The Eagle's Shadow
THE PAROCHIAL SUPERPOWER
For Malcolm Adams, as for most people around the world, America is more a mental image than a real place. He will almost certainly never see the United States with his own eyeshe'll never have enough money to afford the tripbut that diminishes his interest in the place not one bit.
I met Malcolm on a bus ride in South Africa in June of 2001. He was a driver for the Baz Bus, a shuttle service known to the backpacker crowd in South Africa as a cheap if not always reliable way to get between major cities and rural tourist areas. The day he picked me up, he was heading east along the coast toward Durban. It was late afternoon, a low winter sun. Along the roadside hundreds of people, bunched in groups of five or six, were walking home. Off to our right, the Indian Ocean frothed and sparkled, crashing against the southern edge of the African landmass.
Malcolm was thirty-two, but his smooth-skinned face and ebullient demeanor made him look younger. Like his father, he had worked as a driver all his adult life, though as a teenager he dreamed of becoming a naval officer. "I had theability," he explained wistfully, "but under the old system your skin color could keep you out of those things." Now he worked fourteen-hour days driving from one end of South Africa to the other. The scenery was glorious, but he missed his wife and two children, whom he saw only on weekends.
Still, he said, this was an improvement over his last job, driving public buses for the city of Cape Town. He quit that job after five fellow drivers were murdered gangland-style while driving their routes. The killer later testified in court that for each murder he was paid 350 rand, about U.S. $50, by bosses of the taxi drivers union, who apparently hoped to frighten passengers into taxis.
"Yeah, I heard about those shootings," I said. "The newspapers back home wrote about them."
"And where is back home?" Malcolm asked.
I told him, and his eyes lit up with glee as he gushed, "Oh, you are from America! Your country has a very great influence on South Africa."
"Really?" I said. "Good or bad?"
"Good, good! America is what everyone here wants to be likeAmerican music, American clothes, American lifestyle: nice house, big car, lots of cash. America is the idol for many people in South Africa."
His own clothes made the point: a Jack Daniel's baseball cap, black jeans, and a royal blue ski jacket with puffy sleeves. He would have fit right in on the streets of Brooklyn or St. Louis. Malcolm said he and his friends knew about America from songs they heard on the radio, movies they rented at the video shop, TV shows carried on South African channels; The Bold and the Beautiful was a particular favorite. I asked whether older people shared his viewdid his mother and father idolize the United States? "No, they are more Christian,"he replied without irony. "They want to live a South African life."
By now, darkness had fallen. Malcolm's face glowed in the reflection of the dashboard lights as he spoke of the Cape Town township where he and his family lived. They had running water, electric light, and paved streets, but many neighbors lacked real jobs and crime was a constant worry: "Gangsters are shooting and robbing people and the police do nothing." We were silent a moment. Then, with the same enthusiasm he showed for anything American, he added, "Did you know that every township in South Africa has two street gangs named for your country?"
"Yes! One is called the Young Americans, the other is called the Ugly Americans."
"What's the difference?"
A wide smile. "The Young Americans dress like Americans. The Ugly Americans shoot like Americans."
GOOD, BAD, BUT NEVER INDIFFERENT
America: a place that is very rich and shoots lots of guns. It's not the most sophisticated analysis, but it's a fair shorthand for how the United States is seen by many people around the world. Friend or foe, rich or poor, foreigners tend to fear America for its awesome military power even as they are dazzled by its shimmering wealth.
That perspective may sound jarring to some Americans. We see ourselves as decent, hardworking people who wish the rest of the world well and do more than our share to help it. We are proud of our freedom and prosperous way of life, andwe understand why others want the same. We would rather not "entangle our peace and prosperity" in foreign toils, as the father of our country, George Washington, advised long ago, but we will use force if necessary to oppose injustice and protect freedom around the world for ourselves and others. We have our shortcomings like anyone else, but we believe we live in the greatest country in the world.
