Awesome America: A Love Story

While American patriotism -- the love of one's country -- is "awesome" in more ways than one, American nationalism -- the belief that America is the "greatest nation on earth," with the "greatest military power", and the "greatest ideals" -- can become dangerous.
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MILWAUKEE - SEPTEMBER 20: An American Flag flies outside the US Bank Center on September 20, 2014 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE - SEPTEMBER 20: An American Flag flies outside the US Bank Center on September 20, 2014 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

When the Senate Democrats released their detailed and damning report on the CIA's torture program in mid-December, a Fox News host had a simple message for network viewers: "The United States of America is awesome."

"We are awesome," said Andrea Tantaros. "The reason they want the discussion is not to show how awesome we are. It's to show us how we're not awesome." And then she added, "They don't like this country."

To claim that both Senators John McCain and Dianne Feinstein, who championed the report, don't like America is of course childish, not to say idiotic.

What Senators McCain and Feinstein do have is actually an astute understanding of how America conducts itself. What these two establishment figures understand all too well is that in this postmodern biblical culture, what truly counts at the end of the day, is not the act of sin, but that of redemption.

Americans have long been divided between those who believe America is divinely endowed with eternal awesomeness and those who reckon its awesomeness is hard earned, that it comes from its capacity for autocritique, free discord and self improvement or, as they say in America, pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps.

Either way, whether by default or design, patriotism is alive and well in America. It's dished out at every other sports and entertainment spectacle in the form of flying flags, slogans and national anthems. It's intrinsic to the American experience, or, at least, the perception of living freely in a rather open and magnificent continent.

While American patriotism -- the love of one's country -- is "awesome" in more ways than one, American nationalism -- the belief that America is the "greatest nation on earth," with the "greatest military power", and the "greatest ideals" -- can become dangerous, and even turn Messianic.

The American establishment has been drilling these nationalist slogans, whether mythical or real, into the American mind for decades. It's been successful at branding America in a way that defines and molds the common collective perception about the nation's character and its historic record even when that record is mixed, at best.

All of which begs the question: what is it about America that, in spite of its wars and blunders, its brand -- the idea of America -- remains so popular around the world?

Brand America

After a decade tarred with fighting and failure, from illegal military interventions, instigating coup d'etats, authorizing torture, drone attacks on sovereign lands and eavesdropping on foreign leaders, America continues to muster favorable ratings in poll of people around the world.

Even when most Americans, particularly the low wage earners, seem to all but give up on "The American Dream" of social mobility -- a major ingredient of "Brand America" -- much of the world remains fascinated with the American way of life.

A 2014 survey polling 43 nations showed a median of 65 percent expressing a positive opinion about the U.S. -- similar to its 2013 showing -- compared with 49 percent for China.

And while its likability is pretty low in countries like Egypt, Turkey and Jordan, the U.S. is quite popular in countries such as the Philippines, Israel, South Korea and El Salvador.

This has been the case for some time. Despite its failure to achieve victory in three major wars, (defeat in Vietnam, paralysis in Korea, blunder in Iraq), and regardless of the terrible failure of the "Washington Consensus", economic failures and the latest financial crisis, "Brand America" remains, year in and year out, about the most attractive country brand in the world.

It seems paradoxical. Why, and how, does "Brand America" continue to be unmatched and unrivaled around the world?

Clearly there are tangible, and perhaps intangible, aspects to branding that go beyond actions. So even when there are major blunders, the brand promises better, and when there are failures, the brand assures success, and when there is sin, it guarantees redemption.

Secrets of Success

Behind the success of branding lies, first and foremost, a commercial success and entrepreneurial mindset.

U.S. brands make up just over half of the 100 most valuable brands followed by Germany (nine brands), France (seven) and Japan (five). Tech brands are the most prevalent including 11 of the top 25, giving America great commercial and cultural access to the rest of the world.

Think about all the brands that have become synonymous with their function: Google, Scotch tape, Kleenex, or Xerox. And today, the high tech brands that dominate the world, like Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo, also deliver special access to American culture, American viewpoints, and yes, America branding.

Likewise, behind America's commercial and political branding lies an innovative and proactive mindset, one that uses all forms of communication, brainwashing, marketing and public relations to attract customers and clients, or loyalists and adherents, both foreigners and Americans alike.

This "soft power" preaches the power of America's example, not the example of its power.
This soft power in all its forms, cultural, commercial and political, is clearly transmitted and amplified through America's apparently benign, happy, entertaining and utterly dominant brands like Hollywood and Disney World.

When the Green Revolution started in Iran, the Barack Obama administration leaned on Twitter to facilitate the amplification of the messages coming out of and into Iran. Likewise, as reported last year, the American intelligence agencies have leaned on the social media conglomerates, such as Facebook, to allow them access to citizens' communication data.

In reality, the success of its soft power remains highly dependent on America's prevailing "hard power," or its global projection of force through hundreds of military bases, multiple aircraft carriers, countless drones and a formidable nuclear arsenal.

The mixture of America's hard and soft power has been referred to as "smart power": a potent combination that promises to advance U.S. interests throughout the globe.

The Future of Soft Power

Do we face a future in which every adult on the planet will have convenient access to a Starbucks and a drive-thru McDonalds? A world where every child will have visited Mickey Mouse at a Disney World in his or her own country?

As big monopolies grab the lion's share of the market, the danger of the standardization of taste and culture looms near. The more their consumer products are becoming generically manufactured or mass produced or copied, the more they tend to focus on branding as a tool to distinguish themselves.

But, ironically, these American companies and brands are becoming increasingly international or multinational and less American. For many, their manufacturing and sales activities are taking place outside the United States.

Moreover, some of the big brands like Burger King, are resorting to so-called "inversion," purchasing a foreign company in a low tax country, pretending that company is in charge, so as to avoid U.S. taxes.

Additionally, rising inequality, racism, violence, heightened security, money-politics, surveillance and eavesdropping, obesity, pollution etc., are all slowly, but surely, hurting America's image at home and abroad.

Are these factors also hurting the "promise of America", that intangible element that makes its brand so potent, so popular, so awesome?

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera's senior political analyst and author of The Invisible Arab.

Follow him on Twitter: @MarwanBishara @AJEmpire

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