If the world were a giant high school, the U.S. would still be at the popular table. However, it would no longer be the Queen Bee.
According to the annual Anholt-GfK Nations Brand Index, the coolest kid in school would now be Germany, currently ranked number one out of the 50 nations the Index measures. In the previous year, the U.S. held the top spot, with Germany coming in second, but this year, those positions are switched.
Independent policy advisor Simon Anholt suggests, “Germany appears to have benefited not only from the sports prowess it displayed on the world stage at the FIFA World Cup championship, but also by solidifying its perceived leadership in Europe through a robust economy and steady political stewardship. Germany’s score gains in the areas of ‘honest and competent government’, ‘investment climate’, and ‘social equality’ are among the largest it achieved across all the aspects covered by the NBI 2014 survey.”
With all that in mind, it’s not hard to see why everybody loves Germany so much. Sure, they have problems both historic and modern, as all nations do, but as their place on last year’s index shows, Germany’s public perception has been steadily climbing upward for a while. Perhaps their position at number one this year was inevitable.
The bigger question is, why is the standing of the U.S. falling? Though this may be among one of the most difficult questions to answer today, there are several factors which help to pinpoint America’s increasingly difficult position in the digital age.
1) The U.S. is a hotbed of misinformation.
As is the case with all of this list, one has to judge the U.S. against the U.S. here. In theory, we’re supposed to set an example for the rest of the world. Yet if we can’t live up to our own standards, how are we supposed to expect anybody else to? So when something happens like the Chinese Government being fooled by The Onion, we should remember that the we have a strong penchant for spreading misinformation at home too.
In fact, the World Economic Forum voted “The rapid spread of misinformation online” the tenth biggest global challenge of 2014. For the U.S., the least severe version of this manifests in the saturation of online satire sites. Unlike The Onion, whose stories are picked up as actual news by accident, the point of these sites seems to be confusion and trickery, in an apparent attempt to make everyone collectively dumber.
But online misinformation lowers the bar for actual news too; think the Fox-ification of the entire media landscape. For instance, the World Economic Forum points out, “One popular image shared during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 showed soldiers standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, braving the approaching storm… the framing of the image did not place radically different meaning on its subject, but it also didn’t show what people thought they were looking at. The image had been taken during an earlier storm and was undoubtedly ‘real’, but had no relevance to Hurricane Sandy.”
In the most extreme cases though, online misinformation can be truly dangerous. The World Economic Forum also mentions, “Misinformation of a different kind occurred in the U.S. during the December 2012 Newtown shootings… online and mainstream media misidentified a Facebook page as that of the shooter.” And even worse was the Reddit witch-hunt to find the Boston bombers.
What these examples demonstrate is the way in which America’s online communities can quickly adopt a mob mentality, intensifying situations that have the potential to turn violent or destructive. And while social media has fostered movements like the Arab Spring globally, at home it too often brings on clusters of ignorance and anger. Of course, occasionally the Internet steps up and does the right thing too; there is certainly just as much potential for the Web to be a tool for justice. But until we move away from a quickdraw, “act before you think” mentality, then the viral spread of misinformation will continue to infect our populace in a harmful way, and damage our reputation globally.
2) U.S. nationalism borders on xenophobia.
Let’s refer back to the World Economic Forum for a moment. Having now released their list of problematic trends for 2015, the U.S. would be wise to stay mindful of number eight: “Intensifying Nationalism.” Though the WEF identifies this has a bigger problem for Europe, North Africa, and Asia, the fact is that America also has its own jingoistic tendencies to contend with.
Though a lot of these feelings in America have been swelling since 9/11, we continue to see their effect on the country today. In 2011, NPR’s Linton Weeks discussed this, writing, “Go to a baseball game where fans often croon ‘God Bless America’ during the seventh-inning stretch. Check out the American flag pins on the lapels or collars of nearly every politician. Listen to Toby Keith’s current hit ‘Made in America’ and read how it inspired a Michigan kindergarten class to create an ‘American-made show-and-tell.’ Call it what you will—American nationalism or patriotism—it is covering the country like a Wi-Fi cloud—above the fruited plain from sea to shining sea.”
For another illustration of this sentiment, it’s appropriate to return to the topic of the World Cup. While Germany’s victory therein helped to cement their popularity with millions of soccer/futbol fans around the world (including many in the U.S.), there was also a contingent of Americans out there who maintained that the event’s global popularity made it distinctly un-American. The funny thing is that as the Internet brought World Cup watchers closer, U.S. fans were more active online than anyone. Which just shows how noticeably out of date America must look to the rest of the world when you compare views held by the majority of its citizens, with views held by a distinctly loud few.