Malcolm Adams would, I imagine, agree with that assessment, and he's not alone. In twenty years of living and traveling overseas through thirty countries, I have spoken with many people who think very highly of America and Americans. I have also, of course, met many who find fault with the United States. In fact, the same individual often fits in both categories; some of the most penetrating criticisms of America I've heard came from people who, by and large, admire the place.
I began working on this book long before the 2001 terror attacks against America, and I pursued my travels and interviews both before and after September 11. From the start, the book was intended for two separate but related audiences. I hoped to provide my fellow Americans with a sort of traveler's report: "This is how we look to the rest of the world." For non-American readers, I hoped to explain why America and Americans are the way we are. The September 11 attacks gave these goals greater urgency and focus by suddenly illuminating how people everywhere felt about the United States. But the attacks also complicated the project by leaving Americans understandably sensitive to anything approaching candid criticism of their country.
A year has now passed since the terrible explosions and fires that killed more than three thousand people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvaniaa year of healing, of taking stock, of fighting back. Are Americans at last ready tohear what people overseas think about us? The message is a lot more complex than the "Why They Hate Us" war cry our media have supplied. And a lot more interesting. Foreigners aren't always right about America, far from it. But neither are they merely embittered fanatics, or jealous of our money, or resentful of our power, or animated by any of the other stock explanations mainstream American pundits and politicians have advanced as substitutes for honest self-examination. Most foreigners are sophisticated enough to see both the good and the bad about the United States, the pluses and the minuses. Which is why Americans can learn from their perceptions, if we choose to.
Foreigners can see things about America that natives cannot, and if ever there was a time when Americans needed such perspective, it's now. The horror of what happened on September 11 commands us to look at our homeland with new eyesin particular, with the eyes of the rest of the world. Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are not representative of international opinion; hatred of America, though intense where it exists, is relatively rare. But Americans should not take false comfort from that, or let the sense of victimhood tragically earned on September 11 blind us to the fact that on September 10 the rest of the world harbored plenty of complaints against us, often with good reason. Indeed, some of the tartest criticismsof the Bush administration's withdrawal from both the Kyoto protocol on global warming and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and of the refusal of the United States to join the international criminal courtwere coming from the very leaders who soon stood shoulder to shoulder with America against terrorism, notably British prime minister Tony Blair, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and French president Jacques Chirac.
To foreigners, there is no contradiction between criticizing the United States one minute and praising it the next. In fact, America's dialectical qualities are part of what makes it so fascinating. The journey around the world I made for this book began in May 2001, ended in November, and included stops in fifteen countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. During these and previous travels, I've been fortunate to gather opinions about the United States from a wide range of sources: sophisticated business and political leaders, starry-eyed teenagers, multilingual intellectuals, illiterate peasants, workers, housewives, journalists, and more than a few would-be immigrants. Time after time I've been struck by how elites and ordinary folk alike feel both admiring and uneasy about America, envious and appalled, enchanted but dismissive. It is this complex catalogue of impressionsgood, bad, but never indifferentthat Americans must confront if we are to transcend the tragedy of September 11 and understand our place in the twenty-first-century world.
"YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT US"
The first time I traveled around the world, starting in 1991, I was investigating the environmental future for my book Earth Odyssey. Most people in the nineteen countries I visited were happy enough to answer my ecological questions, but often their comments were more dutiful than animated. America, by contrast, is a subject that never fails to get people talking. Everyone has an opinion about it, and they aren't shy about expressing it. Compare, for example, the wide-eyed admiration of Malcolm Adams with the views of three retired terrorists I interviewed a few weeks earlier in a dusty tea shop inCairo's Islamic Quarter (even terrorists, it seems, eventually retire). For these graybeards with ankle-length gowns and bubbling water pipes, America was a contemptible bullya protector of Israel and corrupter of Egypt's Arabic soul. Yet even they had fond memories of Hollywood movies starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn.
