Special thanks to:
Komal Zahid, Pakistan
Juan Guaracao, Colombia
Luoqi “Rocky” Wu, China
Section One: Americans Underestimate Point of View
Section Two: Point of View: Foreigners on Americans
Outsiders Looking In
Outsiders Looking In Conclusion
Section Three: Conclusion
Global Viewpoint was originally inspired by the winners of the Wilburn Fellowship two years past. This group created a documentary video called “Widening the Scope” showing people around the world walking viewers through their daily lives. It illustrates a compelling point: they are not so different from us. Their languages may be unfamiliar, their accents hard for us to understand, their cultures diverse and unique in ways we Americans would never expect. However, alongside these differences it is clear that they share many things with us: their routines are oddly normal, their surroundings surprisingly familiar, their stated accomplishments, hopes and dreams strikingly similar to our own. This video shows that many of the differences we see between ourselves and foreign peoples are largely superficial – those who look deeper will see that we have far more in common than we ever thought possible.
I was fascinated by “Widening the Scope”, and it left me with many new questions I wanted to answer. The current generation of young adults in high school and college, students like me, will be the leaders, politicians, businesspeople, and voters of tomorrow’s world. “Widening the Scope” proved to me that I am not just part of a rising American generation, but of a rising world generation. Now that I knew that kids all over the world aren’t so different from me, I wondered what that would mean in how they handle that world of tomorrow. How does their viewpoint on the world differ from mine? How will it influence the way they think, act, and lead? How will it shape the way they communicate, cooperate, and compete with me? How will it drive their decisions when they take to the streets to vote, or to protest, or to campaign? What will happen when the world is in our hands?
My first serious attempt to answer these questions came the summer between sophomore and junior years, when I attended a two-week program called Ivy Scholars at Yale. Drawing its students from all over the world, particularly the US and East Asia but also from Africa, Europe, and Southwest Asia, the program was an intense, competitive immersion in college-level study of international affairs. It provided an incredible opportunity for all of us to learn from distinguished faculty and professors, and perhaps more importantly, to learn from each other. We were able to discuss, collaborate, debate, and – sometimes – clash with one another on a broad range of issues. The most important lesson I learned is that even a well-read and informed view of the world is inadequate, if you only look at the globe from the perspective of your own country. I came out with a much deeper perspective on, for instance, lethal US drone strikes in Pakistan and the US shift of military power to the seas around China, as well as many other controversial and important issues.
A few months after the program ended, I made contact with some of the other students, one from China, one from Pakistan and one from Colombia. We carried on intermittent communication for the next eighteen months, explaining to each other our points of view on a wide range of global, regional and national issues. During the winter of senior year, I also had the amazing opportunity to attend the THIMUN international Model United Nations conference in The Hague in the Netherlands, which provided me with another chance to analyze, collaborate and negotiate on public-policy issues with kids from all over the world.
My goal for Global Viewpoint was to create a website open for communication and collaboration between students from New Canaan High School and the friends I’d made at Ivy Scholars and THIMUN, as well as their fellow students at home. While the website is fully functioning, we were unfortunately not able to create a large enough community to have self-sustaining dialogue – proving that “senioritis” is, in fact, a global phenomenon. As frustrating as this was, I am extremely glad I decided to take my best shot at it more than a year and a half ago. I have had amazing experiences and fascinating conversations, and I have gained a far better understanding of the world than I would have otherwise. My ultimate goal was always to gain a global viewpoint on the world, and to help others attain it as well. It’s a goal that may be impossible to achieve fully, but one which I will continue to pursue through the rest of high school, in college, and hopefully throughout my life.
Historically, with its strong natural barriers to the rest of the world, the United States has been free to delve into periods of isolation. Those days are gone. The rapid advance of globalization has left America, for better and for worse, just as immersed in the rest of the world as any conflict zone or landlocked nation. In this kind of world, America is still needed to lead the way forward, perhaps more than ever. However, it is no longer enough for its citizens to be well-read and informed; simple knowledge is inadequate in an age in which those who see the world from only one angle, one point of view, are critically underprepared. When it comes to interacting with other peoples to understand a global issue, negotiate a position, or collaborate to solve a problem, it takes more: the ability to look at a situation from all angles, with a global viewpoint.
Americans underestimate point of view
One of my most vivid memories from Ivy Scholars was of one girl’s relentless challenge to American drone strikes in Pakistan. Her name was Komal Zahid, she was from Pakistan herself, and though she was fluent in English, her accent was so distinctive that every one of the eighty people in the group knew when she was speaking up – and she certainly spoke up. Every time a lecturer was addressing a point that had even the slightest relationship to America’s exercise of power abroad or to international law, she would raise her hand and fire off a pointed question. I once heard her at a table of eight who had won a lottery to eat lunch with an American public-policy official who had lectured earlier; she was hammering him with rapid-fire questions, making point after point, so quickly and assertively that no other student was able to get in a word. Her argument was that America’s drone strikes against terrorists in Pakistan – though sanctioned by the current Pakistani government, which she saw as corrupt, weak and failing its people – murdered civilians, recruited more jihadists than it killed, and was a violation of national sovereignty. She kept pushing one point in particular, international law, speaking of it with the same respect Americans give the Constitution. The last thing I heard before getting out of earshot was the public official responding calmly with his own question for the table, which most of the Americans in the program had been itching to ask her: “What is international law?”
