[OUTLOOK]Know thy friend/ enemy/ whoeverAn outsider’s view of the United States is often compared to a blind man describing an elephant. The same applies to the global TV discussion program of the British Broadcasting Company last week on the theme of “What do you think of the United States?” People from 11 countries participated in the discussion. Citing Hollywood western movies, an Egyptian criticized the United States for having three faces: “Its aid is a nice guy, its politics is a bad guy, and its military system is a dirty guy.” An Iranian and an Englishman denounced the United States as “the Roman Empire of our age” and “Big Brother in George Orwell’s work, 1984.” A Venezuelan defended the Americans ― perhaps, saying that if it were not for the United States, the world would be weary and boring.
Where does such power come from that 4 percent of the world’s population generates 30 percent of the world’s income, 50 percent of the military outlays, 80 percent of Internet users and 80 percent of the Nobel prize winners since 1975? Not a few people see this as the outcome of ugly imperialism; the United States, they say, is selfish and arrogant, and sometimes supports dictators and tries to replace leaders of other countries. Criticism is heaped on the United States for being more Roman than the Roman Empire, because it conquers the world armed with overwhelming military forces, hundreds of overseas military bases, English and the Internet. But the existence of the United States as the superpower today cannot be explained solely by the logic of power.
Lucian Pye, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, asserted that the power of the United States is the product of an American system that values human creativity, a frontier spirit and autonomy rather than that of political hegemony. In the BBC discussion, people generally agreed that they hated the U. S. government and its policies, particularly its dualism and arrogant attitude towards the Middle East, but did not hate Americans. They counted the U. S. universities and research system as the greatest U.S. contribution to the world. This is demonstrated in the reality that the United States is 10 years ahead of the major European countries in information and technology, and about 20 years ahead in weapon systems.
Notably in the global TV discussion, the BBC pointed out that Koreans’ views of the United States are inconsistent and contradictory to those held in other countries.
Koreans support the punishment of terrorists but opposed the war against Iraq, and yet dispatched soldiers to support the war against Iraq and show overwhelming support for the U. S. policy on global warming. It was embarrassing to hear the comment by BBC that all these attitudes implied that Koreans did not really know the United States. That is to say, our perceptions of and behavior towards the United States were inconsistent.
While anti-American education is highlighted as a social issue, trips to the United States for language training or study have never slowed down. While loudly denouncing the U.S. infringement of Iraqi human rights, Koreans just keep silent about the human rights conditions of North Korea. While the whole nation is boisterous about the death of the two schoolgirls killed by a U.S. armored vehicle, not many Koreans remember the names of the soldiers killed in the naval engagement in the Yellow Sea. What might Americans have thought about the Korean ethnic associations in New York who staged a demonstration against Korean-Americans in Washington who held a candlelight demonstration? The New York Koreans claimed that the Washington Koreans’ anti-American demonstration was pro-communist.
This is not because of Koreans’ ignorance of the United States but because of their biased absorption of knowledge and information about the United States. They take only such information as they like, but ignore bits of data that are not useful for their arguments. Mixed-up views about the United States contribute to a tremendous gap between their positions. This phenomenon can also be found in the fact that Noam Chomsky’s “The Rogue States” is read like a Bible in Korea and that in an interview for entrance to a military academy, some applicants answered that the Korean war was triggered by South Korea. Whether we want to oppose, exclude, overcome, or utilize the United States, that will be possible only when we know the country properly. What a laughingstock we will be if we don’t know the United States well while depending on its military forces for our national security.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Byun Sang-keun