What the last 10 days in America looked like to the rest of the world

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
President Barack Obama leading mourners in singing "Amazing Grace" during the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney on Friday.

The U.S. has given the rest of the world a lot to chew on in recent days.

The Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage and Obamacare. The Charleston massacre. Trans-Pacific Partnership. And another deadline looming for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

Like few others in recent years — perhaps since the election of President Obama in 2008 — these events prompted people who don’t live in the world’s only superpower to say their piece about the confounding reality of a country that affects them in myriad ways.

It’s good to be reminded sometimes, even by a cursory sampling, what the U.S. might look like to people in Asia, Africa and the Middle East — or Canada and Britain, for that matter. For some, the main take-away is about the resilience and flexibility of U.S. society. For others, it’s about America’s penchant for violence and its enduring race problem; about the U.S. pushing its values on others. Or, how decisions made in Washington — as maddening as the process sometimes is — will affect them.

In Israel, the Haaretz newspaper’s ‘West of Eden’ blogger Chemi Shalev wrote that we’ve through “Ten Days that Shook America” – and should make Israelis (at least liberal Israelis) jealous: 

“Jealousy of an America that marches forwards, that welcomes change, that grows more tolerant, that accepts diversity, that seeks to extend equality to all. Ask yourself, in all honesty, if these are the defining trends of Israel in 2015 or, in fact, quite the opposite,” he said. 

Writing for Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Michael Cohen marveled how the country pivoted from the Charleston shooting to the removal the Confederate flag from public places across the South, and then the Supreme Court’s rulings on Obamacare and same-sex marriage.

Cohen once worked at the State Department, but he’s a regular Guardian columnist. He told his U.K. readers that even if it’s wise to be cautious about the staying power of each of these changes, books will someday be written about what just happened: “This diverse, rancorous, often conflicted nation became slightly freer, slightly more generous, slightly more cognizant of its past and slightly more progressive than it was before.” 

That’s not to say everyone was thrilled.

In Nigeria, a website geared toward young people asked them what they thought of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision legalizing same-sex marriage across the country – and as its headline indicated, “Nigerian netizens reacted predictably.” In other words, the responses were scathing.

Anti-gay legislation is politically popular in Nigeria. In contrast, the continent’s other real power, South Africa, long ago legalized same-sex marriage. There, Archbishop Desmond Tutu welcomed the decision as a matter of justice.

But in Russia, which two years ago outlawed “propaganda” promoting “nontraditional sexual relations,” a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church warned that the Obama administration was trying to impose its values on others.

“In reality they want to take away your right to live by faith,” Vsevolod Chaplin said.

In the wake of the Charleston attack, letters to a major Canadian newspaper contained a raging debate about violence and racism in the U.S. — and the Confederate flag.

Several of those who wrote to the Toronto Star compared the Confederate flag to the Nazi swastika. One argued that race relations are so fraught that they make the U.S. in many ways a failed state: “No American exceptionalism here; just constant violence and hate. We talk about sectarian violence in Iraq, Syria or Yemen (some of which the U.S. is incidentally responsible for), but just look at America. It’s a country at war with itself.”

In Japan, the mass-circulation Asahi Shimbun said it was time for the Confederate flags to come down. “These emblems evoke far too many memories of white supremacist hate crimes that have been committed against non-whites,” it said.

With China on the rise and some questioning whether the U.S. is up to the challenge, Asia had another, more immediate concern: the fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, rescued by an alliance between Obama and congressional Republicans.

Writing in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, Patrick Low said the Republicans “rescued President Obama from a legacy-shattering embarrassment, and the United States from an unequivocal retreat from global leadership.” 

From Asia, it looked like a lousy way to make policy. On the other hand, the U.S. can find it easy to forget or undervalue how its actions affect others.

With negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program apparently headed for overtime yet again, Mehdi Hasan ticked off seven reasons in this opinion piece posted by Al Jazeera, why Iran’s leaders don’t trust the U.S. The list started with a CIA-organized coup in 1953 against the country’s first elected prime minister.

Hasan — and many in the Middle East — are quick to point out that Iran bears a lot of responsibility for its own problems. But they are watching to see how much really has changed: Are Iran and the United States really smart enough and flexible enough to throw off that history and move forward?

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by John Appelen on 06/29/2015 - 01:43 pm.

    Family Reunion

    I suppose watching our chaos would be like attending a big family reunion that is full of drama. I wonder if they remember how fast this family can close ranks when necessary?

    • Submitted by jason myron on 06/30/2015 - 12:10 am.

      What chaos?

      I saw millions of people that showed compassion and happiness for their fellow man, and I saw millions act like a two year old pouting in the Target toy aisle when mom wouldn’t buy a toy for them. The world saw who the adults were and who’s becoming increasingly irrelevant to modern society. I actually felt embarrassment for the GOP the last few days.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/30/2015 - 10:01 am.

        Missing the point

        I think you missed the point of the article above. Many of the people from the other countries are “homophobes” and think the USA just took a huge step backwards.

        As the article notes, perspectives vary across the world. Since our society is so very open and visible, I am sure they find our in fighting interesting.

        I ask my friends in China about government, policies, contentious topics, etc and they have little to say. They really don’t think about the things we discuss regularly since they have little or no voice in changing it. And they seem happy focusing on themselves and their families.

        We are very lucky to have the time, money and freedom to have these discussions.

        • Submitted by jason myron on 06/30/2015 - 11:34 am.

          I’m well aware of the point of the article.

          I just dismiss your assertion that last week was chaos. And there are just as many people around the world that have marveled at our ability to progress.
          Sorry, but the last countries that I want the USA to emulate are China, Nigeria and Russia. I speak to friends in Great Britain and Germany and they ask why it took us so long.

          “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
          ― Thomas Jefferson

  2. Submitted by Roy Everson on 06/29/2015 - 01:52 pm.

    PR boost for Uncle Sam

    I happened upon the Pride parade in downtown Oslo, Norway, on Saturday. Huge turnout. When marchers carrying a big American flag walked by there was an eruption of “Hur-rah! USA!” (In Norwegian that rhymes.) That certainly doesn’t happen very often.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 06/29/2015 - 03:07 pm.

    Nicely done!

    Mark,
    Really nicely done article. A very important perspective to consider and I think valuable for our global citizenship responsibility! Also, your background and contacts are valuable – thanks for sharing!!

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