America’s Purpose and Role in a Changed World

The presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama suggest what doesn’t work in efforts to promote US influence in the world. By ordering an ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, Bush alienated US allies. His policies of secretly imprisoning Islamist militants and then subjecting them to “enhanced” interrogation and indefinite detention at Guantánamo struck Muslims everywhere as evidence of a war on Islam. Barack Obama, elected as the most explicitly anti-war president since Woodrow Wilson, came into office determined to undo the international damage done by his predecessor. “The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand,” Obama said in Berlin in 2008, and a year later, speaking in Cairo, he promised “a new beginning” with the Muslim world, with relations “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.” As promised, he withdrew US combat troops from Iraq. By 2013, however, Obama had fared little better than Bush in his global outreach. According to the Pew Research Center, support for the United States in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Pakistan was actually lower than it had been in the last year of the Bush administration. In Europe, the US favorability rating was higher than it was under Bush, but it had fallen steadily in the years since Obama took office, and it remained far below where it stood in 2000.

One possible lesson from these years is that presidential personalities, speeches on foreign stages, and the changing international opinions of US policies matter less than we might think. Perhaps the most reliable measure of America’s standing in the world is how appealing the country is to all those who are considering migration. Since 2007, Gallup surveys in more than one hundred and fifty countries have shown that the United States is far and away the number one favored destination. The most recent survey projected that one hundred and thirty-eight million people worldwide would like to move permanently to the United States, more than three times the number who would choose the United Kingdom, the second most favored destination. Those numbers show the United States still represents opportunity and promise to people around the world, and it is clearly in the US global interest to maintain that reputation.


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Consider how many Muslims have chosen to reside in the United States. Though the US Census Bureau does not tally newcomers by religion, other surveys suggest Muslims constitute one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the country. Data from the US Religion Census indicate that the number of Muslims in the United States more than doubled in the decade after the 9/11 attacks, precisely the period when US foreign policies were angering the Muslim world. Some of this growth was due to natural population growth or conversion, but of the 2010 US Muslim population, one in four had immigrated to the United States in the previous ten years. And they appear to be happy. A 2011 Pew survey found eighty-two percent of US Muslims expressing satisfaction with their American lives, and in comparison with the general US population, more than twice as many Muslims approved of “the way things are going” in the country. To the extent Muslim immigrants communicate those sentiments to relatives and friends back home, the reports would have a positive impact.

The implication here is that, to the world at large, the American example may mean more than American words or even actions. As long as the United States is seen as a country where people of varied backgrounds have an unequalled opportunity to make a fresh start and prosper, its global standing will be on a strong foundation. Sustaining this position requires that attention be paid to making sure that America lives up to its promise at home. Keeping America strong, productive, and welcoming is likely to do as much for the US image in the world as the overt promotion of democracy abroad or the exercise of “public diplomacy” in a propagandistic celebration of American values.

The risk that such an inward focus will reinforce an isolationist perspective is offset by the likelihood that America’s identity as a nation of immigrants will ensure that it retains an internationalist outlook. The newcomers among us will make sure of that. The foreign-born segment of the US population in 2010 was at its highest level since 1920, and never has it been so diverse. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended the pro-European bias of US immigration policy by eliminating the use of national origin quotas in the allocation of resident visas. As a result, immigrants to the United States now come from across the world and bring with them a perspective shaped by their experience. This reality need not suggest a tilt in one policy direction or another, but it inevitably will serve to internationalize Americans’ awareness of world affairs and force the people’s representatives in government, even in state legislatures, to make decisions and choices on issues they might not otherwise need to consider.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe learned this lesson shortly after his 2013 election. During his campaign, the large and politically active Korean American community in Northern Virginia pressed him to promise that any new textbooks used in Virginia schools note that the Sea of Japan, which separates Japan and the Korean peninsula, is also known as the East Sea. For Koreans, still pained by Japan’s brutal occupation of their country from 1910 to 1945, any reminder of Japanese rule is hurtful, and Korean immigrants in the United States share that sentiment. Eager to have Korean American support, McAuliffe made the pledge. But shortly after taking office, he learned that keeping his promise to the Korean community would anger Japan, one of the state’s largest trading partners. Republicans saw an opportunity to put the Democratic governor in a tight spot and supported bills that would mandate the textbook change. Legislators heard an impassioned appeal by Delegate Mark Keam, who related how his mother had been humiliated in her classroom and forced to speak Japanese as a young girl in Seoul during the war years. It was not the kind of issue that representatives of rural Virginia counties were accustomed to considering, but in an increasingly immigrant society, legislators and policymakers at all levels of government need to keep abreast of international issues. Jewish immigrants fleeing from persecution in central and eastern Europe had earlier forced their representatives to support Israel, Cuban exiles had made US policy toward Cuba an election issue in Florida, and Muslim immigrants have kept a spotlight on US counterterrorism policy, to be sure it does not unfairly target Americans on the basis of their religion or Middle Eastern ancestry. Ideally, such pressures from immigrant communities will serve to make Americans more aware of the rest of the world and more inclined to appreciate the complexity of global issues.

The American foreign policy thinker who most eloquently advocated modesty was George Kennan, the Cold War diplomat and Soviet specialist. Kennan is famous as the architect of containment, but that doctrine did not mean he was resigned to American weakness. Rather, Kennan recommended patience and expressed faith that America would be most influential in the world if it kept true to its own values. Writing in 1951, at a time when US policymakers were focused on the rise of Soviet power, Kennan argued that “the most important influence that the United States can bring to bear upon internal developments in Russia will continue to be the influence of example: the influence of what it is, and not only what it is to others but what it is to itself. . . . Any message we may try to bring to others will be effective only if it is in accord with what we are to ourselves.” As for more proactive foreign policies, Kennan was skeptical. “The ways by which peoples advance toward dignity and enlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign interference can do less good.”

Kennan wanted the United States to impress the world and inspire confidence, but argued it should not be necessary to convince other peoples that America is deserving of their respect. “In the lives of nations, the really worthwhile things cannot and will not be hidden,” Kennan said. With instantaneous international communication and a population now connected to every corner of the globe, US success has never been more obvious nor the American example more compelling.

Tom Gjelten, an NPR correspondent, is working on a book about the impact on America of the 1965 Immigration Act.

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