The difference between Komal and the Americans at Ivy Scholars, including me, was at an elemental level: the roots of her perception of the world were different from ours. The American official’s response to her targeted questions, “What is international law?” summed up this disconnect perfectly.
We Americans, raised in what is currently the most powerful nation on the planet, tend not to put much faith in international law. We tend to believe in our own institutions, such as the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Monroe Doctrine and others. However, when it comes to international cooperation, we as a people tend to be more skeptical. In 2014 a Gallup poll found that 57% of Americans think the UN is doing a “poor” job in trying to solve today’s problems, against 35% who think it is doing a “good” job.1 Meanwhile, Congress recently blocked an expansion of the IMF’s capital base due to an argument over Europe’s disproportionally large influence in the body’s executive decisions.2 This disillusionment is not unreasonable: with obstructive Russia and China holding veto power in the UN Security Council, the United States is often forced to pursue its interests outside of bodies like the UN. For Americans, “international law” is thus a very abstract concept, connoting idealism and, for many, wishful thinking.
Coming from Pakistan, Komal had vastly different roots. One of the two states born from the chaotic decolonization of British India in 1947, the Muslim-majority country has had an extremely unstable history, marked by war, terrorism, corrupt governance and military rule. She and many of her fellow citizens do not trust their government, and believe it has failed its people. It is not hard to see why. Pakistan’s decaying infrastructure and failing economy have left it in a constant state of economic crisis bordering on collapse. This decay is largely due to decades of corrupt governance; Pakistan ranked 127 out of 177 countries in Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Index.3 In addition, Komal and her fellow citizens see frequent American drone strikes as violations of Pakistani sovereignty allowed by a spineless Pakistani government. Accidental civilian casualties of drone strikes are much more highly publicized in Pakistan than here in the US – where even the strikes themselves get little to no attention – and many Pakistanis believe, maybe truthfully, that the strikes inspire more angry young men to join terrorist groups than they kill. Similarly, Komal and other Pakistanis saw the Osama bin Laden raid as a complete breach of sovereignty and a slap to their face by the United States. Komal personally thinks that the raid itself was an elaborate hoax, orchestrated by the US with cooperation from elements of the Pakistani government and intelligence services. I cannot be sure how many other Pakistanis agree with her, but the Pew Research Center’s global polls found that only 11% of Pakistanis reported viewing the United States “favorably” in 2013; the percentage has not been at or above 20% since 2007.4
This vast difference in our roots helps to explain the divide between Komal and Americans like me on the concept of international law. We come from the strongest nation on Earth, which is capable of – for better or worse – shaping world events in its own interests; she comes from an unstable country which is often used – some would say abused – by stronger, distant powers like the US. We believe firmly in our own national institutions, such as the Constitution and our solid, stable, democratic government; she believes firmly in the innate ingenuity, resilience and strength of the Pakistani people but has little faith in her country’s national institutions, beset as they have been with instability, coups and corruption throughout Pakistan’s troubled history. As a result, when Americans look for justice and protection, we often look inward to our own institutions; when Pakistanis look for justice and protection, many of them must instead look abroad to international organizations such as the UN.
To many Americans, Komal’s viewpoint looks idealistic and somewhat naïve; after all, what can international law possibly mean if there is no strong international power which can enforce it both capably and willingly? International law certainly won’t impress, stop or destroy the terrorists operating within Pakistan’s borders, who threaten American troops, Afghanistan’s fragile democracy, and Pakistanis themselves, and who would launch attacks on the American homeland if given the opportunity. To Komal, Americans’ viewpoint looks hypocritical and arrogant: what right do we have, after all, to dictate to the entire world our version of justice? How can we call ourselves a country dedicated to freedom and basic human rights, while using drones to rain down Hellfire missiles on our allies’ territory, assassinating people without trials, and killing innocent civilians in the process?
This seemingly unbridgeable divide in point of view does not apply only to controversial issues, such as drone strikes, between countries with which we have fractious relations, such as Pakistan. The discrepancy permeated almost any conversation on foreign affairs that I had with other students at Ivy Scholars. I noticed it especially when talking with Chinese students.
