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"I believe at our best, America’s a beacon for the globe." So declared President-elect Joe Biden. But what does the world really think of the American example now? Does the international community see the U.S. as the leader it once was?
Meghna: It’s hard to tell satire from straight news reporting. So are your tweets satire, Patrick?
Editor's note: Patrick's thread, linked above, uses satire to rethink the way we talk about world events.
Patrick Gathara: “They are satire and they are reporting. It's a mixture of both. And that's kind of the point of the entire Twitter thread. ... To demonstrate that some of the words, and terms, and clichés and language that is used when reporting events in what are called 'Third World' countries can very easily be turned around and fit 'First World' countries. It’s just that you never hear it being done, and you rarely see it being done. So kind of the point of my entire thread was to highlight the fact that the way journalism tends to describe countries and to other them, to portray them as exotic, tends to misrepresent the world, and to let people think that there are differences. When actually we are more alike than we like to think.”
What has election 2020 done for your view of this country?
Simon Kuper: “The U.S. is not really a reliable ally anymore for Europe, even now under a Biden presidency, in that you have a very large part of the population that will not accept the legitimacy of Joe Biden. There's always a strong chance of the country rebounding to a Trump-like president again. And generally, the U.S. has understandably lost a lot of interest in Europe. We're not a very important region anymore. The future of the U.S. will be played out much more with China. So we are sort of an irrelevance, even post-Trump.”
Meghna: The United States has used language about itself and its position in the rest of the world ... [with] words such as ‘shining city on a hill,’ ‘beacon,’ North Star,' 'leader.' Is that the United States that Europeans see today?
Simon Kuper: “That was never the United States that, for example, the French or the British saw. It was the United States that many Germans did see for decades after World War II. Germans are very aware that it was the United States that gave them a stable democracy. The United States was kind of the father of German democracy. So I think Germans, not all, but most more than any other Europeans very much did see a shining city.
"For other Europeans, there was a lot of irritation at U.S. self-congratulation. Also, you know, in the ‘60s and ‘70s when U.S. television and Hollywood were kind of dominant cultural forms, there was this fear that we were going to be swept away under American culture. McDonalds moving in as well, was seen as an emblem of that. So, I mean, there's always been a multitude of different views of the U.S. But I think what is true is that the U.S. has moved further and further away.”
What do you see in America right now — a democracy that's 200 years old and is struggling so mightily?
Patrick Gathara: “We were taught from when I was a young child to essentially look up to the U.S. as the paragon of democracy, as a country that had it figured out. And all we needed to do was to try and be like them. It was from all our interactions. We were brought up watching U.S. soaps, sitcoms. Sort of imbibing U.S. culture and the U.S. view of itself. And you would think it might have its flaws. But in general, they know what they're doing.
"And then on the other extreme, you've got Africa, which was portrayed as the almost hopeless continent, as The Economist once called us. The people who simply could not seem to get their act together and walk into the wards of the developed, quote unquote, world. And I think these are some of the things that become ingrained in how people view others. During colonialism, one of the big problems that they used to talk about was the detribalized native, the detribalized Africa, that somehow we are so ingrained in tribes that when the concept of nations is brought on, we just couldn't handle it. Yet our research shows, if you read history … the tribes we have were created by the colonialists.
“So there's been lots of meddling. The identities we have now bear very little resemblance to pre-colonial identities. So then for us, it's trying to figure ourselves out. What are the sorts of ways we want to be? How do we want to relate to one another? And it was always, I think, sort of a comfort to think that there is a developed world that we can aspire to be like. A model, if you will, for the rest of us. So what's happening in the U.S. now is kind of taking that away. You're saying that, look, nobody has it figured out. Everybody's in a mess. And you've got to essentially think through. You don't just copy what you're being told. And that's liberating in one sense, but also in another, it makes the world a profoundly scary place.”
On what the U.S. can learn from the rest of the world
Simon Kuper: “The U.S. should look at more successful democracies and states and say, 'Well, you know, let's ask what we can learn from you.' So the U.S. gave Japan a constitution after the war, which has worked pretty well. And I think now might be the time for the U.S. to ask some Japanese experts to look at revising the Constitution. I mean, I live in France in the Fifth Republic. You know, the French have revised their Republican Constitution many times. And the U.S. is still stuck to the 1776 document, the kind of top-of-the-range thinking of 1776. And maybe it's time to have a greater humility to other countries doing things right. New Zealand has a very successful race relations commissioner. Maybe that's an idea.”
Patrick Gathara: “The world really, for the most part, is rooting for the U.S. We want the U.S. to succeed. But we want the U.S. to be a bit humble in its success. To recognize that it is not exceptional in the way it likes to portray itself to the rest of the world. You know, that it can learn. There's lots of lessons to be learned from other countries, as Simon pointed out. And from countries in Africa. Democracy is something that we are all struggling to make sense of, to make work. There are some things that we've learned to do that we can teach the U.S. Just as there are things it has learned to do, it can take the rest of the world. So I think some humility in relating to the rest of the world would be most welcome from the U.S.”
From The Reading List
The Atlantic: "Joe Biden Won’t Fix America’s Relationships" — "Hope. That is, at least, the dominant feeling in many global capitals as they adjust to the reality that Joe Biden will soon be president of the United States and, more to the point, that Donald Trump will not be: At least for now, NATO is safe; the transatlantic alliance is safe; global free trade is safe—the world as we knew it is safe."
Washington Post: "World now looks at how Biden will reshape U.S. policies after turbulent Trump era" — "The world looked ahead Saturday to new American leadership, with U.S. allies and rivals alike starting to predict what the change in the White House would mean for their relations with the United States and for American engagement more generally."
Financial Times: "Why Europeans no longer dream of America" — "In Franz Kafka’s first novel, Amerika (1927), a teenage boy from central Europe is sent to the US in disgrace, having 'seduced' the family maid. (It later emerges that she — a giant, terrifying, Kafkaesque ogre — did the seducing.) In New York harbour, the boy is welcomed by a wealthy stranger: his uncle, who turns out to be a US senator."
The Atlantic: "America’s Next Authoritarian Will Be Much More Competent" — "Now that Joe Biden has won the presidency, we can expect debates over whether Donald Trump was an aberration ('not who we are!') or another instantiation of America’s pathologies and sins."
Pew Research Center: "U.S. Image Plummets Internationally as Most Say Country Has Handled Coronavirus Badly" — "Since Donald Trump took office as president, the image of the United States has suffered across many regions of the globe. As a new 13-nation Pew Research Center survey illustrates, America’s reputation has declined further over the past year among many key allies and partners."
HowAfrica: "Patrick Gathara: Renowned Kenyan Political Cartoonist Weighs In On US Election" — "Patrick Gathara, a renowned Kenyan strategic communications consultant and award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi, has been weighing on the US presidential election by way of some thought-provoking illustrations."
Organization For Security And Co-Operation In Europe: "International Election Observation Mission — Preliminary Findings" — "The 3 November general elections were competitive and well managed despite legal uncertainties and logistical challenges. In a highly polarized political environment, acrimonious campaign rhetoric fuelled tensions. ... Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions."
This program aired on November 10, 2020.
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