Accessibility links

Breaking News

Exploring the American Character


Recent global opinion surveys indicate America’s image is slipping around the world. Some polls show that besides U.S. policies, American attitudes are fueling this sentiment. But many analysts caution that American values are often misunderstood.

Many experts note that Americans overwhelmingly support their form of government. Public opinion polls show that Americans are distinct from people in other countries in their belief that their political system lives up to the ideals of free speech, fair elections and unbiased justice. Most Americans agree that their national constitution and free enterprise system have been key to their nation's accomplishments. And, according to pollsters, most Americans believe that citizens of other nations would be better off if they adopted these values.

Although few people question the nation's successful democratic system, many surveys show that a number of people around the world assume that American nationalism drives U.S. foreign policy. And there is concern that Americans want to use their power to impose their way of life on others. But most experts agree that while Americans take pride in their form of government, their nationalism is passive.

Andrew Kohut is President of The Pew Research Center in Washington and co-author of the book, America Against the World: How We are Different and Why We are Disliked. "The default position of Americans is to ignore the rest of the world, not to want to make it over into its own image. There are people who believe that the spread of democracy would be a good thing for the United States. The ordinary American thinks that most people probably do want democracy. But they don't feel compelled to convince people in other countries to become democratic or to share American values," says Kohut.

Penchant for Self-Criticism

Kohut notes that Americans are unusually self-critical. In Pew's 2005 survey of 16 countries -- including the United States -- about 70 percent of American respondents described their fellow countrymen as greedy. Nearly half said they were violent and 39 percent characterized them as immoral. It was the most critical assessment of the United States by any country surveyed.

Another mistaken assumption about Americans, Kohut says, is that their deeply held religious beliefs influence the way the United States deals with the rest of the world.

"In most of our surveys, which have been going on now for two decades, asking questions ranging from the invasion of Iraq to whether we [i.e., the U.S.] should help in Bosnia or Kosovo, I have found very little connection between American religious beliefs and how people feel about specific foreign policy issues or foreign policy in general," says Kohut. "There is some connection among some groups with respect to policies toward Israel, but that is really the exception."

According to some critics, the separation of church and state is blurred in the United States. But John Glenn, Director of Foreign Policy at The German Marshall Fund in Washington, points to America's unique religious experience.

"In Europe, churches for many years in many countries were state churches. In Austria, the church still receives money from the state through taxes of its citizens, for example," says Glenn. "In the United States, the church has always been part of the private sphere. So for Americans, the sense of danger of the church having a powerful role in political life is lower. As a result, I think for Americans the use of religious language is often less threatening.”

The world's biggest complaint, says Glenn, is the belief by many Americans that war is sometimes necessary for a just cause. But he adds that Americans are different because of their nation's responsibility for maintaining world peace and global well-being. This, he contends, is best reflected in how Americans and Europeans view the rise of China.

"If you ask Americans and Europeans, 'Is China an economic or military threat?,' a majority of Europeans will say it is an economic threat and Americans will say it is a military as well as an economic threat. It is not surprising that Americans, who have troops stationed in the Far East, would be aware of the military issues with China," says Glenn. "Remember, for Americans, the end of the Second World War in Europe [in 1945] was the end of the war on one front, but there was still the war in the Pacific."

Strong Individualism

The trait that distinguishes Americans from the rest of the world is strong individualism, says The Pew Research Center's Andrew Kohut.

"Americans are of the view that their success in life is dependent upon them and not upon the larger forces of society. And that shapes American optimism and views of how to go about politics and how to go about America's place in the world," says Kohut. "Americans, as a consequence, are far less supportive of government and less responsive to international institutions."

Still other analysts, among them Steven Kull, Director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, argue that the American public likes to be in tune with the rest of the world. His new book, Misreading the Public, is a study of what affects American attitudes about the war in Iraq.

"One of the biggest factors was whether or not they believed that other people around the world approved of the U.S. being there. It is very hard for Americans to both support the Iraq War and to believe that others around the world disapprove of it. If, for example, the majority of the Iraqi people want the U.S. to withdraw, a very large majority of Americans say that the U.S. should [withdraw]. If people in the Middle East do not want U.S. forces based there, then the majority of Americans say the U.S. should withdraw those forces," says Kull.

Many analysts agree that a better understanding of the ideas that are important to people in the United States could stem the tide of anti-Americanism. They add that today's interconnected world calls for the U.S. and other nations to adapt more to one another.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.