The September 11 attacks spawned a public mania in the United States for uncovering whether people in other parts of the world “like us,” and if not, understand why they “hate us.” Ten years later, the U.S. State Department and, more broadly, national security community is still using this uninformative metric.
It is time to break down what the question “do you like the United States” actually means to those who we ask —whether directly through polling, or through the interpretation of symbolic actions (signs, flag burning) or the aggregation of media statements, or in any other fashion.
Most people in the world, especially those of greatest strategic interest to the U.S., cannot answer whether they like the United States based on personal information or knowledge. Despite rising international travel to the United States, most of the 60 million foreign visitors last year came from just five countries: Canada, Mexico, the UK, Japan and Germany.
The number of those who can answer based on a sense of intellectual or cultural proximity is equally small. The common wisdom since World War II is that American popular culture—movies, television shows, McDonald’s—is loved abroad, even when American policies are not. Globalization encourages competition and hybridization of cultural forms. Economics professor Tyler Cowan has argued that the “21st century will bring a broad mélange of influences, with no clear world cultural leader.”
Meaningful understanding of the United States political history or culture is even less in evidence in many countries.
So what are people saying when they say they like or don’t like the United States, but have no meaningful knowledge of the United States as it actually is? They are saying something, and it may be complex, but it isn’t unknowable. It is often less about the United States than about the system/s of signification in which they function, whether these are purely local, national, regional or global. What people feel about the United States is a reflection of ideas and perceptions in a particular milieu. The “United States” may have become a shorthand symbol that compresses and solidifies a complex history. The “United States” or symbolic items like products or the flag, can function as a kind of communication currency to be traded among members of a particular in-group.
Grasping the nuances of what the “United States” means in symbolic terms is especially important in areas where we are engaged in armed conflict. Yet these are particularly the areas where the lens of our scrutiny often narrows, rather than widening: The U.S. national security community, and the U.S. media that both feeds and reflects its interests, becomes solely interested in the facts surrounding armed conflict exactly at those points where other issues of interest matter. To take one example, many Pakistani and South Asian outlets reported the request by Prime Minister Gilani that the U.S. provide greater market access to Pakistan, following Secretary of State Clinton’s visit on May 27th. Yet American news outlets appear not to have noted the economic aspect of the discussions. Even the small act of factoring in the breadth of the conversation between Clinton and Gilani, however, provides a new frame on what Pakistan–at the official level–likes and does not like about the United States, and how it sees its own priorities and trade-offs.
Better yet, we could try to understand what people elsewhere care about without framing our search with the hope of learning whether they “like” us. These answers alone would begin to provide broader understanding of the concerns that drive others.