One way or another, foreigners can hardly avoid forming opinions about the United States. Wherever they look, America is in their face. American movies, television, music, fashion, and food have especially captivated young people throughout the world even as they spread America's most important export: its consumer lifestyle and the individualism it promotes. The Internet, computers, and high-tech gadgets revolutionizing daily life all over the planet either originated in the United States or find their fullest development there. America's nuclear arsenal has held life-and-death power over humanity since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. For even longer, the United States economy has been the world's main engine of growth and innovation, and it remains today the "buyer of last resort" whose imports spell the difference between recession and prosperity for rich and poor nations alike.
To top it all off, America receives a disproportionate amount of coverage from news media around the world, reinforcing foreigners' sense of living always in the Eagle's shadow. "I'm glad I live in South Africa and not in the United States," a young white restaurant manager in Stellenbosch, the wine-growing region east of Cape Town, told me. "Any stupid thing that happens in the States is news all over the world: O. J. Simpson, the Florida election recount." Did he resent America's ubiquity? "It's not a matter of resentment," he replied. "It's just fact. I have to listen to what [U.S. FederalReserve chairman] Alan Greenspan says. It can affect my inventory. Actually, I think we have an advantage over you, because we know everything about you and you know nothing about us."
Good point. But I would go further: Americans not only don't know much about the rest of the world, we don't care. Or at least we didn't before the terrible events of September 11, 2001. Until then, many Americans were barely aware the outside world existed, a fact that both exasperates and amuses foreigners.
"I went to Tennessee a few years ago to attend my sister's wedding to an American guy," Luis, a musician in Seville, Spain, told me. "When people heard my accent, they asked where I was from. I said Spain. They smiled, Americans are friendly people, and they asked, 'Is that in Mexico?' They were not joking." Even high-powered Americans sometimes know little about the world beyond. Who can forget former president Ronald Reagan's imperishable comment after his first visit to South America? "You'd be surprised," he told reporters, "they're all individual countries down there." True, Reagan's two immediate successors, George Bush and Bill Clinton, were worldly men, but George W. Bush had traveled abroad only three times before he became president. Whatever his other qualities as a leader, in this respect the younger Bush was perfectly representative of his fellow citizens, only 14 percent of whom have passports.
This is the first of many inequalities that distort America's relationship with the rest of the world: foreigners have to care about America, while Americans have traditionally cared little if at all about them. A corollary is that Americans have no idea how they appear to others; the privileged rarely do. After the September 11 attacks, 52 percent of American opinion leaderssurveyed by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press modestly agreed that "America does a lot of good in the world." Only 21 percent of their overseas counterparts shared that sunny assessment of the United States.
There are understandable reasons for Americans' lack of interest in the outside world, starting with geography. Because the United States is so immense and protected on two sides by oceans, the rest of the world seems very far away. Americans lack the sense, so common on other continents, that foreign peoples with different languages, cultures, and beliefs live just over the next ridge or river. (Yes, the United States shares borders with Mexico and Canada, but many U.S. citizens regard their neighbors as honorary junior Americans, welcome as long as they stay in their place.) America's mind-boggling abundance also helps encourage a complacent isolationism. Why bother with the rest of the world when, as a Linda Ronstadt song declares, "everything you want, we got it right here in the U.S.A."?
Nevertheless, I have long felt baffled and disappointed by my countrymen and countrywomen's lack of curiosity about the world. Baffled because I myself find the rest of the world so fascinating, disappointed because I think ignorance of our neighbors reflects badly on Americans. Traveling twice around the world has taught me that Americans have no monopoly on parochialism and self-centeredness; the difference is, Americans are parochial and self-centered at the same time that we are the mightiest power in history. What our political, military, economic, cultural, and scientific institutions do has a decisive influence on the lives of people everywhere on earth, shaping the answers to such questions as "Will I have a job next month?" and "Will there be war?" right down to "What's on television tonight?" But with power comes responsibility.Americans' indifference to the world bothers me, I guess, because it seems wrong to have so much power over others and not care more about how it gets exercised.