One of the biggest parts of Ivy Scholars was a weeklong negotiation exercise, simulating the Six-Party Talks on North Korea, and including North and South Korea, China, Japan, and the US (Russia was excised because it does not have as significant a role in this particular forum). I volunteered to join a China group, and was paired up with three other students, two of whom were Chinese themselves. The negotiation was meant to focus on North Korea’s weapons programs, but also included the many territorial disputes throughout the waters of East Asia. I already knew a fair amount about these topics, but from my Chinese counterparts I learned about the deep emotions, driven by national pride, embedded in these territorial disputes. To Americans looking from the perspective of the strong outside mediator, seeking peace, the status of disputed islands – many of them tiny, barren and uninhabited – seems like a topic which can be neatly, professionally settled by negotiation, deal-making and hard facts. Instead, in East Asia itself, even recognizing a territory as disputed can throw the citizens of countries into a rage. My Chinese group members insisted that we could not refer to the Senkaku Islands (the Japanese name, commonly used in the US) as such, but had to use the name “Diaoyu Islands” or it would undermine our negotiating position. Additionally, many of the Chinese students explicitly rejected the right of the United States to act as a mediator, and I – negotiating from the Chinese position – did not have much trouble hammering the other teams with this point of view.
To Americans, the fact that Chinese and Japanese diplomats can’t even use the same name for a disputed territory may seem amusing. However, the naming differences are no joke. In China, aggressive statements from the Japanese government regarding these small, empty chunks of rock in the sea have caused riots targeting shops and businesses owned by ethnic Japanese. South Korea and Japan, which seem like they would be able to cooperate due to their opposition to China and their close ties with the US, are literally not on speaking terms over their “poisonous” history and their own disputed islands.5 Against these kinds of emotions, even just in a simulation, reasonable negotiation broke down. It was lucky that territorial issues were not the main focus of the exercise, because in all four of the separate, identical negotiation rooms of about twenty people, I don’t think a single one achieved a meaningful settlement in any territorial dispute.
Meanwhile, an issue of strong interest to me was the role of the United States in the negotiations. As an American, I see my country’s naval involvement in East Asia as perfectly legitimate. The US Navy has worked to guarantee the free flow of trade through the world’s oceans for so long, and so effectively, that it is often taken for granted. I see America’s “pivot” to Asia, a policy pursued by the Obama administration and termed so by Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, as a reasonable and necessary evolution: the balance of the world’s economy is shifting to East Asia, in which a rising China is becoming increasingly assertive, and even aggressive, against its weaker neighbors.6 Like many Americans, I believe that the US has a role in assuring the defense of its allies, including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and in keeping China from unjustly and illegitimately seizing territory by force.
Many of the Chinese students contested this view passionately, even angrily. They see the shift of American naval units to East Asia as an attempt to contain and suppress their country, and to prevent it from reaching a par with America. They ask, what right does the US have to dictate to China in its own backyard? After all, the US effectively claimed a sphere of influence over the entirety of the Americas with the Monroe Doctrine all the way back in 1823. It even did this back when Britain had the world’s dominant navy, and it would be British ships that prevented any European meddling in North or South America. Additionally, once the US had the power to put the Monroe Doctrine to work and intervene in Central and South America, it did so liberally, and to date has made dozens of interventions. China is extremely dependent on sea lanes; it has justifiable concerns about the “choke points” in Southeast Asia’s seas where shipping could be blocked, cutting off an unacceptably large percentage of China’s supply of energy, raw materials and other imports. Additionally, its export-oriented economy needs freedom of the seas as a prerequisite. As a result, many of the Chinese students I met argued that China, already East Asia’s prominent power, has the right to assume naval preponderance in its own region to guarantee its own interests, just like the United States has done historically for the Western hemisphere. I heard arguments that America’s naval shift is actually increasing the risk of war, by forcing other countries to escalate their military spending to match its rise. Negotiating from the position of China in the simulation, I found these arguments alarmingly easy to use and to justify.
Finally, Americans’ view of China as a kind of evil empire – a one-party state, with a planned economy devoid of freedom, with the system defended by extensive censorship – does not seem to be matched at all by Chinese students themselves, even those who have studied in the United States. I talked extensively with one Chinese student in particular, named Luoqi “Rocky” Wu, who grew up in Shanghai but who is now a freshman at Rice University in Texas. I argue that China’s one-party state makes it a totalitarian regime; he contests that because China has eight “participating” or “democratic” parties, which consult with the “leading” Communist Party in a “cooperative” manner to help manage some state affairs, China is actually a multi-party system. I believe that the centrally planned economic system decreases individual freedom and is setting China up for serious long-term problems; he replies that “socialism with Chinese characteristics” avoids the problems experienced by, for instance, the USSR, and is superior to capitalism – as evidenced by China’s rapid growth and rising prosperity. He also sees it as morally superior because it is planned to progress and evolve from its current “1st stage of socialism” to, eventually, “common prosperity” in which full equality and universal prosperity have been reached in China. I’ve been shocked by my research into the depth, reach and power of China’s state-run censorship system; Rocky insists that he never feels like he has to worry about what he says online, because China’s constitutional clause guaranteeing freedom of speech and press is upheld by the central government, despite some interference from corrupt local governments, which tends to grab more headlines.
