At Dire Dawa University in Ethiopia, students asked me last year about gun violence in America. I was on a trip to Africa representing the State Department as a public diplomat, explaining the values and policies of the United States to young people. News of violence in America, including the shooting of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., had reached Africa the year before, along with countless other stories of shootings at malls and movie theaters. Students wanted to know if America was becoming a violent nation. I did my best to allay concerns, telling them that America remained a nation based on rule of law, inclusion, diversity and democracy.
It is always difficult to calculate the impact of U.S. domestic events on international audiences. But if experience is any guide, news travels fast, and people from Soweto, South Africa to Seoul are watching events in Ferguson, Mo.; Staten Island, N.Y.; and around the country as protests unfold over police shootings. In short, I would say, "Houston, we have a problem."
Despite disagreements in many quarters of the world over U.S. foreign policy, America, by and large, remains popular overseas. According to the 2013 Pew Study, pre-Ferguson and pre-Staten Island, overall global attitudes toward our country are upbeat. In 28 of 38 nations, half or more of those surveyed express a favorable opinion of the United States, with the exception of China and Pakistan. As has been the case in previous years, Africans overwhelmingly offer favorable assessments of America. In all of the six sub-Saharan nations polled (Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Senegal and Nigeria) roughly seven in 10 see America in a positive light.
The question is: To what degree will recent events — including a new wave of protests over grand juries' decisions not to indict police officers for the deaths of African-American citizens — change those impressions? Sadly, it is likely that, at least in the short run, citizens in some countries, particularly those with repressive regimes, will harbor negative views of American actions.
The first reason is simply that what global citizens like about America, particularly young global citizens, includes our ideas about democracy and inclusiveness. Even when attitudes towards American foreign policy are negative, the United States gets high marks for its democracy and diversity and its "soft power" as expressed through movies, television and culture. (People also love our scientific, technological and business prowess.) What citizens do not like are extensions of American governmental power or use of state violence. (There is widespread opposition, for example, to the use of drones by the U.S. government to target extremists overseas.)
Global citizens understand racial tensions, ethnic divides, religious strife and political gridlock. But they are likely seeing much more of it emanating from America than usual. More important, global audiences understand, through the lens of 24/7 media and the ubiquity of mobile technology, that Americans are questioning themselves. According to a Pew Research Center poll this summer, "Five decades after Martin Luther King's historic 'I Have a Dream' speech ... fewer than half (45 [percent]) of all Americans say the country has made substantial progress toward racial equality."
America is a model for rule of law and democracy. We must reflect our best selves to each other and to the world. Let's hope that peaceful protests, inclusive politics, and transparent self-reflection will lead others to see the best in us so that we can continue to lead by example. The world is watching us.
Sonenshine is a former under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs. She teaches at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.