We fret a lot about anti-Americanism in my business. And we watch every up and down blip in America’s image abroad. But I have suffered a crisis of faith. I no longer have faith that the GENERAL attitude U.S. really matters very much and my years of weighing every permutation were as useful as charting waves on the surface of a lake. I don’t believe the measures of the attitudes measure real attitudes, since they bounce around so widely and I don’t see that it translates much into any actual specific behaviors apart from gnashing of teeth and shouting. According to recent surveys, our national image was edging up before last year, but now it has surged, but it doesn’t seem to have changed what is happening in a practical sense. No surprise. Most people just do not act out of general beliefs, even if they really know what those beliefs are, itself a questionable assumption. You also have to understand that people think about us a lot less than we think they do. Let me give you an example about others, which will take away some of the bias we might have from looking at ourselves.
Let’s put the shoes on the other feet. Take a look at question # 20 and see what Americans think of various foreign countries. Only 4% view China very favorably, but this is twice as much as the 2% who favor the Russians. We like the Brits, but even they get only 41% very favorable, although if you add somewhat favorable you top 77% and only 4% are very unfavorable. A majority of us even like the French (54% very or somewhat favorable). So what does that mean to these countries? Would you pay more for a computer made in France or UK (presuming you could find one) than you would for the Chinese-made model? Would you favor a British over a Chinese job applicant for that reason alone? I don’t think so.
You would base your judgment NOT on the GENERAL reputation, but rather on the SPECIFIC one you were considering. Anything else would be … stupid and bigoted. Why should we assume that others would be that way toward us that we would find so odious in ourselves? They say that all politics is local and so it is at least most public affairs. Of course we know our reputation varies in the countries of the world, but also is variable in within every place, situation and individual based on specific circumstances. I remember seeing this paradoxical mix of emotions and reason in Iraq. The people said they wanted the U.S. to leave Iraq right away, but they wanted the Marines specifically guarding their homes to stay essentially forever. I think the wisdom on this is “Be careful what you wish for because you may get it.” That is why general sentiment often does not translate to concrete results. People sometimes don’t say what they believe and/or they question with their intellect what they know in their hearts. And sometimes they really just haven’t thought it through.
I thought about all these things when I was reading this article. We hear that the Chinese are moving money all over the world and buying love in the developing world with their investments in infrastructure and public works. These investments often come with fewer strings attached (i.e. fewer demands for economic or human rights improvements) than similar investments from the U.S. or the EU. This makes the Chinese ostensibly more attractive partners to some sorts of governments and leaders who view democracy and humans rights with less enthusiasm. We are exhorted to do something about this, although rarely specified is how, what or why.
But how’s it working for them, image wise? And what are the practical ramifications? That’s hard to say about the image, but what you can do is count is the rising numbers of Chinese being attacked, targeted and even killed in places as disparate as Algeria and Zambia. Ten years ago in Indonesia as many as 1500 Chinese were killed in race riots. This stuff happens. We just don’t read about it very much. Both the Chinese investors and local authorities have some interests in not making a big deal about it. Imagine if 1500 Americans were killed in anti-American riots. It would be a big deal. I bet we would pay attention and beat ourselves up with questions about “why do they hate us?” In places like Indonesia or Malaysia they have a long history of these sorts of ethnic tensions and periodic pogroms, but when you are talking about Algeria or Zambia you wouldn’t guess there were even enough Chinese around to provoke attacks. Certainly they have not been around long enough to permit the development of deep-seated ethnic or national animosity.
The evidence is that these troubles resulted from specific, local situations and events that got out of hand, not a general Chinese image problem that stretches from Algeria, through Zambia and Indonesia to Papua New Guinea and beyond. Properly addressing them would mean lots of local responses, none of them exactly the same. Causality regarding a practical overall image would probably run in the direction from the local to the general, not the other way around. I think the wisdom on this is “watch you pennies and your dollars will look after themselves.”
So my faith in my profession is not gone, but I am zooming down more to ground level, maybe down to the dirt level. Gone are the beliefs in sweeping transformations. Sweeping rapid changes are ephemeral and episodic attention is probably pernicious. What Aristotle said about anger (Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy.) also applies to public affairs. You have to identify the specific issue and audience at the specific time and in a specific place.