It is often observed that the United States is simultaneously loved and loathed by the rest of the world. For example, non-Americans criticize the U.S.’s internal and external policies, even as they consume and emulate American culture, try to study or visit here, and so forth. Why this paradox?
I’m not so sure that it’s a paradox because, as you’ve described it, those emotions are directed at different aspects of the U.S. Americans often find some of those same divisions in themselves. But it is also certainly true that a dominant power has to expect that a certain degree of jealousy, resentment, and fear of its intentions goes along with its position—that certainly is part of it. There’s a third aspect, too, which is when we fail, or at least seem to fail, to live up to the standards we set for ourselves. People still have very, very high expectations of what the U.S. stands for and should be achieving, and we often do fail to live up to them and even to the ideals that we set for ourselves.
Americans often ask: “What do they want from us?” What are the expectations of the rest of the world that are so difficult to meet?
In the post–World War II world, the U.S. spent an enormous amount of money, political capital, and time on providing public goods; that is, creating institutions and providing aid to help rebuild societies. That paid off in a huge way in terms of the growth of the global economy and of more open regimes that in turn benefited us enormously. It was an enormously successful policy, but it did create a set of expectations that we’re not as prepared to live up to in the post-Cold War era. We’re not as prepared to spend as much on global public goods as we once were.
There is a sense that the U.S. should live up to its rhetoric about fairness, freedom, and openness, and there are times—right now, for example, with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute—where most of the rest of the world does not see us as doing that, but rather sees us as quite one-sided.
There is certainly an element of it that is impossible to fulfill, particularly with respect to Europe, where there really is a kind of schizophrenic view of the U.S., which is somehow to provide perfect leadership and also perfect consultation. This balance of leading and yet engaging fully with others we could never fulfill, basically because it is a really ambivalent view of the U.S. We’re either criticized for not leading enough or criticized for leading too much.
We never quite get it right.
I think it is only fair to say it would be impossible to get it right for some people because the spectator is schizophrenic.