With China’s continuing rise, Americans need to understand the country far better than we currently do. First, if we are to help stabilize East Asia and work to solve territorial disputes on behalf of our allies, we need to recognize the raw emotion in every country involved. Nationalistic passion throughout the region drives pride, anger, and hate, even verging on xenophobia. These national emotions are on a scale to which many Americans have a hard time relating, but they need to be understood through study of these countries’ histories and cultures if they are to be overcome. Second, America must maintain its power in the seas of East Asia, for the sake of peace and international justice and for our allies. However, we must also recognize that China sees the region as rightfully within its own sphere of influence. We have to be able to recognize, given our own history, that this view may not be completely unreasonable – and we must be able to counter that view with principles recognized by all nations. Third, we have to realize that our views of China differ sharply from Chinese citizens’ view of themselves. It is true that Rocky and other Chinese students who attended Ivy Scholars and who are educated at US colleges probably do not represent general opinion; after all, the Chinese families likely to have the wealth to send their children abroad for education are more likely than not to have strong connections within China’s ruling Communist Party. However, that does not mean their views can be discounted; for one, this elite group of students probably will make up in large part China’s future class of diplomats and business leaders, with whom we Americans will be working.
These examples from conversations with Pakistani and Chinese students show that there is a comprehensive gap between Americans’ point of view and others’. My personal experiences have led me to rethink my views on some major issues. I formerly supported the use of drone strikes in Pakistan; now, I support cutting them off indefinitely. On top of being a primary propaganda tool for jihadist recruitment, they embarrass whatever Pakistani government is in power, and I believe the new one – that of Nawaz Sharif, which took power in Pakistan’s first full democratic term and handoff in history – should be given a chance to attack the problems itself. The US has followed this new strategy, and in the coming months Pakistan’s military may finally launch its own major assault on militants within its borders. Meanwhile, I have taken a more nuanced view of China’s rise. I believe that the US should not flag in its commitment to “pivoting” to Asia or to its allies; however, I think that we must focus more on increasing cooperation between those allies, for instance through free-trade treaties like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and in encouraging and helping them to develop their own defensive systems. Currently, the security of our allies against China is alarmingly dependent on the US defense budget.
Personal conversations with people from another country have far more importance than many realize. When it comes to shaping individuals’ views on that country and teaching them how to take into account its concerns, the memory of a face-to-face conversation can do what pages and pages of analysis cannot. Someone who tries to write policy for a global issue, having never interacted with people in the other nations involved, is critically unprepared. He or she will have trouble taking into account other points of view, which will seem abstract, and as a result will likely be unable to plan a response which can be agreed to by all parties. Perhaps STRATFOR’s George Friedman sums it up best: “A Chinese businessman once told me that he thought Americans were vile and immoral because they would hire strangers over family merely because the stranger was better qualified… His comments reminded me that our conviction as to how a society should function is neither universally shared nor admired. I am therefore more cautious in judging the moral conduct of others. This is not because I don’t think merit is superior to blood but because I am aware that there are reasonable people who think my view is vile.”7
This tenet, “there are reasonable people who think my view is vile”, is extremely important and needs to be recognized. Just because an American policy makes sense to us does not mean that it does to a foreign citizen affected by it; they may debate it, oppose it, or even hate it on similarly sensible grounds. International communication is essential not because it will allow people in different countries to agree on how to solve every issue; it won’t. There are many times and places where, no matter what we do, we will never see eye-to-eye with someone from Pakistan, or from China, or from one of the hundreds of other countries with which we share the planet. However, it will allow us to better understand the way they see the issues, so that we can have a better, more circumspect understanding of them ourselves. We may never be able to craft a perfect policy for a major global problem, but that does not mean we can’t build a better one.
These differences between Americans and people from the rest of the world on a personal, conversational level have powerful effects on national-scale perceptions and policies. Americans tend to vastly underestimate the importance of point of view, and the difference in the way we see the world and the way people like us in other countries see it. We often assume that our ideals are universal – that all human beings innately believe in our principles of democracy, justice, freedom, and human rights, among many more. We often assume that given democracy, ‘fair’ news coverage and information, and the freedom to organize and communicate, active citizens all over the world would flock to bring American-style ideals to their countries. Many Americans assume that the only reason this natural progression has not played out around the world is that so many people are stuck in countries where self-serving governments censor news, rig elections, repress political dialogue and conversation, and perpetuate corruption and stagnation. We attribute a failure to support our ‘universal’ ideals not to the choice of foreign peoples, but to their lack of freedom.