Wrong and, after September 11, also foolish. If Americans rarely paid much attention to the outside world in the past, it's because we thought we didn't have to. As the richest, most powerful nation in history, the United States could do what it wanted, when it wanted. If foreigners didn't like it, so what?
That invincible image never matched reality, of course. Remember Vietnam? And the gasoline lines after the OPEC oil embargo in the 1970s? And the Iranian hostage crisis? But alas, many Americans don't remember. As a people forever fixated on the promise of a better tomorrow, Americans are barely familiar with our history, much less anyone else's. Besides, any unhappy memories were erased by the reassertion of American power directed during the 1980s by Ronald Reagan, a man who, despite his Alzheimer's disease, remains to this day America's most powerful politician (a theme elaborated later in this book). In the eyes of many Americans, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was proof that the United States was the chosen nation of God, as Reagan and other Cold Warriors had long proclaimed. And then came the roaring 1990s, when the United States experienced an explosion of economic growth that rewarded the wealthy out of all proportion whilebrilliant touchappearing accessible to anyone with the wit to trade stocks over the Internet. As the Dow and Nasdaq exchanges soared ever higher, creating countless new millionaires every day, who cared what was going on in the rest of the world? Clearly, America was where the action was.
And so America's awakening, when it came, was all the more painful and disorienting. "All that is solid melts into air," wrote Karl Marx during the turbulence of nineteenth-centuryindustrialization. Many Americans felt the same after the attacks of September 11. One minute, we were enjoying the most privileged way of life in history. The next, terrorists had destroyed totemic symbols of our civilization and inflicted more deaths than the United States had suffered in a single day of combat since the Civil War. Suddenly Americans had learned the hard way: what foreigners think does matter.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AMERICA AND AMERICANS
What the United States does with this lesson is among the most important questions of our time, for Americans and foreigners alike. The initial response was, perhaps inevitably, military. After all, our country had been attacked in a vivid and horrifying way by sworn enemies whose spectacular assault left approximately three thousand civilians dead and caused countless billions of dollars' worth of economic losses. Any country so attacked would have the right to respond, and the Bush administration left little doubt that it planned to strike back hard. In the words of the Hollywood cowboy adage, "Shoot first, ask questions later." And the shooting went unexpectedly well in Afghanistan (if one leaves aside, as the United States government and media largely did, the deaths of Afghan civilians). The reaction in Europe was less enthusiastic, and the Arab world was downright dismayed; governments, but especially citizens, were distressed by the high civilian casualty figures and the prospect of future U.S. attacks against Iraq. But the fact remained that Afghanistan was liberated, the Taliban were routed, and bin Laden, as Bush boasted in December of 2001, "went from controlling acountry three months ago to now maybe controlling a cave."
But what about the "ask questions later" part of the cowboy adage? In the immediate aftermath of September 11, many average Americans recognized their ignorance of the outside world and moved to address it, emptying libraries and bookstores of volumes on Islam, the Middle East, and international affairs. The news media, after years of pandering to a lowest-common-denominator audience with stories about sex and celebrities, remembered that news was supposed to be about something and began to cover the outside world again. By the turn of the new year, however, as the war against terrorism seemed to be won and domestic scares over anthrax and airports had faded, old habits began to reassert themselves. In one sense a return to normalcy was welcome, but it raised the question of whether the newly inquiring mood after September 11 was a mere blip. Would America aim to understand the frightening new world of the twenty-first century, or be content merely to subdue it?
