How the world sees Americans

Journalist Mark Hertsgaard traveled the globe gathering opinions about the U.S. He talks about the surprising results.


Suzy Hansen
November 6, 2002 10:20PM (UTC)

There's a wonderful moment in Mark Hertsgaard's new book, "The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World," when foreigners' complex feelings about the United States --- why they hate us, why they love us and why it usually isn't either/or -- come into startling focus. A 32-year-old Capetown bus driver happily informs Hertsgaard that every township in South Africa has two street gangs named the Young Americans and the Ugly Americans. The difference? "The Young Americans dress like Americans," the driver, named Malcolm, explained. "The Ugly Americans shoot like Americans."

Of course, those are street gangs. Still, the scene gets to the heart of Hertsgaard's argument: The rest of the world maintains multifaceted and sophisticated perceptions of the world's lone superpower. They readily distinguish between the official face of the American government (who they tend to disagree with and fear) and American people, pop culture and values (which they tend to adore and emulate). Obviously, those who despise the United States make appearances in "The Eagle's Shadow," such as a trio of Egyptian ex-terrorists who will hardly speak to Hertsgaard. Unless it's to sing the praises of Kirk Douglas, that is.

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It's the world's superpower, Hertsgaard stresses, that has a childlike understanding of everyone else. And while Hertsgaard spent six months traveling throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia gathering impressions of the United States, significant portions of "The Eagle's Shadow" are devoted to explaining recent American history and foreign policy, presumably directed at ill-informed readers, American and foreign. Some might bristle at Hertsgaard's grave assessment of our ignorance, but his central assertion -- that America needs to listen to the rest of the world instead of dictating policy -- is compelling and heartfelt.

Hertsgaard is the author of the highly acclaimed study of the media during the Reagan years, "On Bended Knee," as well as "Earth Odyssey" and "A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles." Salon spoke to Hertsgaard in New York about why the rest of the world doesn't hate us, why the term "superpower" is obsolete and what the media, as well as President Bush, the CIA and the FBI, knew about Osama bin Laden's plans to attack America before Sept. 11.

You just returned from the European tour for your book. How are people responding to it outside of the United States?

It was released on Sept. 11 in Britain, Holland, Belgium, France and Denmark. The reaction was just overwhelming, especially on the part of the media. I arrived [in England] at 3:30 p.m. and by 4:30 p.m. the major national evening TV news had found me and interviewed me. Then, they called back an hour later and said they wanted to put me on live on the broadcast. From then on, it was just one thing after another: the main national radio news on the BBC, and then their morning show, and then an Op-Ed piece in the Guardian. I did a debate in Antwerp organized by one of the main papers there; it was me, the former prime minister and the former head of NATO. It was a very different reception than I expect in the United States because people there all have real questions and criticisms of the United States. They recognize, especially with everything going on in Iraq, that they've got to puzzle this out.

Were they surprised in any way -- either by the title of your book or what you were discussing in it? Were they excited that someone was addressing these things?

I wouldn't say surprised. The word that comes to mind is "grateful." But I don't want that taken the wrong way. It wasn't something so much about me personally, it was just that some American was acknowledging these contradictions about America and was in a sense doing what I hope we will all do more of. My project for this book is to get America to listen to the rest of the world. The people that I met sensed that here was an American who not only had listened to them and to other foreigners but who could in some way perhaps unlock a few of the mysteries in their own minds about America.

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In fact, the original title for this book was "America Explained" and it was originally envisioned for my foreign publishers. This book was envisioned long before Sept. 11 and I did not expect an American publisher to be interested. Traditionally, America has not cared what goes on outside of our borders. I was writing this as I was going around the world, for the rest of the world. Because of the distance and in some ways the opacity of America and America's own lack of interest in them, foreigners find it a hard time to really get into the nub of things.

When you were traveling a few months before Sept. 11, and then afterward, what surprised you the most about what people had to say about America?

The sophistication. I was surprised that people were really able -- and I heard this repeatedly -- to distinguish between America and Americans. There's America in the sense of the official government and the military. That official face of America in the world is not very well liked. And then there's Americans -- the people of the country, the ideals of the country, our popular culture. It was quite a sophisticated view, I thought, considering that they are very far away. Yes, America is in their face all the time, but the part of America that is in their face is that official part. They were able to still say, but you know, we love Americans and we love what you stand for. I heard that over and over again from all different walks of life and all different parts of the world.