While it is certainly true that oppressive governments around the world do restrict political activity and information, stunting the growth of liberal, Western principles, we cannot assume that these ideals are natural, universal conclusions at which all right-thinking human beings arrive. Contradictions to this assumption rapidly accumulate in current events, such as the once-exalted and now-tarnished “Arab Spring” and the early days of the US-led occupation of Iraq, showing that the gaps in understanding clear in personal conversations between students are expressed also on the national scale.
The “Arab Spring” is a powerful cautionary tale when it comes to Western interpretations of world events. At its outbreak, Western media hailed the outbreak of protests and revolutions across the Arab world as the region’s long-awaited turning point, where better-informed populations would use social media to organize, and take to the streets to demand democracy and liberal political principles from their governments. Televisions flashed images of thronging crowds on streets throughout the Middle East and North Africa, defying repressive police states’ riot police, barricades and tear gas. Many Americans, swept up in the excitement of the moment, saw what they wanted to see: their own ideals inspiring whole populations to rise and demand Western-style government and institutions.
However, as the Arab Spring went on, it became more and more noticeable that real progress and reforms were few and far between. In many countries, like Jordan, Bahrain, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, monarchies and strongmen proved far more resilient than Westerners had expected, and the crowds eventually dispersed with only minor concessions.8 Meanwhile, some countries where the energy of the Arab Spring erupted most powerfully are spiraling into instability. Exhausted by a chaotic and tyrannical democracy, the people of Egypt gratefully accepted a 2013 military coup which deposed the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohammad Morsi, who won a slight majority in a popular election only the year before. For the most part they have stood aside and allowed, or even supported, the Egyptian army’s brutal and continuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. The head of the army is expected to be elected the next president of the country, marking a return to Egypt’s decades of strongman, military-backed rule, with the only change being a veneer of democracy. Progress in Libya has stalled – Libya’s democratic government is far too weak to control the armed tribal militias roving within its borders. Small Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s birthplace and possibly its only true success story, has been nonetheless wracked with vicious, sometimes lethal political struggles between Islamic and secular parties.8 Meanwhile, more than three years on, Syria’s civil war only becomes bloodier and bloodier.9 As George Friedman notes, many Western human-rights advocates assume “the crowd opposing a repressive regime will create a less repressive government”. He points out that this is not only evident in the Arab Spring – he references the 1979 Iranian revolution, when popular pressure erupted against the tyrannical US-backed Shah. Many saw the demonstrators as “Western liberal democrats”, but in the wake of the revolution, “it is difficult to argue… that the success of the demonstrators enhanced human rights in Iran”.7 It is similarly difficult to argue today that the success and sacrifice of brave demonstrators across the Arab world increased freedom or brought improvements in governance except in a few lonely cases.
Another painful example of American ideals running aground on these harsh realities, of differences in perception and international disconnects in understanding, is the early stage of the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 by the American-led “coalition of the willing”. Whatever your views on whether the invasion itself was right or wrong, it is undeniable that better planning, preparation and management on the part of the United States in handling the deconstruction and rebuilding of the Iraqi state would have benefited both the Americans and Iraqis immeasurably. Such improvements could have lessened or even prevented many of the tragic consequences which came later, splitting apart Iraqi society and drawing the United States into a long war.
Only in the aftermath of the invasion, which saw rapid military victory, did the massive challenge of the post-military phase start to be understood. Iraq had been under the control of an authoritarian regime for more than three decades, and now its government institutions had been destroyed almost overnight. The premise was that, as an American official in Iraq put it, a “Jeffersonian democracy” would emerge naturally.10 In retrospect, it should have been obvious that a power vacuum would emerge, that rebuilding the state was not going to be easy, and that Iraqi society may not necessarily be receptive to a Western system of democratic government. It is true that it is always easier to criticize in hindsight than to plan in advance. However, there are many examples in which better preparation and more thorough understanding of political, cultural and religious differences in Iraq would have served both the Iraqis and the occupying force extremely well.
For one, the intervention’s “De-Baathification” policy caused serious turmoil throughout Iraqi society. Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party may have committed atrocities in power, but that did not mean that all of its members were a part of, or even supported, these. Many Iraqi professionals, civil servants and other citizens were members of the Baath Party because it was necessary to gain advancement in jobs and institutions, employment in government service, and even educational opportunities for their children. Though the policy was originally intended only to remove the top Baath leadership, in practice it penetrated throughout the country. It pushed many honest public employees, like schoolteachers, into unemployment, and forced talented and experienced workers and administrators from the economy and post-invasion Iraqi government. To make matters worse, an initial decision to use the Iraqi army to help maintain order was reversed, and the entity was dissolved altogether. More than 400,000 troops were suddenly sent home unemployed. Both these policies, by clumsily dismembering the Iraqi state and creating conditions ripe for the rise of radical and terrorist groups, helped bring about disaster: the outbreak of a tenacious insurgency against the US-led coalition, which would be fought for almost ten years, as well as a vicious civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, which rages to this day.10 No intervention is ever easy, especially not one in the volatile Middle East. However, a better understanding of Iraq’s history, culture, society and government institutions, and a better integration of these factors into the intervention’s planning, could have made the deconstruction of Iraq’s state more ordered, helped prevent or at least slow the emergence of bloody insurgency and civil war, and make the reconstruction of a democratic Iraq much more effective.
