Mcbean is from Australia and often writes about health and politics.
An Outsider's View on the USA
It is human nature to assume that everyone sees you in the same light that you see yourself—and it can come as quite a shock when there is a difference between these two perceptions. America's international standing appears to be one such area, and the gap is wide at times.
This article is about perception. Some of these perceptions will be more based on fact than others. Some may have little basis at all. The question America needs to ask itself, in the event that a perception is incorrect, is, "What caused this perception in the first place, and what can we do to correct it?"
The following list seems to focus on the negative—and it does. That is because it looks at the differences between internal and external opinions. The positive aspects of America tend to have little difference.
- Americans Are Gas-Guzzling Environmental Vandals
- Americans Are Selfish/Heroes
- Americans Are Fundamentalists
- Americans Get Involved in Foreign Policy—if It Benefits Them
- Americans Are Obsessed With Perfection
- Americans Are Ignorant Geniuses
- Americans Have Poor Healthcare
Americans Are Gas-Guzzling Environmental Vandals
America has the cheapest fuel of any developed country. The 'bigger is better' mentality is a major cause of concern around the world. Americans are seen complaining about $5 a gallon gas when elsewhere, the price is double. Cheap fuel promotes the use of inefficient, large-engine vehicles.
At the 1992 Earth Summit, George H.W. Bush declared, "The American way of life is not negotiable." Add this to the fact that a country with more than 4% of the world's population uses around 20% of its oil (according to 2018 data), and the perception is that the United States is ruining the planet for the rest of us.
Rather than take the role of the responsible leader, the USA is refusing to make the hard decisions everyone else is making for the sake of driving their big cars.
Americans Are Selfish/Heroes
The Americans are famous for telling the British, "You'd all be speaking German if it wasn't for us." In some ways, this is true. But in others, it highlights certain factors that result in the United States being seen as self-centered.
Hitler is the poster boy for evil. He's probably the most famous villain in history. He had been rampaging through Europe for four years while America watched. The Holocaust continued for all this time, and America watched. Tiny nations as far removed from Europe as can be fought against the Nazis. New Zealand had little more to offer than its fighting-age men, but they were there from the start.
The Allies were begging the Americans for help, but none was forthcoming. When did America become involved? When they were attacked. Six million dead Jews later, and with both sides of the war on the brink of collapse after four years of struggle, the Americans rode to the rescue.
This point is a perfect example of the gap in perceptions. Americans think that all of Europe is grateful for their heroic actions. Europe remembers its contribution but wonders why the U.S. sat on the sideline while so many died.
Americans Are Fundamentalists
America is perceived as a very religious country—but not necessarily religion as others know it. There seems to have been some dislocation of traditional religious values where being labelled a Christian does not always have a lot to do with the teachings of the Bible.
In his book Religious Literacy, Stephen Prothero makes the following observation:
"In other words, we had already taken one giant step toward the contemporary era in which morality is the essence of religion and the term Christian connotes opposition to abortion and gay marriage rather than faith in the incarnation and the redemption—an era in which having a relationship with Jesus is more important than knowing what he actually did, in which believing in the Bible matters more than knowing what the Bible has to say."
The foreign perception of America is a land where politicians must be 'believers' regardless of actual belief. Again, from Prothero's book:
"And then there was the hapless Howard Dean. When asked during the course of the 2004 presidential primaries to name his favorite book in the New Testament, the former governor of Vermont stammered and finally blurted out “Job,” a book located for centuries squarely in middle of the Hebrew scriptures."
The worldwide community sees things differently. British Prime Minister Tony Blair summed up religion after he left office, "You talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you're a nutter." His former communications director, Alistair Campbell has been quoted as saying, "We don't do God."
Many parts of the world see Iranians mixing religion and politics and see America in the same category. When people with bombs and guns speak religiously, most of the world gets scared. It also seems that the War on Terror and its Islamic fundamentalists appear to be pitted against the increasingly Christian-fundamentalist United States. Again, this may or may not be the case, but it is how the world perceives it.
As a 1997 poll found, 12% of Americans thought that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.
Americans Get Involved in Foreign Policy—if It Benefits Them
As was highlighted by the move Team America: World Police, America has a reputation for being very involved in foreign policy. This is a huge area to discuss, so in the interests of keeping it simple, the international perceptions of America's foreign policy tend to be as follows:
- They will get involved anywhere if there is something in it for them—usually oil, sometimes strategic positions.
- They will not get involved in often more significant incidents if there is no direct benefit to the USA. This is regardless of loss of life, genocide, etc.
- In situations of no direct benefit, the United Nations are expected to step in.
- When there is a benefit, and the United Nations do not agree with the American stance, they are not 'invited.'
Americans Are Obsessed With Perfection
As the centre of the world's entertainment industry, America gets more than its fair share of the blame for the celebrity culture that has swept the world. Plastic surgery is most closely associated with America despite being a national pastime in Venezuela.
To me, this perception is effectively blaming the United States for the world's cultural changes. Many of the countries that would say this about America are just the same themselves. Britain's obsession with 'celebrity' is a prime example.
Americans Are Ignorant Geniuses
America has a reputation as being a land of ignorant people. This is one of the easiest arguments to refute, as I believe I am right in saying that California is responsible for a large proportion of the world's patents. America is indeed a nation of technological advancements and centres for higher learning. Unfortunately, this is not how it is perceived.
All of the intelligent work is so easily undone by figures such as "20% of Americans can't locate the United States on a map" (a statistic that is not actually true, though it's persistently quoted). To make matters worse, headline-catching footage like that of Miss Teen USA's South Carolina contestant offering her view on the subject (see video above) undo the work of the nation's universities by clouding international perception.
Americans Have Poor Healthcare
America is famous for its lack of health care for its poorer citizens. The World Health Organization used to publish a table of the best healthcare systems in the world. (It stopped doing this in 2000 due to the complexity of the task). The Superpower that is America came in at 37th. Twenty-one of the top 25 positions were European, with France occupying the top spot.
The world sees the size of the American economy and cannot understand how there is no free healthcare system in place. Things have improved since the Affordable Care Act passed, though, and a 2019 survey showed that 90% of the population had health insurance.
The ongoing resistance to health care reform reinforces the view that large corporations have too much political power. It is perceived that the rights of the corporation go above the rights of the people to have access to health care.
Coming to Terms With Global Perception
If you are American, it may be hard to read details such as these. What seems like page after page of criticism that, in some cases, is lacking in evidence. A lot of the points made are not true, and a lot lack the full story. This article does not claim to be stating facts or judging America. The same exercise can be done with any country.
The primary aim is to inform Americans of the way their country is (at times) seen. It is quite likely that your main reaction to this will be that anyone forming these opinions is ignorant. That may or may not be the case, but ask yourself why they have formed this image of America and what your leader and citizens can do to portray the real side of American life.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.