And even in places like Egypt?

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Yes. For example, this guy, Mr. Ghaly, the retired salesman in the Islamic quarter. That was an interesting morning because earlier, before I interviewed Ghaly, I interviewed three retired terrorists, these old graybeards and a couple of other guys. The retired terrorists really had nothing but contempt for America. They were among the few people who showed very little interest in talking with me. They were pretty tight-lipped except when we started talking about Hollywood movies. "Kirk Douglas, Kirk Douglas," they remembered him. Those guys were completely uneducated.

But then later in the day I interviewed Mr. Ghaly, the ex-salesmen -- educated, he knew a little English and even knew a little Italian. When I asked him what he thinks of America, he immediately says, "Freedom and democracy." And I said, "Not Israel? Everyone else here says Israel." He said, "I know and I agree with them that America unfairly backs Israel but we also know that many of you disagree with your government about this because you have good minds and you're allowed to think for yourself."

What makes that all the more extraordinary to me is that this man is able to give us that credit when he is living in a country that is decidedly not democratic, under a government -- a soft dictatorship, if you will -- that is kept in power only because of our tax dollars. The only reason that the Mubarak government and its predecessors are in power is because Egypt is the second largest American aid recipient.

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How did opinions vary according to class and education?

Those retired terrorists, for example, were essentially illiterate. They may have been able to write their names and read street signs, but that's it. It's not surprising that they had the harshest denunciations. As soon as you get some education -- wherever you are in the world -- you no longer see things in such stark black-and-white terms, whether it's America or male-female relations. The more education, the more nuanced their views tend to become.

And this is true in places such as China, as well?

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Sure, although China is such a particular case. My interpreter was extremely well-educated by Chinese standards, in the sense that he'd gone to university and even studied in the West, but by our standards, and I hope he forgives me if he reads this, there are whole areas that he was totally ignorant of. For example, he once said, "No, no, no, it's fine to eat this fish out of this totally polluted river because I eat it all the time." And I said, "That's not how cancer works." But he'd never gotten that basic biology. There's a whole generation there, because of the Cultural Revolution, who had four years of schooling and then if they were lucky went to university. Four years of schooling.

[In the book] Mr. Ma, the coal miner -- the sex fiend who wants to talk about whether men and women are able to sleep together in America -- was very proud of the fact that his village had saved up enough money to hire a teacher for their kids separate from the one that was going to be provided from the state. They were so thrilled that she was a well-trained teacher. Why was she well trained? Because she'd done six years of elementary school.

Poverty and education are two things that you highlight throughout the book as being the root of so many problems. Did you get a sense of resentment toward the United States for not doing more to alleviate their conditions? Did globalization come up?

I'm sure many of the anti-globalization people will criticize me for saying this, but astonishingly, no. You don't find that among the poor themselves, and I've spent a lot of time among poor people. They don't blame the United States; they envy the United States. They want the United States to come and help them but not in a resentful way. The one exception I can think of was when I was in the war zone and the starvation camps in southern Sudan 10 years ago. Someone said, "You all come here and you take notes and pictures and go away and write your stories and we're still here." But there isn't a resentment to it, which is astonishing really when you think about it. That they don't resent America's wealth. They want it for themselves.

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But we hear about that kind of resentment all the time.

Where it plays out, interestingly enough, is more on the environmental debate. This is something that Americans really don't grasp: how much resentment our environmental foot-dragging has generated.

So did things like our refusal to attend the Kyoto conference come up a lot?

Yes. Huge issue. Especially in Europe and among the better educated. But in China too. Whether they were people on the street or high government officials, they would say that the American government says that China has to restrain its use of coal because they're the straw that breaks the camel's back on global warming. And someone said, "Well, if the camel belongs to the United States then fine, China will talk. But the camel does not belong to the United States." And they say they will insist on the per capita principle, which means that everybody on earth should be allotted a certain amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Right now the emissions of one American are equal to about 19 Indians and about 45 Chinese. [The Chinese] are saying that if you want to talk about this, just realize that we use about 10 percent of the energy you Americans do. That's where it plays out. It's not resentment that we have wealth but it's what we do with our wealth.

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Are these environmental concerns widely discussed in foreign media?