Perhaps Americans’ idealistic, hopeful views of protest movements, revolutions, and political ideologies of citizens suppressed by an authoritarian state are shaped by our own history. Our independence came in a relatively straightforward path. It started with unrest against clearly unjust laws imposed by a distant imperial government. It progressed through a revolutionary struggle that was, though by no means easy, much less bloody and more clear-cut than many other historical or modern comparisons; we only have to look at the French Revolution that started in 1791 for a brutal contrast. It finally ended in a new government which, though certainly not perfect by any stretch, managed to work successfully through the new nation’s growing pains and become the first nation in human history to prove that representative democracy could work while guaranteeing personal freedoms and extensive rights and ensuring peaceful, smooth transition of power between competing political groups. There are many reasons for Americans to be proud of our history, but we also need to acknowledge that peoples around the world have much different national stories – stories often much darker, bloodier, older and more complex than ours. This creates complicated currents which run under the surfaces of foreign societies, currents which we often do not properly recognize or understand until they have flooded to the surface.
The above examples show the symptoms of these historical differences. In the Middle East, as in much of the world, powerful forces of ethnicity and religion run underneath the modern state system. These forces have been driving conflict for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Americans and Western observers tend to fixate instead on the definition of the modern nation-state as we understand it; we often have a hard time understanding the entrenched nature of these dark and violent factors, with which we have had much less experience in our own history. This has led to many policy mistakes over the decades and centuries, including the original short-sighted actions of the European imperialists who arbitrarily drew borders across their chunks of the Arab world.
The Middle East may have provided many of America’s most serious foreign-policy issues of the past decades, but by no means is it the only part of the world where a difference in perceptions can have dangerous consequences. An aggressive Russia, developing Africa, suspicious and fractured South America, increasingly tense East Asia and countless other regions each contain their own unique differences – as well as many national sets of unique differences. These require in-depth study by Americans if we are to create effective policies for dealing with them. If we do not recognize the deep differences in history and political background between ours and other peoples’, we become far less capable of predicting the course of events, of providing effective help to those who need it, and of leading successfully in times of crisis.
Point of view: foreigners on Americans
Outsiders looking in
At the THIMUN international Model United Nations Conference in January 2014, my committee began on the first day with an initial round of “lobbying”. We were free to get up, move around, discuss our initial plans of action in small groups and, perhaps most importantly, meet and start forming relationships with the other delegates. In the small group I was in, introductions alternated with discussions on nuclear security, the topic of the committee, hometowns spread across the world, the conference, and each person’s own Model UN experience so far. I found that out of the room of 25, only one other student was from an American high school, and yet almost everyone spoke flawless English – most of them better than some Americans. After pleasant conversation, I was told by several people that they wouldn’t have guessed I was from the United States; they all said it as a compliment.
From what I have seen and experienced through Ivy Scholars and THIMUN, views on the United States and Americans themselves are very mixed – even among the generally more wealthy, international, cosmopolitan students who make up the bulk of these programs. They say that they see the US as overbearing, even arrogant, that it does not sufficiently take into account the views of its allies on important issues, much less those of the rest of the world; here they point to the way the US led the way into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the protests of its close European allies. They think that it has a tendency to act quickly to the point of recklessness, and often fails to finish business that it launched into in a flurry of activity; for instance, Komal attributes much of today’s Afghan terrorism on America’s failure to help rehabilitate the country after supplying its Mujahedeen, which later morphed into al-Qaeda, with weapons to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. They see Americans as clueless about the rest of the world; in the midst of international tension over Ukraine, Survey Sampling International found that only 16% of Americans can find the country on a map.11 This is almost the same as the percentage of Americans who reported being able to speak another language in 2010, 18%, as compared to 53% of Europeans.12 They view it as inconsistent in regards to international cooperation, seeking it aggressively when it serves American interests and abandoning it when it doesn’t; for example, the American Congress’ current refusal to increase support for the IMF2 and the US’s resistance to international agreements with significant support in other Western countries, such as the Kyoto Protocol, multiple new human rights treaties13 and the International Criminal Court.14 Those from certain regions, such as the Middle East, suspect the US of imperialistic tendencies; they cite as an example its invasion of Iraq, which many believed at the time was launched for the sake of Iraq’s oil supplies. Certain groups also worry about American racism and bigotry, such as Pakistanis like Komal; anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States gets much heavier press coverage in a majority-Muslim nation like Pakistan than it does here.
