In the days after the 2001 terrorist attacks, people across the United States asked, “Why do they hate us?” President George W. Bush responded with characteristic certainty, “They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”
Here at Berkshire Publishing, where we work with scholars from all over the world, emails poured in. “We are all Americans now,” our European friends wrote, echoing President Kennedy’s famous line about Berlin. Those grim, anxious days were brightened by a strong awareness of our deep connections around the world. There was even a sense, we felt, that the United States, in its suffering, might be a more mature member of the global community.
But in the five years since the attacks [This post is adapted from the introductions to the volumes in the original 3-volume set Global Perspectives on the United States], global opinion has shifted. The United States remains powerful, but its relationships with many nations have deteriorated badly. For people around the world, long-standing admiration of the United States and a desire to emulate it are now mixed with grave doubts about its values and influence. Before 9/11, for example, 88 percent of Norwegians felt kindly towards the United States. After the attacks, the figure jumped to 99 percent. But the latest survey shows it at only 23 percent. The decline is due largely to the decision to invade a nation that most other nations saw as no threat to the United States, and to a pattern of decision making seen to be ideological and less about relationship building than about domination.
Like other peoples, Americans are raised to be proud of their country. Our patriotism—and the knowledge that the United States is powerful and influential today—can make it difficult to accept criticism, even from friends. This sensitivity seems to be a long-standing national trait: despite their pride and confidence, Americans have always cared about what the world thinks of them. Almost 200 years ago in her Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), the author Frances Trollope wrote, “One of the most remarkable traits in the national character of the Americans . . . [is] their exquisite sensitiveness and soreness respecting everything said or written concerning them . . . Other nations have been called thin-skinned, but the citizens of the Union have, apparently, no skins at all; they wince if a breeze blows over them, unless it be tempered with adulation.”
The essays in Global Perspectives on the United States: Issues and Ideas Shaping International Relations (first published as volume three of a reference set in April 2007 and now available in paperback – click here to order) discuss major developments, events, beliefs, and actions that underlie both general international attitudes and specific perceptions of the United States. These include, for example, World War II, human rights, religious fundamentalism, the brain drain, immigration, and American exceptionalism. provides historical coverage and contemporary analysis as well as fascinating examples and background source material to explore what people around the world admire about the United States and, equally important, to help uncover the roots of anti-Americanism.
While many world citizens are doubtful about preemptive war, globalization, and Americanization, there is much that people continue to appreciate, including U.S. participation in World War II, the rights accorded the individual in the United States, and the actions of the Peace Corps. People see the United States as the most affluent, influential, and powerful nation on Earth, one with many attractive qualities, a reputation for innovation and creativity, and as the place to go to become educated and wealthy.
I remember a conversation with a young African man, a textile trader from Ghana, on the train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. He put it this way: “America. It is God’s own country. It is the place of my dreams. My dream is to visit America, because I am a Christian.” He had watched CNN’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and was moved by the image of a policeman “rescuing people but, you know, he was weeping because he did not know if his own family was alive or dead.” He touched his heart, and said, “When you return to your country, please give my greetings to your people.”
Global Perspectives on the United States is designed to bring out the complications and contradictions that are an essential part of global perceptions of the United States. We were determined not to squelch criticism or underplay the anger some people feel towards the United States, because we think U.S. security in the world in the twenty-first century depends on understanding and responsiveness. At the same time, we want to see that current perspectives are understood in their historical context.
Our hope is that this understanding will enable today’s leaders—and the next generation—to make the United States a safer place; we also hope that this project helps ensure that the best of U.S. ideas continue to have influence around the world.