David and I are editing a big project about global perspectives on the United States. The title’s a bit of a challenge. “How the world sees us,” perhaps, or something with “world opinion” in it? We like plain old “global perspectives,” though, because that’s what we’re about in general: how Americans see the world, as well as how others see us. And when we edited the Encyclopedia of Modern Asia (Berkshire/Scribners 2002) we covered how different nations see one another. (It sometimes seemed that they liked the US better than they liked their neighbors, in spite of spy planes and sunken fishing boats.)
We joked that the global perspectives project could be called simply, “Why They Hate Us,” alluding the comments made by the president and others after 9/11. But perspectives on the United States are far more complex than that, and the events of the last two weeks have made a difference. When we started the project we made a list of events in history that we thought might be markers in terms of what different people thought of the United States: World War II, the civil rights movement, Watergate, the Clinton impeachment, and 9/11 among them. We’ve found that these American events have far less significance to other people than we expected; in general, people react only to things than affect their own nations, and lives, directly, so international aid, trade regulations, and of course wars and invasions are what really count.
The effects of the hurricane in the Gulf States, and New Orleans, were predicted (by our neighbor Mark Fischetti. for one, who was quoted by Jimmy Carter recently in a op-ed–as Mark said, where do you go from there?). What no one seems to have imagined was what the result of failure to prepare and respond would be. We have been stunned and horrified by what we read and saw, and viewers around the world have had a view of life in these United States that will affect their perspectives for years to come. Here’s an Economist article on the failure in New Orleans.