Elite Perceptions of the US

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The United States is a country where common sense and scientific positivism rules

RUSSIA ACADEMIA AND THINK-TANK 03

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  • None
  • People and culture
  • Inconsistent foreign policy
  • Immigration policy
  • Domestic factors

My view of the US may not be common among my fellow Russian citizens. It reflects the perceptions of someone who has spent about a decade studying the United States, publishing on the US foreign policy and domestic politics, and networking among US academics, civil society representatives, and business leaders.

The United States is a country where common sense and scientific positivism rules. I perceive it primarily as a rule-of-law society and polity open to change those rules in accordance with common sense or the latest research findings.

The possibility to call a spade a spade is at the core of America’s progress and prosperity. Compromise this single factor – in pursuit of political correctness or on other non-rational grounds – and you will chip away at the very foundation of America’s sense of justice, its international allure and power.

The United States rightly enshrined an unbridled freedom of speech in its constitution and maintains a social system in which every socially significant issue becomes the subject of heated public debate. This ensures that no sound argument for or against a certain policy is ignored by decision-makers. Leading US media outlets are examples of highly professional and principled journalism.

Another important feature of US society is its proclivity for an action-based approach to challenges. ‘Wait-and-see’ solutions are usually deemed unacceptable in favour of prompt and effective responses. Americans are inclined to develop policies, ensuring those in a position of power cannot ignore problems within their realm of responsibility.

The United States has boasted an exceptional capability to attract the best and the brightest. However, recent trends in its immigration policy unnecessarily reduce the benefits the US could reap from immigration. This policy is failing to cope with immigration flows from Latin America and undermines the possibility of a merit-based approach to immigration. A points-based immigration system, such as those used by Canada or the UK, could serve US society and the economy much better than a relatively chaotic immigration policy skewed in favour of neighbouring countries.

To sustain its credibility and prosperity, it is essential for the US to cherish and preserve its image as the nation of opportunity

Domestic politics in the US has shown disturbing signs of dysfunctionality and needs to be overhauled in a number of areas. Because of deep partisan divides, rationality principles do not always apply. For example, widespread gerrymandering is tantamount to election fraud and needs to be addressed by the Supreme Court. The role of money and super PACs (Political Action Committees) in political campaigns is alarming. One could argue there is a decline of political awareness among the American public, with the safe functioning of their political system being taken for granted. All of these issues need to be tackled by the country’s political leadership, top judiciary, and civil society.

America has all the pre-requisites needed to remain a global leader, including its preponderant power, proven success of its socio-economic model, the global export of its culture, its role as a key immigration destination, and a reasonable commitment to value-based foreign policy. What the United States is still in need of is a credible hedge against a ‘superpower overstretch’ that some fear (and others hope) can undermine American power and leadership. Flexible adaptation of US foreign policy strategy and its demonstrated capability to build partnerships across the board are necessary to reassure both allies and rivals that the US is not becoming increasingly stretched by unilateral action undertaken to maintain America’s international standing. In this regard, Obama’s foreign policy based on avoidance of direct confrontation, attempts at reconciliation, and occasional use of clandestine methods or behind-the-scenes diplomacy is wise and has been vindicated over the past few years.

The United States should continue to pinpoint cases of human rights abuse by governments across the world because it gives the US additional soft power and attractiveness in the eyes of democratically-minded elites globally. American policy-makers need to understand, however, that overcoming the issues leading to suboptimal political and economic outcomes in non-democratic societies is neither easy nor quick. Generally, there is no comprehensive one-time solution, therefore this should not be sought or precipitated.

More generally, as negotiation theory teaches us, trying to control too many international outcomes at once is a bad idea. This tendency derives from the above-mentioned action-oriented approach towards problem-solving: if there is a desirable outcome in a certain process, why not try and achieve it by purposeful action? However, controlling too many outcomes is costly, generates resentment, and often leads to the opposite of the desired result. The United States should instead look for opportunities to hold back, wait, and see how the situation develops, rather than try to apply decisive influence to achieve a pre-determined outcome.

Overall, if the United States is to sustain its credibility and prosperity, it is essential for the US to cherish and preserve its image as the nation of opportunity.