The woman sitting across from me in Bangkok’s swank Dusit Thani hotel is one of Thailand’s best and brightest. Educated in the U.S., she’s a computer whiz at a prominent local company. She wears a basic business suit and impresses me with talk of “TCP/IP” and other Internet protocols. But when our conversation comes around to her romantic life, her fiancé—a New Yorker seated next to her—squirms. She admits it’s a little odd not to be marrying a Thai. Still, she says in a low, conspiratorial voice, “Many Thai women dream of having an American’s baby.”
My jaw drops. I expect her to give her boyfriend, who works for a U.S. corporation here, a reassuring smile, as if to say that she isn’t one of them. But she goes right on talking. “Thai people think these babies are more beautiful, better endowed,” she says. “They’re all the rage.”
The Thai passion for Americana doesn’t stop with babies. Thai consumers learned the concept of “nutritional value” labeling from Frito-Lay packages, the first in the nation to carry an analysis of potato chip ingredients. The government’s response to its financial collapse, which triggered the Asian economic meltdown,’draws from the United States’ handling of its S&L crisis in the 1980s. Thailand’s largest private employer, Seagate Technology, is a U.S. high-tech company. And the country’s new constitution retreats from Asian communalism by emphasizing a core American value: individual rights.
Others countries are following Thailand’s lead. A few days before arriving in Bangkok, I listen to Ella Fitzgerald piped over a stereo system in a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur’s trendy Bangsar district. I am eating a bowl of laksa, a traditional stew. My lunch companion is Karim Raslan, a lawyer and leading Malaysian social critic. Notoriously prickly about their own culture, Malaysians have criticized Americans for our unbridled individualism. Yet in the face of the country’s economic contraction, the unthinkable suddenly makes sense. “Can we develop beyond this point without importing American ideas about the conception of the individual?” Raslan asks. “Probably not.” Fascinated by what he calls “the imagined communities of the American West,” he believes Malaysians can reinvent themselves in much the way Americans do: by asserting a new identity that works.
Two months before, halfway around the globe in Provence, France, I meet another enthusiast of all things American, Marc Lassus. He is the chief of Gemplus, a manufacturer of “smart cards,” which can be used as electronic money to purchase telephone time or to store information such as medical records. It’s nearly midnight, and I watch him exhort his factory workers to act more American. The typical French executive treats manual laborers with veiled contempt, but Lassus revels in them, working the factory floor like a politician. He betrays his nationality only when it comes to greeting the female machine operators: He kisses them lustily.
Lassus fights the impulse to be, in his words, “too Frenchie.” Incredibly, he often speaks English on the job and encourages his co-workers to do the same. The company’s marketing materials are expressly written in American English, by writers imported from California’s Silicon Valley. Lassus has hired an American number-cruncher to push the idea that the bottom line matters as much in France as it does in the States. Because the French are famously chauvinistic, I am astonished by Lassus’ frank admiration of American ways. His e-mail handle says it all: John Wayne.
Thailand, Malaysia, and France aren’t unique in their emulation of the United States. “Americanization” is a more apt term than “globalization” for the increasing concentration of U.S.-based multinational companies operating worldwide. Pundits glibly assert that different societies in the world are becoming more alike as if all were influencing and being influenced in equal measure, creating a kind of global melting pot. I don’t see it that way. In the 1990s, the world has Americanized at an unprecedented rate, reaching as far as Borneo (see “A Horatio Alger Tale“).
Of course, Levi’s, Nike, and Hollywood have long held international sway. But American influence goes deeper than pop culture. Technology—especially computers, software, and the Internet—is seen as quintessentially American. And the way we do business is now also admired worldwide. Once believed to be in permanent decline, the strongest U.S. companies again dominate global markets. Their stress on profits, efficiency, innovation, and “shareholder value” is the envy of capitalists from Tokyo to Buenos Aires.
The notion of “pay for performance,” once rare outside of the U.S., is also catching on. Throughout the world, a growing number of companies are adopting the concept of merit, rewarding employees with a slice of the company’s total earnings, given as bonuses rather than wages. Risk-taking and even failure, once cast as pure negatives in Asia and Europe, now are viewed increasingly as preludes to success. Office dress is more casual, corridor talk less formal. The old-boy networks, based on what schools people graduated from (Europe) or which family and personal connections they could draw from (Asia), are slowly breaking down.
“Within five to 10 years, these practices won’t [just] be American anymore; they will be everywhere,” says Roel Pieper, a senior executive at Philips, the Dutch electronics multinational.
American social and political ideas are also taking hold. At a time when Japan—hugely influential in the 1980s—is stagnant, the American willingness to improvise is trumping the virtues of traditionalism. Countries such as Japan and Germany, where the concept of nationality is rooted in the racially based idea of bloodlines, are starting to accept that a polyglot country such as the United States has fundamental advantages.