Against this kind of criticism, I can argue every point, but it is hard for me to completely refute any. I have heard many Americans give statements akin to, “We’re the United States, what should we care about what the rest of the world thinks?” Sometimes they laugh, as if to say they’re at least partially joking. Sometimes they don’t, because they aren’t. This sentiment may be partially a product of nationalism and of our status as the most powerful nation on Earth; these root causes are certainly not bad things in and of themselves. However, a tendency to ignore the sentiment of the rest of the world, or to dismiss it even when we hear it, is itself a critical mistake. It damages our reputation around the world, as a nation and as individuals, and it makes us far less capable global citizens.
Many say America is like a “bubble”, whose inhabitants do not have enough contact with, or knowledge of, the outside world. I would argue that this image needs to be modified slightly – it certainly resembles a bubble, but one which is very permeable from the outside and far less from the inside. Even though Americans tend to have little awareness of what is happening outside our borders, foreigners follow what is said and done within ours far more closely than we realize.
During my correspondence with Komal, she once attached a statement allegedly given by Sarah Palin in a Fox News interview in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. The quote displayed an abhorrent lack of international sensitivity, understanding, and basic geographic knowledge, and Komal considered it evidence of ignorance and prejudice extending all the way up to the highest levels of American government. (If you Google “Sarah Palin nuke Czech Republic”, it will come up). Disgusted myself, I did some research, and to my relief found that the quote was fake; it had initially been published on a satire-news website called the Daily Currant.15 The website’s ‘about’ section clearly states that its articles are “purely fictional”; however, as the popular article was circulated, some readers accidentally or deliberately ignored the satirical character of the site. The quote was reposted on multiple websites, specifically blogs on the leftish side of the American political spectrum, without any warning that it was satire; international viewers like Komal took it at face value. She learned about the truth through chance communication with me, but she is only one observer. I cringe to think of how many thousands of others read this quote, not knowing that it was not true.
Though somewhat amusing, this episode also showcases a damaging problem. Because America’s influence has such a huge impact on the rest of the world, foreigners watch our politics intently. Any time a US government official makes a statement that can be seen as showing ignorance, aggressive nationalism, or prejudice against a religious or ethnic group, that statement can become rapidly plastered across online discussion forums abroad. When Americans read a statement given by a political radical, or someone in a relatively minor government position, we know it can be dismissed without significant consequence. Foreigners – especially those who are already inclined to have animosity against Americans – do not have this filter. Pakistan is an excellent example of this; its citizens largely dislike the United States in the first place, and any statements by American public officials which display anti-Muslim prejudice are very highly circulated among them. The higher-ranking the speaker is, the more damaging their words can be. Americans seem not to understand – or, perhaps, care – how closely they are being watched, and how much damage insensitive or off-the-cuff statements can make to foreign individuals’ perceptions of America.
Americans’ isolationist tendencies have their origins in our powerful natural barriers to the rest of the world, which have served our country well in many times of crisis. However, we need to recognize that the world is shrinking. No natural barriers can stop the flow of information across the globe in the blink of an eye. One of my favorite examples of this is a case in November 2012, when a Taliban spokesman named Qari Yousuf Ahmedi emailed a standard quarterly press release to the terrorist organization’s Afghanistan contact list. Instead of using the BCC or “blind carbon copy” feature which keeps the email addresses on the list hidden, Ahmedi accidentally CC’d the entire Taliban mailing list, publically revealing the more than 400 email addresses. In an unstable country where journalists are known to disappear and assassination of politicians is not uncommon, hundreds of reporters and many government officials were exposed as part of the list.16 A few months later, I used the same technique to get the email list of Ivy Scholars participants. When my request for the addresses was lost or ignored by one of the administrators a few months after the program ended, I looked back through its emails until I found one in which a staff member had made the same CC/BCC mistake. I was struck by the knowledge that the exact same technology was used and exploited by me, a young American student working with a prestigious global university, as for a member of the Taliban sending out optimistic projections for their spring offensive in Afghanistan. This is a great example of the incredible penetration of the Internet and digital communications technology on a global level. People almost everywhere in the world – excluding those under government censorship or in isolated rural areas – have access to the world through the Internet. Many Americans have a very outdated perception of just how connected the rest of the world is. As a result, we do not understand the degree to which our mistakes are instantly witnessed by the entire world, damaging our standing on the global stage.
