when they rejected
narrow "America First" sentiments and spoke of the needs of
It is a return to this tolerant and purposeful America that so many worried
and disappointed foreign friends want to see. Unilateralist U.S. policies
on land mines, an international criminal court and Kyoto environmental
protocols fall well below those expectations.
Underfunding the United Nations seems both unwise, and contrary to solemn
pledges. Committing an extra $48 billion to defense, but (ital) not (unital)
committing to amounts or percentages for next month's Monterrey conference
on financing development looks hypocritical. In fact, a few of these U.S.
policies (for example, on the early Kyoto proposals) can probably be well
defended. But the overall impression that America has given of late is
that we simply don't care what the rest of the world thinks. When we require
assistance -- in rounding up terrorists, freezing financial assets and
making air bases available for U.S. troops -- we will play with the team;
when we don't like international schemes, we'll walk away. My guess is
that every American ambassador and envoy abroad these days spends most
of his time handling such worries -- worries expressed, as I said above,
not by America's foes but by her friends.
Finally, individual policy changes matter much less than the larger issue.
There is a deep yearning abroad these days for America to show real leadership.
Not what Sen. William J. Fulbright once termed "the arrogance of
power," but leadership of the sort perhaps best exemplified by Roosevelt.
This seems to be what EU external affairs commissioner Chris Patten wants
when he voices his worries about America shifting into "unilateral
It would be a leadership marked by a breadth of vision, an appreciation
for our common humanity, a knowledge that we have as much to learn from
others as we have to impart to them. It would be a leadership that spoke
to the disadvantaged and weak everywhere, and that committed America to
join other advantaged and strong nations in a common endeavor to help
those who can scarce help themselves. Above all, it would be a leadership
that turned openly to the American people and explained, time and time
again, why our deepest national interest lies in taking the fate of our
planet seriously and in investing heavily in its future.
Were that to happen, we would fulfill America's promise -- and probably
get a surprise at just how popular we really are.
(c) 2002, NPQ/Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate
International, a division of Tribune Media Services
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For immediate release (Distributed 2/25/02)