Zakaria: U.S. Is Odd Country Out

Good news doesn't sell. You are unlikely to see a newspaper headline that says no fires in New York City last night. But it's worth pointing out that there are important positive trends afoot in the world. Large majorities across countries and cultures are in favor of democracy, free markets, trade and cultural exchange. If you think back to a generation ago, in the mid-1980s, this is a sea change. Last week's release of the Pew Global Attitudes Survey provides the most vivid evidence of a new worldwide consensus. But—and here's the bad news—it highlights the fact that that the United States is becoming the odd country out.

The most striking statistic in the survey has to do with trade. Thumping majorities everywhere said that growing trade ties between countries are "very good" or "somewhat good"—91 percent in China, 85 percent in Germany, 88 percent in Bulgaria, 87 percent in South Africa, 93 percent in Kenya and so on. Of the 47 countries surveyed, the one that came in dead last was … America, at 59 percent. The only country within 10 points of us was Egypt.

Or take a look at the attitudes toward foreign companies. When asked if they had a positive impact, a surprisingly large number of people agreed. It's particularly interesting to see this in countries like Brazil, Nigeria, India and Bangladesh, which have typically been suspicious of Western multinationals. (South Asia's unease has some basis; those countries were colonized by a multinational corporation.) And yet, 73 percent in India, 75 percent in Bangladesh, 70 percent in Brazil and 82 percent in Nigeria favor these companies. The number in America, however, is 45 percent, which places us in the bottom five. We expect the world to welcome U.S. companies with open arms and yet do not reciprocate the hospitality.

The United States has always thought of itself as exceptional.

But nowadays we are standing apart for the wrong things. America has typically been seen as the place where the boundaries of personal freedom were being stretched, where women's liberation was forged, where wacky new lifestyles and crazes were most enthusiastically adopted. For much of the world, America was the future. That is not the impression you would come away with, looking at this survey. For example, America has an unusually regressive attitude on whether homosexuality should be "accepted," a much tamer question than whether to approve civil unions or gay marriages: 49 percent say yes, and 41 percent, no. On what has become a crucial test of a society's inclusiveness and tolerance, the United States lags well behind every Western European country, as well as many Eastern European and most Latin American countries. Catholic Mexico is far more accepting, with 60 percent saying yes, and only 31 percent, no.

The United States is becoming utterly unexceptional on another issue—immigration. It's not really news that majorities everywhere want to restrict and control immigration. But it is strange that sentiment is as strong in the world's foremost nation of immigrants. More Americans are against immigration than Frenchmen or Germans.

There are areas where Americans—or at least the American right—cherishes the notion that we are exceptional. We sometimes think that we alone believe that "sometimes military force is necessary to maintain order in the world." Some 77 percent of Americans polled agreed. As did 90 percent of Indians, 74 percent of Turks and Indonesians, 80 percent of Kuwaitis, 75 percent of Swedes and 73 percent of Italians. We have a unique skepticism about government, right? Well, many others have acquired it too: 65 percent of Americans say that the government has too much power, as do the same number of French and many more Germans. Two out of three Americans believe in protecting the environment even if it slows economic growth. The number is about the same for the French and the Japanese.

The most startling aspect here is the trend. The United States has had the biggest drop in support for trade among all countries surveyed since 2002. On some of the other issues—like immigration—the data suggest that American attitudes have shifted even more sharply. All of this points to a stunning lack of political leadership.

Foreign companies and foreigners—as well as expanding trade, travel and markets—are all going to be a large part of the 21st century. Look around. If you update the current ranking of the 10 richest people in the world, you will find that eight of them are now non-Americans and every one is an entrepreneur. The natives have gotten very good at capitalism.

The task of our political leaders is to make Americans understand this new world and explain how the United States has thrived and will continue to thrive in it. They should be equipping Americans to compete in the world rather than blaming others and turning inward. Instead, the Republican presidential contenders fan fears about foreigners and immigrants. The Democrats demonize free trade. And the American public gets more and more spooked and less and less prepared for the world we're entering.