This question begs a distinction that will recur throughout this book. "I contain multitudes," wrote Walt Whitman, America's great poet, and it's true. There is no one American reality, and not merely because of the individualism that is our cardinal national trait; there is also the difference between Americans and Americathat is, between the nation's 285 million citizens and the political, military, economic, and media institutions whose policies make up the nation's official posture in the world. While America and Americans can sometimes amount to the same thing, it is a mistake to automatically equate the two. As in most countries, the dominant institutions in the United States are run by elites whose views do not necessarily coincide with those of the general public. In fact, the gap between America's elites and its masses hasbeen growing over the last quarter century as economic inequality intensifies, the wealthy and well-connected increasingly control the political process, and once proud news organizations are gobbled up by giant corporations whose only allegiance is to profits. At the same time, there are many values that most Americans sharePresident Bush enjoyed a 75 percent approval rating six months after September 11and national unity is reinforced by the elites' control over the media that provide citizens with much of their information about the world. To oversimplify, the media reflect elite opinion but shape mass opinion.
Foreigners are often baffled that Americans, who are so adept at selling their products overseas, can simultaneously know so little about how they are perceived by others. But then few foreigners appreciate how poorly served Americans are by our media and educational systemshow narrow the range of information and debate is in the land of the free, another theme elaborated later in this book. For now, let a brief comparison of American and European media coverage after September 11 illustrate the point.
I was traveling in Europe in the weeks after the attacks. In the leading newspapers in Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain I found plenty of news coverage that both sympathized with the horror inflicted upon my homeland and endorsed the right of the United States to retaliate militarily. But I also found lots of coverage that cautioned against a military response, drew a connection between the attacks and America's foreign policy, especially its perceived favoritism toward Israel, and urged attention to the root causes of terrorism, not just to sensational symbols like Osama bin Laden. "Bring the murderers to justice, but tackle the causes of these outrages," the September 14 London Independent, opined inone typical commentary that urged reconsideration of U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq and America's reflexive support for Israel. In Germany, even the conservative tabloid Bild gave space to pacific as well as belligerent viewpoints; one article quoted a German businessman's letter to President Bush urging him to "punish the guilty, not the innocent ... women and children of Afghanistan."
In the United States, by contrast, the news media's pronouncements were indistinguishable from the government's, and neither showed tolerance for anything less than full-throated outrage. At the Fox television network, correspondents wore American flag pins and anchor Brit Hume dismissed civilian deaths in Afghanistan as unworthy of news coverage. CNN chairman Walter Isaacson directed his U.S. staff not to mention civilian casualties in Afghanistan without at the same time recalling the Americans who died on September 11. (Tellingly, CNN did not impose such restrictions on its overseas broadcasts.) When the American media finally examined the question of how the United States appeared to the rest of the world, that richly complex subject was reduced to simplistic melodrama. The journalistic climate was such that anyone voicing the opinions expressed by the London Independent or Bild was accused of treasonous nonsense, as writer Susan Sontag discovered when she published an article in The New Yorker pointing out that American foreign policy had wreaked terrible damage on other countries in the past, so why all the surprise at being targeted itself now?
The American reaction was bound to be less measured than Europe's, of course; it was we who had been attacked, we who had suffered such grievous losses. But if Americans want to prevent further attacks in the future, we must realize that neither unleashing our fearsome military nor tighteningdomestic security will alone suffice, and that limiting discussion on supposedly patriotic grounds is positively unhelpful. We need at all costs to understand why this happened. Toward that end, we need to consider even those explanations that may not flatter us. We need to recognize, for example, that there is a crucial difference between explaining a given action and excusing that action. One can logically argue, as I would, that the United States in no way deserved the September 11 attacks (there is never any excuse for terrorism, period) and the perpetrators absolutely should be brought to justice, while adding that the attacks cannot be understood outside the context of American foreign policy and the resentment it has engendered.
There are numerous global hot spots where United States policies are controversial enough to feed the kind of rage that found murderous expression on September 11. Would bin Laden have launched his attack if the United States were not financing Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories and stationing troops in Saudi Arabia? Quite possibly not, though I don't mean to suggest that Washington should grant terrorists veto power over its foreign policy. The point is, Americans need to have an honest discussion about our conduct overseas: Where is it wise? Where is it not? How often does it correspond to the values of democracy and freedom that we regularly invoke, and how important is it whether we practice what we preach?
