This is the first thing you must tell students now. Some people in my country will not like them, because they are Americans. It will be like being a German 50 years ago. You will not always be welcome.
— Francesco, from Italy
The image of the United States abroad has undergone a tremendous change in the last five years. As our country emerged as the world’s sole superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people in foreign countries waited to see how America would wear its new mantle. The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, galvanized the sympathies of most of the world in favor of the U.S. Foreign policy decisions since then – most noticeably, the decision to invade Iraq without United Nations support – seem to have polarized opinion in the opposite direction. Policies in the “war on terror,” the decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, and the decision not to join the International Criminal Court have led many people around the world to conclude that the U.S. acts with only its own interests in mind.
Until recently, Americans abroad, by and large, have been treated hospitably by the societies in which they are living abroad. While many foreigners disagree with U.S. foreign policy over the past four years, their frustration and anger have not been directed toward individual U.S. citizens. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost is the disputed presidential election in 2000. George W. Bush was defeated in the popular vote, and there were many voting irregularities in the state of Florida. The election was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, not individual votes. Thus, most foreigners did not hold Americans personally responsible for the policies and actions of the Bush administration, with which so many people around the world have disagreed. U.S. students abroad – some of whom were too young to vote in the 2000 election – were given the benefit of the doubt, and generally not singled out for criticism.
In the 2004 election, President Bush won the popular vote, and scored a clear-cut victory in the Electoral College. From abroad, it appears that his policies have received a mandate from the American voter. Americans abroad may now find themselves held personally accountable for this, and challenged to defend the actions of the United States, whether or not they personally agree with the current administration’s policies. In short, many people around the world have lost patience with the U.S. Students who study abroad now should expect to find the social environment politically charged and quite challenging.
It is reasonable to say that, in many countries, the average citizen has a fairly sophisticated understanding of the role that the United States plays in shaping world events. Students studying abroad should inform themselves about these matters and be prepared for lively debate. Political discussions (and disagreements) are much better tolerated abroad than in the U.S. Citizens in your host country will respect your opinions if you are well informed and able to articulate your point of view, whatever your political persuasion. Likewise, you will gain respect if you take the time to learn about your host country’s political climate.
You may feel that you are forced to act as a “representative citizen” from the United States and defend your country’s social, political, and economic policies. Recognize the role that the mass media (here in the U.S. and also abroad) play in shaping opinion. You may be treated as a stereotype. Such behavior is the result of media manipulation and ignorance. The person leveling criticism at you is unhappy with your government, not you personally. In many cases, you can expect television and the press to be highly critical of the United States. Be prepared for this.
If you find yourself uncomfortable in a conversation or social gathering, excuse yourself. You do not have to defend personally the actions of the government of the United States. You do not have to explain your position to someone who is abusive. You do not have to “convert” foreigners to your point of view, or demonstrate that there is another side to an issue. Trust your instincts, and if you believe a situation is deteriorating, leave it.