As someone born in the US, and well traveled, I’ve often wondered about the variation in sentiments about leaders from America. I often felt treated as a prototypical American. People assume I fully support every action the politicians from the US government make, frequently false. The feelings of people in Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Pakistan, and Iraq about US Government Leaders are well known to be fairly negative. I recall as a 16 year old living in Norway, that Europeans would often deride me because of their dislike of US government policy – though I wasn’t old enough to vote. With the US Government meddling in others domestic affiars, and breaking its’ own rules frequently, I don’t like but understand the term “Great Satan” used in parts of the middle east to describe the USA.
But I’ve also experienced a sort of American “halo bias“. In my frequent trips to India, I’ve found Indians extremely happy to meet an American. I have had random strangers want to shake my hand, have me hold their baby for a picture, or buy me a free soda. Yes, I often am offered free Coca-Cola at shops in India.
What I didn’t know until this article, is that there is actually a religion that worships the US. The BBC reports that every February, the people of Vanuatu celebrate John Frum day with US army uniforms, wooden weapons and the Star Spangled Banner. They paint “USA” on their chests. Village Chief Isaac Wa, says “John is our god”, and believes that an American from World War II will be returning to Vanuatu’s 30,000 Frum worshipers. This group of people in the small micronesian country are part of a “cargo cult“.
A cargo cult appears sometimes in tribal groups upon their first interaction with technologically advanced alien groups of people. These cults are focused on obtaining material wealth of the advanced culture through magical thinking, and religious rituals. In Vanuatu’s case, they believe an American GI named John Frum helped them rebel against the aggressive teachings of British and French missionaries and colonial masters. They believe the American helped them retain their culture by throwing off the oppression of a foreign state, not unlike the original patriots who founded the US. Vanuatu people celebrate annually, hoping and praying for the return of the man they call their “Jesus”.
David Calderwood’s article about these Cargo Cults reminded me of Richard Feynman’s critique of 1960’s-era psychology. But Calderwood makes a compelling case for the current lack of understanding of US natives optimistic about government intervention turning around the US economic crisis. He notes that Americans have naive, and unsophisticated views of how wealth is created, and so they, like those from Vanuatu, have a sort of Cargo Cult worship of government-intervention in economics.
Business leaders would do well to consider how we’re perceived when we do business in other countries. Most globe trotting leaders with whom I’ve worked with are already concerned with security. But they often are relatively insulated from the root cause of the sentiment about the US – positive or negative. Even though business leaders are not responsible for foreign policy decisions, they often take the brunt of it, with some being kidnapped or killed for their iconic status as an American. As we are seen as prototypes of our entire homeland, we must be ambassadors for goodwill with other free people to do our best to change inaccurately positive or negative views of us and similar others.