Where Does the Phrase "When America Sneezes, the World Catches Cold" Originate?

The Me
The Me
Elizabeth Nicholas

If you are a student of world affairs, you may know the phrase “when America sneezes, the world catches a cold.” What the phrase means, of course, is that as a global leader, other nations tend to follow America. What happens in America affects the rest of the world, be it for good or bad.

But where did the phrase come from? Ironically, it actually originated in France. The first person to use the phrase was the aristocratic Prussian diplomat Klemens Wenzel Furst von Metternich. Metternich was a diplomat during the Napoleonic era who is widely considered to be one of the most important statesmen and strategists of his time. He is widely credited through his “balance of power” politics to have prevented war in the time of peace that came to be known as the “Age of Metternich” during which European powers managed to avoid engaging in wars that had plagued them throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Metternich family house

Unsurprisingly for the Napoleonic era, Metternich’s phrase was actually “when France sneezes, the whole of Europe catches a cold.”

So just like the United States was formed by immigrants from Europe, the classically American phrase that we now use to express America’s importance in world affairs is actually a European import.

And although the phrase is now so often used to explain the ripple effects of American actions on politics, policy, economics, and culture around the world, the rise of competing powers has called in to question whether this is still really true. For example, some have argued that China is now setting the global agenda every bit as much as the United States.

The Chinese flag. Some argue China is now setting the world agenda.

Others point to the election of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election as proof that the adage about American power is still true. Trump’s election has been followed by a wave of similarly populist and nationalist elections around the world, including in Europe.

Some say Donald Trump’s election and the wave of populist elections around the world is proof America is still setting the agenda.

If history is any guide as to the future, one only need look to the originator of the famous phrase. Although Metternich was a great statesman, and the Prussian empire was once a feared and mighty military power, ask someone the way to Prussia and you’ll likely be met with a blank stare: Prussia hasn’t existed since 1932.

Culture Trips launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes places and communities so special.

Our immersive trips, led by Local Insiders, are once-in-a-lifetime experiences and an invitation to travel the world with like-minded explorers. Our Travel Experts are on hand to help you make perfect memories. All our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

All our travel guides are curated by the Culture Trip team working in tandem with local experts. From unique experiences to essential tips on how to make the most of your future travels, we’ve got you covered.

Edit article