On the surface, this may not seem like too great a problem. It is not a good thing that foreign online chat rooms are full of anti-American sentiment, turning the opinions of individuals against us, but it does not appear to constitute a serious threat to our interests. I would argue that it poses a critical threat. Populations inclined against the United States exert considerable force on their governments – especially the young, politically active portions of populations, which tend to be more highly connected online. Such popular pressure makes it harder for foreign governments to justify to their people cooperating with the United States; being seen as ‘bending to the will’ of America can be highly damaging to elected officials’ reputations if their people are against US actions, and such perceptions can become costly or even devastating in elections. For example, look at the heavy domestic criticism of Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister who is now “lampooned as a poodle of the US” for his aggressive support of the United States’s President George W. Bush in launching the Iraq War.17 Even government officials in authoritarian countries can face trouble due to cooperation with US interests; elements of the Iranian regime are very hesitant to even come to the table with America to discuss reducing Iran’s nuclear program, out of the justifiable fear that this will be interpreted as weakness by Iran’s people and taken advantage of by the regime’s conservative hardliners.18 As a result, the United States has a much harder time gathering international support and cooperation for many of its most important goals; this extends from brinksmanship and negotiation with bitter enemies, such as Iran and North Korea, to gathering willing partners even from our close allies in Western Europe.
Outsiders looking in conclusion
How do we as a nation correct this problem? On such a large scale, it may seem impossible. However, the best place to start is to begin doing better where the damage is done – at the grassroots, individual level. If the United States is going to continue leading the world forward in the 21st century, which is vastly different from the world that came before it in so many ways, it needs to do a better job of encouraging its next generation of leaders to become global citizens. Teaching greater awareness of the world outside our borders is a vital first step; working to increase rates of foreign-language fluency is also extremely important. Finally, fostering personal relationships between American students and kids like them from around the world is a vastly underappreciated goal. I have learned and realized things in quick conversations with foreign students that I never would have reached through schoolwork or academic study of international relations. Personal perceptions build up into national views, and personal perceptions – for both American and foreign students – are shaped by seemingly small-scale interactions. For two students from opposite sides of the world, meeting by chance and going through a simple, everyday process together can teach them more about their similarities than any school curriculum.
When it comes to building a global viewpoint in the next generation of American citizens, there is no easy answer. This requires encouraging students, piquing their curiosity and providing them with tools to branch out, on the personal level – for something like this, suggesting policies that can be implemented requires generalizations and is not easy. From my personal experiences, I will nonetheless try to make a few.
Programs like Model UN and Debate, especially in international forums like THIMUN, are absolutely indispensable for the students who are lucky enough to have access to them. Unfortunately, programs like these only tend to reach a top band of students from schools with the most resources, but they should still be encouraged and expanded if possible because of the excellent opportunities they offer to the students in that group. On a larger scale, middle and high schools need to put greater focus on current events and awareness of the modern world. This is necessary to reach the many students who do not read outside of school, and provide them with at least a basic level of global awareness and current events. This might be done most efficiently and effectively in collaboration with history and social studies curriculums. Secondary and higher education needs to involve more encouragement of foreign language study; the “language gap” between American and foreign students is vast. Americans may not put much weight on this problem, because many of these foreign students are learning English, but this is no excuse. For one, this gap conveys a deep sense of disrespect and apathy on the part of Americans when it comes to the rest of the world. Moreover, it decreases the flexibility of Americans who live and conduct business abroad, makes many American students and employees less valuable than their multilingual counterparts, and after all, English may not remain the primary language of international education and business forever. Finally, connections must be encouraged between students on the personal level. As stated earlier, even passing interactions with foreign students can have a huge influence on American students’ understanding and perception of the rest of the world. That said, encouraging these connections is not easy. This project, Global Viewpoint, was previously intended to create an international community for communication and discussion, which could be used for students in a few high schools around the globe; it failed. School-run “pen-pal” projects, at least here at NCHS, have had a similarly troubled run. However, that does not mean it is acceptable to stop trying. Perhaps teacher relationships with educators in other countries could lead to the formation of school-to-school bonds, to which students could be offered free access for communication and collaboration; I hope that more students will take the lead on their own projects to make this kind of program a reality at NCHS, and a model for implementation in other schools.
As difficult as this goal is, I contend that it is essential and vastly underappreciated. A global viewpoint means taking into account foreign points of view to work better with people from other countries and cultures to solve tough problems. It means a better understanding of global affairs and trends, overcoming idealism to understand realities overseas – both on the surface of states, and in the powerful forces flowing underneath them – so that when American power or influence is used abroad, it is used wisely. It means a more open, connected generation of Americans who are better listeners and observers of the rest of the world, and who can find common ground with people like them from across the globe, even in states with which we have tense relations. It also means, vitally, better-informed voters; in a democracy, all citizens eligible to vote carry some responsibility for their nation’s actions and the way it exercises power, and a well-informed citizenry is extremely important for effective government and foreign policy.
For better and worse, globalization has made our world much smaller than it has ever been before. Global bonds of physical and digital connection become ever stronger with each passing year, and rapid technological progress guarantees that this process will only accelerate. The days when the United States could afford to disregard the rest of the world are gone; the time when the world needs America to play a leading role is far from over. America’s next generation of voters, businesspeople and leaders cannot only be well-read and informed; simple knowledge is not enough in this new age. Those who are only able to see the world from only one angle are critically underprepared. America needs a generation with the ability to look at the world around it from all angles, with a global viewpoint.
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