Yes, it's really quite different. Where it plays out is in their sense of the connection to poverty. The Indian prime minister just said something about this at the New Delhi conference on climate change. He said that poverty is their main concern and the Western approach to this is going to restrain our development. They look at it much more from this standpoint: "We are poor and we want to be rich. We don't blame you for being rich but don't keep us poor." That's why, to me, poverty and the environment are the challenges of the 21st century: How do you accommodate the majority of humanity as they rise out of poverty and do that without wrecking the life-support systems in the planet? [The earth's population] is 6 billion people right now, and 1 billion of us live in absolute poverty. Another 2 billion are eating enough but they lack adequate water and shelter.

Half of humanity lives on less than $2 per day, but this is at a time that because of television, the poor -- for the first time in human history -- really do understand how well the rich live. They are not going to continue to accept their impoverished status. Somehow over these next 50 to 100 years, those people will rise up. They are going to escape poverty one way or another. The great challenge facing our civilization globally is how we accommodate that.

If we keep going with the American model -- and I mean the entire high-consumption model -- we're fried. There's no way that we can escape severe climate change and all of the disasters that come with that. That's where the resentment does come from. If we were really serious about being a global leader, that's where we would be putting our energy.

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What other issues seemed to come up a lot? What foreign interventions and conflicts? The international criminal court? I know in the beginning of the book you mentioned Israel a bunch of times. What did you hear about?

You do not hear about the criminal court. And Israel, definitely, came up a lot. American foreign policy came up but in a general sense: "You guys are gunslingers." That got articulated vis-`-vis Israel.

The other thing was how we're in their face. Sometimes they complain that our culture is all around the world, although I should add that that really did break down according to generation. If they were young, they tended to like the American model. If they were middle-aged or older, they were very wary and suspicious.

I heard about the death penalty, but that also varied. In Europe there's an abhorrence of the death penalty and our gun culture, whereas if you were in Egypt or southern Africa there's much less of that. If I asked about it in an interview, they said, "Well, you know, we kill people here too."

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I guess the other main thing that I heard from everyone was: Why do you guys not pay any attention to us?

That was one of the most interesting things in the book. For example, you write that Americans always ask why Muslims hate us but that Muslims have been saying that Americans hate them for years. What gives other nations the impression that we hate them?

[I was referring to] a wonderful piece of reporting that Sandy Tolan did on NPR. He spent six weeks in the Middle East doing that reporting -- in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Israel. Essentially, what they were saying was drawn on what they see through American media and through Hollywood in particular. "We're portrayed as either greedy oil billionaires or devious terrorists in the same way that during the Cold War the Russians were always the bad guys in all the movies." They said, "We're either stealing money through oil or financial shenanigans or we're taking hostages." And, mind you, this was before Sept. 11 that they were seeing all this stuff.

Add one more twist to the dialectical nature of all this. You may also remember that, in Egypt in particular, American schlock movies with people like Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris and Bruce Willis are very popular. It's about a third of everything that they watch. On the one hand they resent being the objects of scorn in that stuff, but on the other they also like watching Chuck Norris kick the bad guy's ass. It's a very complex phenomenon.

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What do you think of our ad campaign that purports to reach out to the Muslim world with images of happy Muslims living in the United States? Do you think they'll see right through it?

Yes. What ails the American image overseas is not going to be fixed by advertising. It's not like Uncle Ben's Rice, which [under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs Charlotte] Beers used to flak for. It's sort of hilariously revealing that that's the American answer: Let's put together Madison Avenue and Hollywood because it's always worked for us before. At the end of the day, it's the policy that matters. That's the case now. You cannot fool people all the time and especially when you start from such a compromised position -- what certainly looks like one-sided support for Israel, continued support for tyrannical regimes in the Arab world and elsewhere. People are not stupid. Whatever they see on television, they still recognize that they can't vote, they can't have meaningful influence over their government and that American firms are still getting preference over local firms in all kinds of aspects of the economy.

Doesn't it also show that we don't understand how sophisticated the rest of the world is?

Sure, but that's one more sign of how little we listen. It was very typical what they did with this ad campaign. They brought in all of these people -- foreign experts, etc. -- and then the State Department told them what a great country we are and how misunderstood we are. Instead of bringing in people and asking them, "What do you think? Tell us honestly. Let us hear from you," and listening with an open mind to the good and bad. That's the fundamental problem -- we don't want to listen. We want to tell. We're so used to being the big boys. The arrogant person never knows they're arrogant and that's the problem with our official stance in the world.

