America’s Self-Image Perceived Abroad

Two very interesting posts over at the Lowy Interpreter on how Americans present themselves to and are perceived by non-Americans (in this case, Aussies). The first discusses Americans’ tendency towards self-deprecation and self-criticism (particularly, but not exclusively, in terms of foreign policy); the second suggests that this is both a cover for “an unwavering belief in [our] pre-eminence” and a poker-playing culture’s technique for eliciting information based on the listener’s reaction. Significantly, the first is based on American officials encountered in Australia, whereas the second is based on American private citizens encountered in America, which might explain for the different readings.

To this American who has spent time both travelling and living abroad, both posts seem to hit close to the mark. I’m pretty critical of American foreign policy, but I tend to get a bit tight-lipped if I sense that I’m feeding someone’s accumulated lifelong hostility towards the United States. That meant a few years here in France of agreeing with thoughtful criticism of American policy (often accompanied by an affectionate regard towards America itself), while rattling off the list of France’s post-colonial record (torture in Algeria, the Rainbow Warrior, nuclear tests in the Pacific) in response to virulent anti-Americanism. France being France, those discussions were sometimes initiated before I’d put out the initial feelers mentioned at the Interpreter, but I did sometimes use them, if not consciously, both to signal my own position and to determine who I had in front of me.

On the other hand, to see how much America really is loved, sometimes in spite of ourselves, has been one of the recurring rewards of living abroad. The mere thought of the Star Spangled Banner being played at Elysée Palace following Sept. 11 is enough to get me choked up, and I’ll never forget my surprise, on interviewing a noted French foreign policy figure, to see black and white photos of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin strolling the Vegas Strip on the wall behind his desk.

We often lose sight of how much goodwill capital we have accumulated around the world. It takes an effort on our part to undo it, but I’m convinced that even when we do manage to, it’s only a temporary setback. People really do want to root for America, as long as they feel like we’re on their side.