Perceptions of the United States
Previously published on May 27, 2010
The perceived erratic nature of US foreign policy has often angered foreign interests and left people around the world feeling betrayed by America, yet there is also a feeling of betrayal shared by many Americans when it comes to criticism of our Nation, even when that criticism comes from pro-American foreigners. Part of this double-sided resentment results from Americans viewing their contributions to the world as a significant investment that is never good enough while foreign critics look to the US as a morally superior world leader that often falls short of the standards it sets. Even if these critics are pro-American, they often see the United States as a hegemonic force that is suppose to make the world a better place and, when we do not, they feel betrayed. On the flip side, Americans, as a democratic People, find the image of an American Empire unsettling, thus a conflict between foreign and American perspectives exists when considering the use of US power.
By our very nature, Americans are enterprising investors, so we seek out investments that we believe will create a sustainable path toward future success. Albeit sometimes poor investors, it was the view of Americans that by investing in the world through globalization and "free trade agreements," which often favored poorer nations above America, could be used to build a self-sustaining democratic order that would help maintain our Nation with the indirect return of a better world. Our moral superiority as the world sees it, which is the terminology we used to verbally justify our investments, was us recognizing our long-term interests and the unforeseen costs of our success. As such, we have actually always acted in our self interest as all nations do, yet we have tried to make the world a better place. Of course, like true investors, when we perceive a good investment, we stay the course; when we perceive a bad investment, we cut our losses.
Furthermore, at the end of the Cold War, America abruptly severed ties to many close allies, because we felt the world was ready to sustain itself as no credible global threat existed to undermine success and we needed to focus our attention on rebuilding our Nation. To foreign supporters of America, the Benevolent Empire had betrayed the world. This betrayal was further cemented during the George W. Bush era when preemption and disengagement ruled the White House while the Obama Administration has only begun to repair the damage done to our diplomatic relations. On the flip side, the world had resented US dominance and resisted our leadership since the fall of the USSR, despite how much America did during and after the Cold War to build up the international community and global economy while we continue to subsidize global security and stability with massive spending programs like our bloated military budget.
Of course, something bigger is going on. During the Cold War, all nations had to more or less align their national agendas toward two poles, i.e. the USA and the USSR, thus they forfeited their sovereign rights and were polarized. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was the only true sovereign nation. During this time, the international community began to rebuild while continuing to forfeit their sovereign rights to the United States when it was in their best interests to do so, yet there was also a slow movement away from the monopolar international community to a multipolar international community. While the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 are often considered the beginning of a new era, it is the invasion of Iraq that actually marks the beginning of a new era where resovereignization started rapidly pushing nations away from American hegemonic power.
Consider the behavior of nations like North Korea, Iran, Sierra, and Venezuela over the last few years. These countries represent the negative aspects of this resovereignization process as they create instability for the United States and rally anti-Americanism, as well as anti-Westernism, versus filling the void where a hegemonic US ruled with democratic consensus. Venezuela, for example, is actually acting much like a "little America," trying to fight its own cold war with the United States taking on the role of Russia. Then again, there are also positive aspects to this process. Japan and Great Britain, as bold examples, want a more equal partnership with America; therefore, they represent an area where shared world leadership can bloom. Unfortunately, when things go wrong, much of the world still blames America, because the world is accustom to the United States intervening while Americans feel we should be able to pursue our interests without the rest of the world resisting due to our history.
In many respects, America still needs to be the leader in the international community. On the other hand, the international community is democratizing toward a democratic community of nations-states versus one ruled by the US. Although America has long pushed for this process, Americans resists change as the process of resovereignization of our Cold War allies means the US must work harder to exercise its will. The reason American and foreign perceptions on US power conflict is that the world in many respects is addicted to America. Like a recovering drug addict, it hates, but loves America; needs it, yet doesn't want it; carves our leadership, but rejects our dominance; feeds on us, yet undermines our sustainability. On the flip side, Americans have long enjoyed our dominate role and our ability to freely exercise our will as a nation, thus social inertia dictates we too resist shifts in global power. Moreover, American and foreign views on the role of US power may conflict, yet it has benefited all of us and will continue to do so as long as the US remains the world's strongest nation.