It's complicated, though. Take our decision to attack Afghanistan. It seems that even people who ended up supporting it initially railed against it because of our rhetoric, the more superficial ways that we portrayed our right to attack the Taliban. Does it always come down to policy? Is there a way we could portray ourselves better?

Definitely. Recently, I was telling a journalist that we don't realize how strongly most of the world opposes an attack on Iraq. And this journalist said, "Yes, but that's what they said before the last Gulf War and they ended up all being happy that we went. And that's what they said before Afghanistan and then they cheered us for going." But that's the echo chamber of Washington. There's a difference between us cajoling other countries into agreeing with what we're doing and what's happening with Iraq at the U.N. They basically realized that they can't stop us. So we tell ourselves that we have approval when we bully them into it. That will rebound to our disadvantage if this war isn't as fast, furious and final as Mr. Bush says.

People are much more sophisticated about that overseas, especially when you're talking about war. They've lived war; in almost every other place in the world, war is not an abstraction the way it still is here in the U.S., even after Sept. 11.

I wanted to go back to our rhetoric. When Bush after Sept. 11 said, "You're with us or you're with the terrorists," what kind of effect did that have on people outside of America? Even though I understand what's incredibly arrogant and alienating about that statement, it's so American in its bravado that it wasn't entirely surprising to me. But I would imagine that it was jarring to non-Americans.

He gave that remark in a speech 10 days after the terror attacks. In retrospect you can recognize it as the beginning of the erosion of international solidarity with us.

Because there really was an incredible outpouring of support for us immediately after the attacks?

Enormous. I witnessed it with my own eyes in Europe. Enormous solidarity. And then 10 days later Bush comes out and says that. That's where it started to go south. The next day in Le Monde, that remark was three times on the front page: in the headline, in the subhead and in the lead of the article. Then you turn to the Herald Tribune and it's not even to be found on the front page. It's buried in the 20th graph on the jump page of the article. That shows you just how different the mind-set was, that the Europeans and other outsiders hear that blusteriness and unilateralism immediately. For the most part, they held their tongues about it but it sure pushed those buttons. You could see them thinking, Oh God, it's still the same old Americans.

Then fast-forward to four months later and Bush gives his infamous "axis of evil" speech, and that's the end of the solidarity. Der Standaard, one of the big papers in Belgium, remarked on how rapidly that sense of solidarity disappeared because of the Bush government's attitude of you're either with us or against us.

By the way, it was so popular the first time I guess that Bush decided to bring it back! In this year's speech to the U.N. on Sept. 12, Bush said that the U.N. had to make a choice -- either you back American plans for preemptive attack on Iraq or you are "irrelevant." What does that say? That the rest of the world gets a vote if it agrees with the United States. If it doesn't agree with the United States, you have no vote. Now, what would we think if German chancellor Schröeder said that about currency evaluation or trade rules?

We'd think he was channeling Hitler.

When our president says that, our media and for the most part our political elite don't even recognize what kind of a message that sends to the rest of the world, much less how that is going to hurt us in our foreign policy.

I don't support the war against Iraq, but at the same time I believe the terror threat is real. I think that hatred of America is very rare around the world but is very intense among the people who harbor it. They are clearly people who are intent on prosecuting this war, and we have to deal with that threat seriously. But one of the reasons that I oppose the Iraq war is that it will actually make things much, much worse for us. What we need in this war are friends overseas. We cannot possibly win the war on terror without our friends doing any number of things -- from helping on intelligence to getting the populaces of these nations to turn in people who are dangerous. Instead of having good relations with our neighbors, we're turning our friends away, we're alienating the people that we need with our arrogance, with our unilateralism.

You say at one point that Sept. 11 rendered superpowers obsolete. In many ways we still have this idea of ourselves as a world superpower, but that idea stems from a Cold War mentality. Why has terrorism rendered the superpower obsolete and what does that mean?

I do think that that concept of superpower is really a 20th-century concept and that in the new 21st century the nature of the threat is so different that you cannot simply dictate solutions anymore. I don't think that those rules apply anymore now. In theory, the United States could say to everyone else, "We're going to nuke you if you don't do what we like." In practice, that's not going to happen. The nature of the threats now are much more diffuse, and by their nature they are unsusceptible to solutions by one country.

