Robin Koerner

Watching America

I am the 30-year-old British co-founder and publisher of Watching America, a website that reflects global opinion about the United States by translating foreign press articles.

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Crossing Borders

America the Great

May 11, 2006

America is so powerful, and what happens here directly affects the daily lives of non-Americans so much, that most people around the world cannot help but have an opinion about America. This sheer power of the U.S. is the sine qua non of all negative sentiment toward it. Sure, people will rightly speak more strongly against North Korea or Burma, but that negativity is not personal. The relentless criticism of America from around the world is like a boy complaining about his mom: he might know that there are much worse people than his mom, but her smallest failings affect him the most directly - and more forcefully than anyone else's.

In many ways, America is a victim of its own success. What many Americans take as axiomatic is also believed by people around the world: America is a great country - and its success as a nation is not an accident.

For America is not just a country: it is an idea. More than that, it is an idea that is mostly good. Few countries are founded on an idea that has value and power beyond its borders. My home country, the U.K., is something of a historical accident. Vision has guided its evolution, but Britain was not founded on a vision. Most other countries that are founded on an idea are theocracies, none of which have succeeded like America, usually because their founding ideas - often religious doctrines - are fundamentally separating and exclusive. In many such countries, the protection of individual rights is secondary to the preservation of the founding doctrine. The great American Idea was to make the protection of individual rights its founding doctrine.

Individual freedom is, theoretically, the raison d'etre of American society. Whether or not America's current policies and behaviors are in accord with this principle, it remains at the center of American political and social discourse, is the bedrock of America's legal system, and is the basis of America's claim to greatness.

But what America perhaps needs to know is that the rest of the world recognizes this greatness, and holds America to these high standards. Time after time, the articles on that criticize this country, do so with reference to the very principles of the country they criticize. In this crucial sense, the global criticism of America is not anti-American. It's fundamentally pro-American. The world's frustration at America is largely a function of the esteem with which people hold truly American ideals, and the substantial disappointment that accompanies any perceived failure of these ideals being met by the one country that wrote them down.

Over the last year, Watching America has found many examples of such praise for American ideals. For example, read this Saudi piece on why Superman just had to come from the United States(!); or this piece from China, which highlights how the best of American values are instilled in America's children. Then, in light of the praise offered by those articles, look carefully at how the U.S. is criticized in this unequivocal claim of American hypocrisy from Mexico; this recent piece from Palestine; this tongue-in-cheek piece from Yemen; and this thoroughly cutting piece from Iraq.

The founding greatness of America is also the hope for its future, and makes true Bill Clinton's remark, "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be healed with what is right about America." If that wasn't the case, all of the critical op-eds would be calling for another American revolution. They are not. They are, in fact, willing a return to true Americanism.

Since its inception in an act of unification that was as fast and robust as any in history, America has turned its face and energies outward as a strong and stable whole: even now, tensions that arise out of the sharp divisions among ethnicities, economic classes, and political groups, are not causes for separatism. The most down-trodden Americans know that their best way up is within America as a whole - never apart from it. This is amazing proof of the power of America, and cannot be said of anywhere else on earth.

What, then, is so "broken" about America? Why is it that America, despite all its positive qualities, has been so blind to its part in causing the world's exasperation and cynicism with its actions?

My next few entries will attempt to answer these questions by examining particularly American pathologies, and how they shape so much of the American identity.

Older: America-phile Newer: American Pathologies

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"Doesn't anyone have anything good to say about America? What about the billions of dollars that America spends in foreign aid every year?"

— Bob

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Experts discuss foreign affairs and American foreign policy.

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