Cell phones, laptops, credit cards and iPods; nearly all Americans of our generation have their own one of each of these items. No one can deny that young adults have more possessions, more freedoms, more opportunities and more money than almost any other group of people on the planet. With the evolution of the Internet, other nations can see the materialism imbedded in our generation with a few clicks of a mouse.
As our media becomes their media, people living around the world gain more insight to our society. The different information they access shapes their beliefs about America as a nation, and Americans as a people. Trashy TV shows like My Super Sweet Sixteen and Jerry Springer further support the perception of Americans as loud, ignorant self absorb beings. News reports from CNN and speeches from President Bush often appear to the rest of the world as statements representative of all of America. Given the current state of affairs, I don’t need to explain why this contributes to the negative opinion of the United States worldwide.
Last week I sat in on a discussion entitled, “What do you think of America?” Though about half the participants were Americans, the rest hailed from universities throughout Europe and South America. At first I braced myself to hear my country get insulted. However, to my surprise the comments seemed rather restrained. Even when the discussion leader asked us to respond to the statements “America is evil” and “George W Bush is the devil”, the worst I heard was a Panamanian boy who exactly replicated the Borat voice and said, “George Bush is my hero….NOT.”
While the War in Iraq has seeded many nations and peoples against us, everyone acknowledged that the USA has done a lot to benefit other nations. The encouraging aspect of this discussion was that despite the many blemishes on our foreign policy records, some people still support us as a nation and recognize the achievements our country has helped make possible. Some even sympathized with the United States’ position. Many felt that due to our wealth and military strength, we’re almost forced to act and return the world to justice.
However, most felt that we fail to achieve that justice. Everyone seemed to agree that America has no place in Iraq. Furthermore, one girl summed up the feelings of the group when she stated her belief that Americans will support anything as long as it is in American’s best interests. In short, the idea of “American exceptionalism” is widespread throughout the rest of the world.
Other conceptions of America were less founded. For instance, nearly all non-American participants believed that the US could afford multiple wars. I think we know that would be impossible given the fact that we are currently starched as thin as possible. On another issue, people seemed convinced it was just a matter of time before the US invaded Iran, and this is no guarantee.
I was surprised by the extent to which these foreign students knew about the American political system, both in general terms and about specific aspects and politicians. These students were far more educated about places outside their home country than we are; I certainly couldn’t tell you about the German electoral process or the duties of the Greek President.
These foreign students didn’t know everything about us, but they are constantly learning, and with endless sources of media, people around the world will continually create opinions about America. As we move into the future we will be forced to reconcile with these attitudes and try to improve the opinion of Americans around the world. If we succeed in this, we’ll open the door to more diplomatic options and refresh our relationships with countries around the world, which will be integral for success on the international level.