Scholars throughout Europe now vie to publish their articles in American journals. In Berlin, worried parents recently convinced educators to begin teaching English in the first grade rather than waiting until the third. And in Penang, Malaysia, primary schools stage storytelling competitions—in English.
For all its seductiveness, however, Americanization has a dark side, an underbelly that perhaps we know better than anyone else. And as Americans, who can blame us for asking whether the relentless spread of our values is worth the price?
It is a warm September evening in Washington, D.C., and I am sitting on an outdoor patio at a fashionable restaurant, the Tabard Inn. My companion is Andrea Durbin, director of international programs for Friends of the Earth. She is part of a broad movement that opposed NAFTA (unsuccessfully), helped kill fast-track (Clinton’s effort to gain a free hand in negotiating trade pacts), and is now trying to bring the International Monetary Fund to heel. The IMF recently won an $18 billion commitment from Congress to replenish reserves exhausted by the fund’s successive bailouts of Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia, and Russia. An unusual alliance of conservatives and radicals forced the fund, as a condition of this new cash infusion, to provide more information about its inner workings, which may make it easier for critics to track how the IMF protects U.S. investors and promotes an American capitalism.
The IMF generally opposes trade barriers, low interest rates, and deficit spending. These policies, Durbin points out, have led the IMF to mishandle the global capitalist crisis that began with a whimper in July 1997 when the Thai baht collapsed. Using a formula wholeheartedly endorsed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the IMF drove Thai interest rates sky-high in a bid to protect the baht, strangling liquidity in a banking system rife with cronyism. At the same time, the fund and the U.S. insisted on new bankruptcy laws-leading to a fire sale of sorts and freeing the way for foreign companies, including American ones, to snap up assets, such as Thai car companies, on the cheap.
The story is the same elsewhere in the world. The result is that world capitalism is in shambles. In Brazil and Mexico, living standards are falling and stock markets are in disarray even though governments have curtailed spending on social services and privatized essential public monopolies. In Indonesia, a quarter century of rising living standards was reversed during the Asian financial crisis, while an IMF “rescue” program succeeded only in helping to bankrupt the country. In Russia, after the IMF’s “help,” the ruble collapsed. The dollar is now king; it greases so much commerce that some argue that the greenback should be the official currency. (The dark side of the American global dream is particularly obvious in one former Soviet republic, Moldova. See “Potemkin Capitalism.”) All over the world, meanwhile, the moneyed classes are converting local currencies into dollars and shipping them to the United States. According to the Federal Reserve Board, about two-thirds of all U.S. currency (the bills themselves) circulate abroad-an estimated $300 billion. The dollarization of the world economy is just one aspect of the Pyrrhic victory of the worldwide spread of American values. Durbin ticks off her own list of the worst aspects of Americanization:
Inequality The American economic model has led to increasing disparities of wealth and income. Both stock options and pay for performance are becoming popular in Europe, where, in a number of countries, inequality is rising even faster than in the U.S., according to the Luxembourg Income Study, the leading source on the subject. “The U.S. still has the most inequality based on income,” says Timothy Smeeding, an economist at Syracuse University. But, incredibly, even Denmark and Sweden have seen income gaps widen more rapidly than in the U.S. That’s partly because, as in most other countries, Scandinavians are paying much higher wages to skilled workers and squeezing labor costs at the bottom.
Consumerism U.S. per capita consumption is up to 20 times greater than in the developing world. “If even half the world’s people achieve the American way of life,” says Durbin, “we’ll have an environmental disaster on our hands.” This is a critical point: According to the World Resources Institute, the U.S. consumes a quarter of the world’s oil, a third of its paper, and 40 percent of its beef and veal. If such patterns are replicated—say in China alone—the effect on world resources will be dramatic.
Cultural monotony When a second-tier NBA player like Kobe Bryant merits giant billboards in Paris, the mania for U.S. culture has gone too far. “Our culture is such a strong one it tends to dominate and erode other cultures,” Durbin says. “They have a lot to contribute to the international dialogue, but we’re losing them.”
Imitators of the U.S. rightfully worry about the price of American cultural domination. Consider Germany. One sunny Saturday morning, I am drinking a café au lait on Munich’s main square, watching as a glockenspiel strikes noon and sends a small, mechanical army parading around the old tower, attracting tourists. Just off the square, though, German shoppers are pouring into a Disney store, packed with Pocahontas purses, Mickey Mouse towels, and Winnie-the-Pooh dresses. Germans at least have a sense of irony about iconic American brands. It’s more distressing to visit some of the most remote river villages of Borneo, as I did a year ago, and find evidence of a bizarre love affair with Americana.