For example, you can't solve most of the environmental threats as a single actor. Let's say that the United States had a complete change of heart and decided to change our global warming policies. If the whole rest of the world said no, it wouldn't matter what we did. Likewise, with disease and the breakdown of the public health system around the world, which again, is completely overlooked. Immigration is another huge issue that we're finally beginning to grapple with. You can't solve these things as a superpower. Terrorism is the same way. The Rumsfelds and the Cheneys of the world think that you just go out and shoot enough people. Guess what: There are always more people out there than you can shoot.

And the argument to this is that Saddam is a real and persistent threat -- to the world and certainly to his own people -- and that we are the only ones that have the resources and the will to dismantle his government. Ignoring the other motivations we have for attacking Iraq, let's just look at that argument. Do we have that responsibility?

That's an important question because it gets to the heart of this issue. I agree, as you said, that Saddam Hussein is a dangerous menace. There are a number of us who have been saying that for a very long time now, long before the first Persian Gulf war. This is a bad guy, and we should not be in bed with him. Dick Cheney, when he headed Halliburton three years ago, should not have been doing business with Iraq. Yes, that region would be much better off if Hussein was not in power. Personally, I have no doubt that Hussein would love to have nuclear weapons and other weapons to use.

I also agree that the United States, because of its enormous power, is uniquely situated to do something about the Iraqi threat, but it's at this point that we have to be careful. The way that Bush is doing it is going to make it worse. Instead of the unilateral approach, you've got to have the world's cooperation in dealing with the problem of Hussein. The idea that because we have the power, we have the responsibility to take him out -- I don't buy that. He is a world problem, and we have to get the world to deal with him collectively. That does not mean that the U.S. coerces everyone on the U.N. Security Council into doing what we want by saying that we're going to do it anyway. There's a fine line between having this responsibility and deciding it's OK if we act unilaterally.

In a case like Bosnia, did you ever hear anyone say that it was good that we intervened in conflicts like that one?

Occasionally, but that was from fairly sophisticated intellectual types, whether they were journalists or political types. It would be in Europe too. You did not, for example, in Japan hear about Bosnia. Nor Rwanda, for that matter.

And, by the way, I want to make this clear: I take America and Americans to task for being provincial and self-centered in my book. But I also say that that's true of all 30 countries I've been to. The difference is that none of them have the power that we do.

You spend a lot of time in the book on the deterioration of the American media due to corporate consolidation. Who did you write that for? Americans or for people overseas?

In particular, overseas people. That is one real blind spot. Even in very sophisticated foreigners' analysis of America, they just don't get it. They'll say, "How is it that you guys don't know about Sept. 11 in Chile?" Or, "How is it that you don't know what your government is doing overseas in Iraq, that you are imposing economic sanctions that have killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi kids? How do you not know that?" Sorry, they actually say, "Why don't you care? Where are the American people on this?" I keep having to say to them, "Don't blame the American people. They aren't told this information. And if you were an American and you were exposed to the same media diet that Americans get, you wouldn't know it either. So don't be so self-righteous."

You mentioned that before Sept. 11, the press knew about bin Laden's plan to launch a major attack on the U.S.

Isn't that something?

Was it just the American press that didn't mention it or was it everyone? Did they mention it in European papers?

That's a good question. And I have to confess that I did not check that out. That would have been wise. I can tell you this, though: Because it was both Reuters [which is British] and Agence France-Press that had the story and then UPI, I tend to think that it was more widely covered in Europe but I can't confirm that.

So what was the story? That bin Laden was planning an attack?

Yes, that he and his lieutenants were planning an attack. It wasn't specified when or where, but it was all the stuff about chatter in the system.

The sorts of things that we take so seriously now.

So to me it was so ironic that the press ... the first time they really started criticizing the Bush presidency was this summer over this very issue. "Bush ignored all these signs that the attacks were coming!" Well, you know, pot and kettle. Our guys were doing this in the press. How hypocritical is that?

But does that reflect the fact that the government wasn't taking it seriously? If there had been a peep out of the Bush administration then the press might have jumped on it.

Oh, sure, because basically our media is a reflection of the government agenda. That's the main point. The far-left critique of the American media is not right in the sense that they are a mouthpiece. It's subtler than that. It's that they follow the Washington agenda. There will be criticisms within that agenda, but if Washington is not paying attention to something the press never will pay attention to it. There will be a story here or there, but they'll never make it a daily story, which is the only thing that really has an impact on the popular mind and the public debate. Had Washington been taking that kind of thing seriously in a sustained way, then yes, we would have seen that coverage.


Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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