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What Do They Think of America? Don't Ask

By Richard Reeves

PISA, Italy -- A very good editor, Walter Anderson of the Sunday supplement Parade magazine, once talked with me about doing a series of interviews with foreign leaders. I said I wasn't quite sure I knew the right questions to ask.

"Ask them what they think of America," he said. "That's what Americans really care about."

Well, these days you don't have to ask. People don't like us, and they tell you so before you pop the question. In fact, a lot of them say they hate us.

Here is a distilled sample of the kind of things you hear and read traveling through Italy and France for two weeks:

"Arrogant" ... "Arrogant bullies" ... "Hypocrites" ... "You people think you are exempt from all the rules, as if there is one set of rules for us and another for you." ... "Do you know that there are people hoping China becomes more and more powerful, just to put the United States in its place?"

Some of those comments actually come from Americans. The International Herald Tribune, a venerable icon of America's presence in Europe and more recently in Asia, ran an op-ed piece on May 18 by Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. The title was "American Exceptionalism: Is There a High Ground?" The newspaper used it to frame a debate on American values at this time.

The word "exceptionalism" goes back at least as far as "Democracy in America," published in 1835, when Alexis de Tocqueville considered the possibility that American history and development far from Europe and Asia made Americans different than other people. We liked the idea, often redefining it to mean that Americans are better than other people.

That's what Ronald Reagan thought and preached in talking about our country as "a shining city on a hill," a place with ideas above foreigners -- putting us closer to God. Our current leader, George W. Bush, has expanded (or perverted) that idea to claim the right to invade other countries. He would save their souls in the name of American doctrine.

Reagan and Bush were not the first and will not be the last. Presidents more often than not end their speeches with "God bless America." That was clarified a few years ago in a Chris Rock film about the first black president. In that comedy, his make-believe opponent, a Republican senator, ended his speeches with "God bless America -- and no one else!"

And it is not only Republicans. In his second inaugural address in 1997, Bill Clinton endlessly listed American achievements, among them being the first to split the atom. Actually the atom was first split at Cambridge University in England in 1932. To my knowledge, no American realized he got it wrong.

The IHT followed up on Slaughter's piece by setting up an e-mail exchange on "American Exceptionalism" among seven writers and professors. This is a sampling of what they had to say:

Michael Barnett, professor of political science, University of Minnesota: "I'm disgusted with the American political discourse at the moment. We have not even begun the process of acknowledging just how much pain and destruction we Americans have caused with our foreign policy."

David Rieff, author: "(This) America is as arrogant as it is complacent. Adherence to the idea of American exceptionalism is simply incompatible with a constructive role for the United States."

Andrew Moravcsik, professor of politics, Princeton University: "The truth is we are truly exceptional. With few exceptions, other democracies neither want our political or economic institutions nor wish to export their own to other countries."

Stephen Heintz, president, Rockefeller Fund: "If we Americans cling to notions of unipolar dominance, the country is certain to fail."

A couple of days later, a reader (and author), Amitav Acharya from the controlled democracy of Singapore, moved the dialogue forward with words we might consider in the context of American involvement in Iraq and the G-8 discussion of global warming:

"It was America's multilateral approach to world affairs that historically has maintained its legitimacy as a world power. Multilateralism was an American invention, reflecting both its domestic values (like equality and justice) and its sense of pragmatic compromise rooted in the logic of burden-sharing between the forces of isolationism on the one hand and aggressive liberal internationalism on others."

Acharya, who seems to love the America that most of us do, puts it more plainly than the professors: We have lost our way -- and a lot of friends and credibility.

Copyright 2007 Universal Press Syndicate


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