But when does patriotism turn into nationalism turn into full-blown xenophobia? The immigration issue is the current crucible for this in the United States. There is a palpable fear of those who reside in or try to enter this country illegally, and in the past, this fear has actually led to outright murder. However, we’ve also recently seen many xenophobic attitudes pop up in reaction to Ebola, which has caused rampant paranoia and prompted some to insist that we shut our borders to specific countries. The Ebola panic also harkens back to this country’s issues with misinformation, as most of the people who have been freaking out about Ebola have been riled up by something they read online.
As already stated, the majority of Americans don’t hold overly aggressive, hostile, or fearful attitudes towards other countries. But those that do are destroying our global standing for us all. Consider, why would you support a country that has no desire to see you even visit it?
3) The U.S. is incredibly polarized.
Ironically, as much fervor as one hears about negative foreign influences, you hear much more about negative domestic ones. Which is to say that the level of infighting in this country has reached something of a fever pitch.
Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center reported that the American government has become so disparate, “polarization is the defining feature of early 21st century American politics, both among the public and elected officials.” But this isn’t just about politicians. Pew also found that, “to a considerable degree, polarization is reflected in the personal lives and lifestyles of those on both the right and left.”
Furthermore, they note that most of us are not even trying to understand those on the opposite side of the aisle: “’Ideological silos’ are now common on the right and, to a lesser extent, the left. About six-in-ten (63 percent) consistent conservatives and 49 percent of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views, compared with just 35 percent among the public as a whole.”
There’s also a debate going on right now about whether the Internet intensifies this. Though there is no general consensus yet, The Huffington Post’s Bianca Bosker warrants, “The ease with which one can access extreme opinions online is likely contributing to the perception that the web has given rise to more polarized political views.”
In the bleakest moments, it sometimes feels like nobody is happy and everyone is blaming someone else. With Americans’ opinions of their elected lows at deafening lows, how should our foreign allies perceive us anyway? You think Angela Merkel was mad about having her phone tapped, what about the indignation America’s own citizens felt when they found out they were being monitored by their government? WIth Americans continually at odds with both their leaders and their fellow citizens, we run the risk of looking petulant and childish in front of the global community.
4) U.S. foreign policy has become isolating.
Writing about Anhold-GfK’s Brand Index for Re:locate magazine, David Sapsted reported, “While the U.S. is still seen as number-one in areas such as creativity, contemporary culture, and educational institutions, its role in global peace and security has been ranked only 19th out of the 50 nations.” While this news isn’t all bad (at least we’re still creative), the revelations about how the world sees our place in its peace and security are definitely troubling.
GfK’s Senior Vice President and Director of NBI Xiaoyan Zhao’s take on this reflected Sapsted’s. “In a year of various international confrontations,” said Zhao, “the United States has lost significant ground where tension has been felt the most acutely.” And between ISIS and Ebola, Zhao isn’t wrong about this year in particular being a tough one for America’s standing on the global stage.
However, there’s also evidence to suggest that perception of America’s foreign policy has been heading this way for awhile. In 2012, another Pew study found, “Throughout Europe and the Middle East, majorities say the U.S. does not take into account the interests of countries like theirs.” And going back father, they reported, “The 2009 Pew Global Attitudes survey found that many believed the new American president would act multilaterally, seek international approval before using military force, take a fair approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and make progress on climate change. As the current survey reveals, few now believe he has actually accomplished these things.”
The same study from 2012 also concluded, “In the vast majority of nations polled, there is considerable opposition to the U.S. drone campaign against extremist leaders and organizations” and, “Even in many countries where various elements of America’s image are popular, there are concerns about the reach of U.S. influence.”
What we see in these findings is that when America does participate in global affairs, questions of approach abound. But while no one is keen on drones, everyone is still waiting for us to make a valuable contribution where Israel and Palestine are concerned.
So if this all sounds like “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” you’re not necessarily wrong. But perhaps the more accurate way to characterize the situation is that many of America’s moves on the world stage only end up pushing everybody farther away from us, while also making the issues we don’t take action on look that much more glaring.
Sadly, American media tends to give very little hint of how the rest of the world sees us. And despite living in a time where instant global connection is possible, the Internet occasionally encourages less diversity among social groups rather than more.
It’s strange to think of America as a “brand,” but that’s also what makes the GfK Index so interesting. Questions like, “What do we do about ISIS?” are not easily answerable, but the U.S. needs to at least look like it knows what it’s doing if it wants to continue to sell its brand to other countries. But lately, it’s as if we’re not sure how to feel about our brand, or anyone else’s, for that matter. That’s not to say we aren’t still a great country. But with our persisting identity crises, it’s no wonder the rest of the world has started to lose a little faith.