My work takes me to different cities in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America 70-80 days a year and thus allows me to take the temperature of this image thing. My experiences do not support the charges of our so-called tarnished image. Sure we have our issues in America as every country does. Some of them have direct implications on the rest of the world but only twice in 10 years have I ever received a rebuke; I can get two rebukes in 10 minutes anywhere in NYC. Not surprisingly both occasions occurred in countries known for their own brand of sanctimony; Belgium and the Netherlands.
I’ll grant that the French are tepid toward America in their relations however they have their own issues with their own European neighbors. That’s okay though, because if there’s a demographic that the rest of Europe quietly tolerates it would be the French, just ask your average countrymen of Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, Germany, et al. That said, travel to Normandy and as a Yank you’ll be received by the locals with open French arms from Cherbourg to Le Havre. They still have a great memory for the sacrificial events that affected them some 60 years ago.
Our newest friends and allies nowadays are those formerly unknown Eastern Block nations that seem to enjoy the freedoms that have been imported to them with the break up of the Soviet Union. Didn’t we have something to do with that? And how about Russia where lately it has evolved into a case of “love the people, hate the politicians”! That has a surprisingly familiar ring to it. We may be headed for Cold War II, but it won’t be because of our doing. History will show that you can’t just dabble in the area of freedom and the free market system; either you’re all in or eventually you‘ll fold. I think we all know what cards Mr. Putin is holding.
Ask the millions of people in Africa who have benefited from American medical, economic, basic health and food aid what they think of us. You would be hard pressed to assess our image as being anything but sound there. Of all seven continents they have the most unique view of American generosity and openness; and its people aren’t afraid to communicate their gratitude.
The noise coming our way from voices in the Middle East, Latin and South America emanates from some pretty dubious characters. Allowing them dictate the specifics of our world image would be akin to having George Steinbrenner write Red Sox press releases.
I’ve come to the ironic conclusion that it’s sometimes necessary to distinguish Americans from America; more specifically our policies and politics. Americans abroad enjoy a fairly amusing reputation. We wear white sneakers and Bermuda shorts on vacation, talk and laugh too loudly in restaurants, only speak English, tip too much, and don’t know how to wait in line. If that’s all they’ve got, I’m okay with it as by and large we’re a pretty happy bunch. Not much difference in the timbre of that image than the ones we have of Asians with cameras and Europeans with bad teeth. I once helped a young mother with a baby carriage down a set of steps at London’s Victoria Station. As she thanked me at the bottom of the steps, she asked if I was from the U.S. adding that “only an American would have done that”. Glad I was there to cultivate our image.
In America, we have our policies and politics. Some are disliked by not only a portion of Americans but also our world partners. Foreign affairs, economic, social, environmental concerns head this list. The last time I checked however we were most firmly in the business of fighting oppression world wide, being a contributing partner in an expanding global market, providing aid and relief to pretty much anyone who expressed a need, facilitating warring factions toward peace; all while fiercely defending our people and freedoms.
Because most of the world is unfortunate enough to receive all their information about the U.S. via CNN-Europe, Al Jezeera, or the BBC it’s no wonder our image has the tarnished perspective it does. There are times even I want to slit my wrist after hearing their slant on people and events.
If we allow others to define America’s image without a reprisal that focuses on a big picture perspective of what we and our country are all about; we may as well fold our hand as well.