Elite Perceptions of the US

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To say there are just two Americas would not give justice to the richness and complexity of US society

KAZAKHSTAN ACADEMIA AND THINK-TANK 02

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  • None
  • People and culture
  • Inconsistent foreign policy
  • Perceived arrogance
  • Domestic factors

I grew up in the family of a Kazakh party official during the decline of the USSR. Every night before going to sleep my father listened to foreign voices on the radio, including Voice of America. The whistling and noise that accompanied the programs added to the sense of distance and almost ‘otherworldliness’ of the US that the vast majority of Soviet people felt. But at the same time the news targeted at us was evidence of strong links between the two superpowers locked in a Cold War competition. This was my first direct exposure to all things American.

With time, my appreciation has grown for the strength and professionalism of the US media, and the courage and entrepreneurial qualities of its journalists. I was smitten by American political satire, exemplified by Comedy Central which remains a staple source of envy when I compare media in Kazakhstan to that of the US.

However, I was disappointed by the popularity of the Fox channel, forcefully pumping blunt and shameless propaganda. The contrast between these two Americas is extreme - one is sharp, educated, open-minded and dynamic like nobody else in the world, while the other appears conservative, parochial and socially backward.

I happily immersed myself in the open-minded America when I went on an exchange as an undergraduate student and spent two years at a liberal arts college in California. The experience was truly rich and formative. Socializing and making friends with people from very different cultural backgrounds (most of them being first and second generation immigrants) and sharing interests and values with them was liberating and wonderful. A vibrant academic environment and a diversity comfortably accommodated by American culture are two other universally acknowledged major assets of the United States.

But to say there are just two Americas would not give justice to the richness and complexity of US society and the different worlds that coexist. The mini-America I have become more familiar with is that of foreign policy-making due to my specialization in international relations. The strengths of it are the strong points of the American culture, such as courage, clear articulation and special dynamism. Not many countries would have the will or capacity to organize and reorganize the world, which makes the US a natural leader but, at the same time, such courage has resulted in spectacular mistakes too multiple to list.

Given this wealth of expertise and the amount of resource allocated to strategic planning, US foreign policy mistakes such as leaving thousands of Iraqi army people unemployed resulting in the creation of ISIS and full unravelling of the Middle East seem somewhat mind-boggling to outside observers

There is also the global scope that is a must for a superpower, supported by huge knowledge provided by multiple think-tanks and academia. In some cases, the analysis provided seems to suffer from a strong ideological bent and lack of nuance, but overall the American think-tank culture is truly impressive.

Given this wealth of expertise and the amount of resource allocated to strategic planning, US foreign policy mistakes such as leaving thousands of Iraqi army people unemployed resulting in the creation of ISIS and full unravelling of the Middle East seem somewhat mind-boggling to outside observers.

US foreign policy is often criticized as arrogant, and there is truth to that. However, another nation with less democratic instinct would probably be more arrogant and possibly unable to create a system that is comfortable for most actors involved. In this regard, I tend to agree with John Ikenberry’s argument about the legitimacy and sustainability of the US-created liberal order.[^1] At the same time, ironically the leader is hardly a role model for the liberal world. High inequality and a lack of basic public services such as quality healthcare and education for all, the problematic inter-racial relations and violence on the streets, and overall structural violence inbuilt into the society make the US a country in acute need of reform.

US policy toward Kazakhstan exemplifies both strong and weak points of the American foreign policy. Once the USSR fell apart, the US quickly moved into the region of Central Asia and engaged in high-impact programs such as the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program that helped denuclearize Kazakhstan and reduce the threat of spreading fissile materials and WMD expertise.

The full-fledged American support of Kazakhstan’s independence and such practical steps as the promotion of alternative export routes for Kazakh oil to European markets have been highly appreciated by the national political and economic elites. At the same time, the dynamism means any abrupt change of policy can be disruptive for the region. The sudden reassignment of Central Asia from the European to South Asia bureau of the State Department in service of the US Afghanistan policy is a case in point. And a possible loss of interest in the region in the aftermath of the ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan can be another game-changer.

[^1]: G. John Ikenberry, “The Future of the International World Order. Internationalism After America”, Foreign Affairs, May 2011.