One steamy afternoon, I take a high-speed riverboat to Marudi, a logging town that serves as the hub for various jungle tribes, many of whose members still live in longhouses and follow traditional customs. Seated across from me is an old Orang Ulu woman. Her body is covered with brightly colored tattoos, and her ears are elongated, the result of attaching heavy weights to her lobes. Once the boat hits its cruising speed, the captain puts a video into the ship’s TV. It shows professional wrestlers from the United States. Two big white guys with long hair toss each other around the ring. The Orang Ulu woman howls with laughter, her face brightening each time a big hulk falls to the canvas. Hers is no isolated affection. I spend that evening with a militant anti-logging activist in Marudi—a Kayan tribe member considered so dangerous by the government that it had seized his passport. After dinner, he invites me into his house and, with geckos running up and down his walls, plays a traditional Kayan guitar for me. When I tell him about the woman, he confesses that he, too, loves watching American wrestling. So does everyone in the longhouses.
Environmentalists enjoy painting these native people as idyllic traditionalists, but the truth is that they want a piece of America too—but on their own terms. Their resistance to resource exploitation is certainly authentic, and their logging blockades deserve the wholehearted support of outsiders. Yet for these tribespeople, the biggest symbol of progress is American-made: the Johnson outboard motor. Once these river tribes used long poles to push their boats up the region’s shallow rivers. How much happier many of them are now with a craft powered by a small motor. Far from looking bucolic, they resemble edgy Long Islanders, speeding back and forth on the water, their ungainly poles snugly on the bottom of their thin, low boats.
Americanization seems unstoppable. Resistance is rising, however. The governments of France and Germany are taking steps to address the inequities fostered by their own embrace of the American model. Both are raising taxes on wealthy people and corporations and, in France’s case, paying people the same amount for working fewer hours. In September, Malaysia, long a haven for U.S. investment, slapped controls on its currency, making it harder on foreign investors. Even cultural rebellions are taking place: The Israeli government announced in November that it may require its radio stations to devote half their airtime to songs sung in Hebrew in order to slow down Israel’s cultural shift toward Americanization.
The pervasiveness of Americanization, in other words, doesn’t mean the world will end up full of Clint Eastwoods. Many foreigners drawn to U.S. values and practices are nonetheless disturbed that the U.S. often exports its pathologies. Consider the attitude of Simon Tay, a lawyer and member of parliament in Singapore. In a country where Western values are relentlessly criticized, Tay’s admiration for American society stands out. He has a degree from Harvard University and has published a book about his travels in the United States. Yet as we sip cold drinks on a patio outside a mammoth high-rise this spring, he tells me, “Sometimes I feel you’re exporting the worst of America.”
He mentions the traits that many people in Singapore equate with the American Way: violence, workaholism, disrespect for authority, an endless obsession with instant gratification. Tay realizes that this image of the U.S., gleaned from American movies and television, is something of a caricature. “In your movies and your materialism, we don’t see the real America,” he admits.
Like many in Asia, he hungers for a more freewheeling society, one that can respect tradition while breaking free from it when necessary. He fears that the so-called Asian miracle came undone partly because rigid Asian societies can hamper American-style creativity. In Singapore, however, the drive to acquire the more eccentric aspects of American life borders on parody. Many years ago, the government banned street performers, considering them beggars. When Tay returned from his stay in the U.S., the sterility of Singapore’s streets—all orderly and clean, with no one present without a purpose—weighed on him. In 1997 the government permitted street performers for the first time, but then the government drew a line, requiring performers to audition before a national board. Not only that, whatever money they collected had to be donated to charity. “This is crazy,” says Tay. “It’s a good example of the tension between wanting a livelier Singapore and maintaining control.” (Later, following criticism from Tay and others, the government relaxed the conditions.)
Clearly, says Tay, foreigners may imitate Americans, but that doesn’t mean they automatically become like them. This, he concludes, may help preserve Singapore’s own cultural traditions as it integrates American ones. “If American values aren’t imposed on us, but come in a softer way, I’d welcome that,” he says.
But that isn’t likely. The global capitalist crisis paradoxically reinforces the power of the United States. Foreign assets are cheaper than they’ve been in decades. Before the crisis runs its course—and it may take years—U.S. investors may own a much bigger chunk of the developing world: from factories to mines to forests to auto loans, all picked up for a song.
As the century comes to an end, U.S. power stands at a new pinnacle, only this time victory isn’t measured in the defeat of an ideological foe but in the influence gained over the world’s wealth, culture, and individual identity. If the bulk of the 20th century was defined by American military might, its last decade may be summed up by this maxim: “We are all Americans now, like it or not.”