Review by Anthony C. E. Quainton
American Avatar: The United States in the Global Imagination by Barry A. Sanders, Potomac Books: Washington, DC, 2011, ISBN: 978-1597976817, 240 pp., $29.95
In this somewhat bizarrely named book – American Avatar – with its vaguely Hindu and Star Wars associations Barry Sanders seeks to identify the true embodiment of the American experience, to explain American values and to suggest ways in which America’s image can be projected more effectively on a globalized world. Sanders, a lawyer and Southern California civic activist, gained renown as the lawyer for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. He is a widely travelled and highly articulate writer with an encyclopedic knowledge of history and literature. He has observed how American is viewed from a variety of external vantage points and he uses these various perspectives to good effect throughout this book.
The first half of his book is an extensive, if somewhat cursory, compilation of images, both negative and positive of the United States. These, he suggests, arise out of the way American society is organized internally as well as out of how the United States acts abroad and overall as a result of the ways that the media projects the American image. One’s mind is overwhelmed by his different categories: America is a beacon of liberty, a land of opportunity, conqueror, exploiter, imperialist, evangelist, dangerous policeman, crude materialist, racist, to mention but a few. The reader can conclude that America is dominant and arrogant, wealthy and successful, profligate, efficient and fat. In over 30 subsections Sanders dissects virtually every conceivable element of the American character and every common adjective applied to it from the founding of the republic until today. Each characteristic is briefly described often with colorful quotes from historians, critics and commentators both past and present, but the issues are also discussed at a level that is often very basic and at times truly simplistic. But by the end of the first section one has the picture: There is no one image of America that predominates. We are seen as an infinitely complex society with many virtues and even more vices. There is, in short, no single stereotype for what the American avatar is.
The second half of the book focuses on the rather more interesting question of how external viewers decide on which images of the United States to choose. Sanders begins by positing a natural predisposition of foreigners to be suspicious with a desire to be against anything that threatens their own culture, nation or set of values. He argues that the United States is a natural target since it wittingly or unwittingly has been the principal engine of societal, political and social change over the past century and is currently the most powerful force for change throughout the world. . Resentment is easy. If someone seeks a country to blame for current misfortunes, America is at hand to fill the bill. Sanders then goes on to describe at length the legacy of 19th Century Romanticism and the concomitant criticisms of the United States. In a slightly patronizing tone of disdain for our transatlantic friends, Sanders asserts: “The European elite can be counted on to admire every illiberal movement and personage who stands in the way of American foreign policy.” He explores how traditional societies clash with the West and examines Arab intellectual decline since the 15th century and the resulting criticism of Western Civilization. He asserts with characteristic hyperbole that there is an inevitable collision between Islam and The Enlightenment in terms of commitment to universal truths. He concludes his analysis with the assertion that envy is a universal emotion everywhere except in the United States, which has it all.
Having explained why the beauty of America is the eye of the beholder, Sanders goes on to elaborate ways in which the United States can change hostile external predispositions. America, he says, must be steadfast; it must emphasize that it is an open society, which is capable of listening. Americans must accept their obligation to act in the interests of others, not only in their own self-interest. America must be compassionate and must act consistently with its philosophical principles of democracy and human rights. Above all it must tell the truth. Much of this is familiar fare to practitioners of public diplomacy. However, it is easier to propound these nostrums than to put them into effect. America, like other countries, is driven by self-interest. Publics are skeptical of compassion and generosity as guiding principles of engagement with the world. And listening is not something that is easy to do when one lacks the linguistic, cultural or historical basis from which to hear and understand what others are saying.
Sanders makes several final useful points. America should not change its policies just to appease foreign critics, nor should it surrender to the often biased and ill-informed opinions of bloggers and the World Wide Web. In short America must be itself at its best. That it is a sentiment with which it is hard to disagree. Overall American Avatar provides a fascinating insight into the question so often posed after 9/11: Why do they hate us? Sanders provides useful answers to that question and some practical guidelines for those who seek to do something about it. He writes with ease and panache. For those, like Sanders, who care about America’s image in the world, the book makes fascinating and productive reading. Notwithstanding the sweeping nature of his generalizations, there is much in this book from which public diplomats could profitably learn. It should be a standard text for those who teach and study public diplomacy in the 21st century.