AMERICA IS THE FUTURE
If Americans want a healthy relationship with the six billion people we share the planet with, we need to understand whothose people are, how they live, what they think and why. This is not charity, it is self-interest. America may be protected by two oceans and the mightiest military in history, but we now know we are not untouchable. The United States sits atop an increasingly unequal world; 45 percent of humanity lives on less than two dollars a day. Peace and prosperity are unlikely under such conditions, as the CIA itself has warned. "Groups feeling left behind [by widening inequality] ... will foster political, ethnic, ideological, and religious extremism, along with the violence that often accompanies it," an agency report forecast in 2000as good a prediction of September 11 as one could want.
Foreigners have no less a stake in better understanding the United States. Thomas Jefferson wrote over two hundred years ago that "every man has two nations: his own, and France." Today, the second nation of every person on earth is the United States. The world is being made more American by the day, an obvious point to anyone who travels much. What the news media call globalization is in fact largely Americanization, and September 11 has not diminished the trend. But proximity does not equal understanding. At a time when they are increasingly intertwined through economics and technology, the United States and the rest of the world often gaze at each other in mutual incomprehension.
How, foreigners ask, can America be so powerful yet so naïve? So ignorant of foreign nations, peoples, and languages yet so certain it knows what's best for everyone? How can its citizens be so open and generous but its foreign policy so domineering? And why is it shocked when the objects of its policies grumble or even strike back?
What accounts for America's extraordinary optimism, its dynamic "can-do" spirit, its ceaseless pursuit of the "green light" F. Scott Fitzgerald invoked in The Great Gatsby? Howcan it put men on the moon and libraries onto computer chips but still debate the teaching of evolution in public schools and nearly impeach a president over an extramarital affair? How can Americans be so rich in material possessions but so lacking in family and community ties? So inundated with timesaving appliances yet perpetually stressed and hurried? How can the United States have given birth to uplifting cultural glories like jazz and rock and roll and socially resonant ethics like environmentalism yet be a cheerleader for vacuous celebrity, gratuitous violence, and ubiquitous luxury?
How can a nation famous as the land of opportunity be spawning a growing underclass for whom the American Dream has become a cruel myth? How could the world's proudest democracy descend to the chaos and corruption that stained the 2000 presidential contest? Was that shameful episode a harbinger of American decline, one now reinforced by the unspeakable tragedy of September 11? Or will the United States become once again the "shining city on a hill" that Ronald Reagan used to so proudly invoke?
These are difficult questions, and some Americans have no intention of facing them. The country is at war, in their view, and anyone who doesn't line up behind the commander-in-chief with his mouth shut should be put on the next plane to Baghdad. At times, the understandable surge of patriotism that followed September 11 has evolved into an unseemly superiority complex: a conviction that Americans are inherently more brave, caring, and generous than anyone else. It is "because we are Americans," as one book's title put it, that New York City firemen charged into the burning chaos of the World Trade Center to pull victims to safetyas if rescue workers in other countries were incapable of similar acts of courage and dedication.
Personally, I believe our country is strong enough to profitfrom a searching consideration of both its virtues and its vices. To any who nevertheless insist on accusing me of America-bashing, let me reply clearly, if only to disarm a slander that might otherwise be employed to dismiss this book: I do not hate America. I love America. As a journalist and writer, I feel blessed to live in the land of the First Amendment. I remain awed by the founding ideals of the United States; 225 years later, they survive as an inspiring prescription for, in Jefferson's majestic phrase, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But America, I fear, has strayed from its founding ideals. September 11 left our people in a frightened, rally-round-the-flag mood. When we are ready to face facts again, we may see that our country was in crisis well before bin Laden's bombers set off on their mission of hate. Politically, we live in a democracy that barely deserves the name. Our government lectures others on how to run elections, yet most of our own citizens don't vote. Abdication of this basic civic responsibility may be rooted partly in the complacency that affluence can breed, but surely another cause is the alienation many Americans feel from a political system they correctly perceive as captive to the rich and powerful. Nor does our economy much resemble our democratic aspirations. In his 1831 classic, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated us as a nation where "great revolutions will become more rare" because our equality, he believed, was an ingrained tendency. Today, America is more and more divided between an elite that lives in cloistered luxury and a poor and middle class doomed to work hard but not get ahead. Meanwhile, in our foreign policy we say we stand for freedom and often we do, but we can be shamelessly hypocritical, siding with treacherous dictatorships that serve our perceived interests and overthrowing real democracies that do not.
