Elite Perceptions of the US

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Americans are hard-working, intelligent, open to the world, and eager to change


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To a large extent, my positive perception of the US formed long ago when I took part in a high school student exchange programme between the former Soviet Union countries and the US back in 1994. I was 16 years old and a year spent in an American family and school in the middle of Missouri was a big change for me.

But because of this experience I chose to study International Relations, and I then came back to the US in 2005 as an employee of an international organization and participated in a US-funded programme for professionals. For the last three years I have been living in US and, although I am staying here temporarily and plan to go back home, I consider it the best place to live for me and my family at the moment.

My perception has changed with time. From my high school experience, I was mostly attracted to the US because of a sense of freedom and comfort of living. Compared to my home country, the US seemed alien to me, particularly the cultural differences such as family connections, certain behavioural norms, morality and traditions.

Having being educated in a Soviet high school, I found Americans forward, focused on their internal affairs, and less knowledgeable about the rest of the world. I realize now that most of these perceptions related to the fact I was living in a rural part of the US.

When stationed in Washington DC for a year for an international organization, I found the US is actually very international, open to immigrants, rich in knowledge and opportunities. But still many other aspects of American life escaped me, such as its social policy, religion, and education.

Most of my friends in the US at that time were international workers and I did not have a wide range of contact with Americans. I also did little networking and rarely attended events outside my job function. My thinking was largely influenced by Russian media and analysis, and I considered the US to be too capitalistic and cynical towards the rest of the world. As a young analyst in international affairs, I had developed a more leftist stance, influenced by the post-Soviet thinking in Russia which in the mid-2000s had a more anti-Western approach.

However, during a fellowship in 2011, I was exposed to US higher education for the first time as I took university courses. I was now in my 30s, my husband was with me, and I particularly enjoyed conversations with him as we discovered America together and travelled - mainly in the northeast.

I was impressed with American students, how interested they were in international affairs, how hard they studied and how free they were in expressing opinions. During some of my classes, I was impressed with the young American students’ concern for international development, equality, social causes, and the impact the US has in the world.

The efforts and aid provided by the US to my country and the post-Soviet region have been important in building a strong civil society and independent thinking

My reading became almost exclusively based on English language material and, through my job, I had to read a lot of literature and attend various events on economic development. The idea that a country’s success depends on well-functioning institutions became apparent and I wanted to know why America is so different – particularly compared to my country which wanted to emulate the Western model of a developed country with strong middle class.

I specifically studied the American social system, tax system, health care, and education. With the Democrats in office, I watched the debates on ‘ObamaCare’ and other issues. Although the domestic debate was tense and US social policy is controversial, the country still has great potential to regenerate and continue as a global leader. Americans, particularly young professionals, are hard-working, intelligent, open to the rest of the world, and eager to change - not only others, but themselves too.

The personality of President Obama and his stance on equality, immigration, and affordability of social services such as healthcare is an influence on this. I find him a clever and charismatic leader whose impact has yet to be appreciated. He stands in contrast to the Republican presidents, as both the Bush leaders used an overly-hawkish foreign policy, seriously affecting the state of affairs in our region.

The efforts and aid provided by the US to my country and the post-Soviet region have been important in building a strong civil society and independent thinking. US policy in our region is dictated by commercial interests but the US also invested in civil society, private sector development, and young leaders - valuable assistance given that the region is not part of US strategic interests.

I find many positive things about US policy circles and academia that should be copied in my country. Even though I clearly see the link between policy-making and business interests, this is not necessarily bad so long as the big companies are core to a country’s economic development. However, US foreign policy must be based on more sound analysis, particularly regarding Russia and the post-Soviet space. Big gaps of information exist among policy-makers and my job is to make them more informed and engaged.

My perceptions are shared by many in Kazakhstan who participated in the exchange programmes and have visited the US frequently. For the younger generation, America is particularly appealing with its iconic business leaders, culture and comfort of life. But, for older generations influenced by old Soviet stereotypes or for those who did not have our exposure, America remains a hostile and alien country. As my son was born in the US, it is the best place to me to live as I rely on my own skills and energy. As a citizen of Kazakhstan, the US is a model that needs to be studied and copied.