The United States has much to be proud of, but it also has things to be sorry for. Why should Americans find this hard to admit? We will get along better with our neighbors, and vice versa, if we face up to this unsurprising but powerful fact. To insist that we ignore our faultsand label as a traitor anyone who refuses to be silentis folly. Uncomfortable truths don't go away just because powerful voices want them shouted down. Nor is dissent un-American; quite the opposite. If one lesson of September 11 is that no nation is invulnerable in today's world, surely another is that America can no longer afford to ignore what the rest of the world thinks, even whenperhaps especially whenit is not laudatory.
Which brings me to the narrative map of this book. Each of its ten chapters offers a sort of dialogue between how foreigners and Americans perceive the United States. I organize the dialogue around a list of ten things that foreigners think about America that Americans usually don't talk about, as follows:
1. America is parochial and self-centered.
2. America is rich and exciting.
3. America is the land of freedom.
4. America is an empire, hypocritical and domineering.
5. Americans are naive about the world.
6. Americans are philistines.
7. America is the land of opportunity.
8. America is self-righteous about its democracy.
9. America is the future.
10. America is out for itself.
I don't pretend to have all the answers about America. My homeland is too vast, too multifaceted, too full of surprises tobe easily summarized. The United States, wrote John Steinbeck, is "complicated, paradoxical, bullheaded, shy, cruel, boisterous, unspeakably dear, and very beautiful." Still a young nation, it remains (one of its greatest strengths) a work in progress.
In a book as short as this, it is impossible to explore America in much detail. My purpose, rather, is to raise questions, sometimes awkward ones, about America's behavior and beliefs at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Although this book is based on extensive travel, reporting, and research, it is more an opening argument than a definitive proof. I hope to provoke thought and debate, and if readers don't disagree with at least some of what I write, I probably haven't done my job.
I know that parts of this book will be difficult for some Americans to hear. As Tocqueville noted, we tend to "live in a state of perpetual self-adoration ... . Only strangers or experience may be able to bring certain truths to the Americans' attention." But as the global outpouring of sympathy following September 11 illustrated, the rest of the world harbors great affection for Americans along with other less enthusiastic feelings. And the majority of foreigners differentiate between Americans as peoplewhom they generally likeand American power and foreign policy, which are far less admired.
Meanwhile, most foreigners recognize that it is in their own interest to understand America as clearly as possible; after all, they all live in the Eagle's shadow. "I have wanted to write an opinion article for the New York Times urging that American elections be opened to foreigners, because what the American government decides about economic policy, military action, and cultural mores affects me and all other people around the world," Abdel Monem Said Aly, a journalist whodirects the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told me. "When U.S. economic growth slows, we see the price of oil fall. When the U.S. stock market declines, the grants from the Ford Foundation to my center in Cairo decline."
Whatever the realmeconomic, military, political, scientific, or culturalthe United States is the world's dominant nation. Its power is by no means absolute, but it is the decisive actor whose behavior, for better or worse, will shape the world that people everywhere will live in during the twenty-first century. Beldrich Moldan, a former environment minister of the Czech Republic, put it best. "As a European," he told me in Prague, "you may like the United States or not like the United States, but you know it's the future."
THE EAGLE'S SHADOW. Copyright © 2002, 2003 by Mark Hertsgaard. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.