The blog post where Agnostic looked at how much attention the New York Times (a reasonable measure of the pulse of the major American media more generally) devoted to countries around around the world as a means of, among other things, allowing for some perspective on US foreign policy is among my favorite.
I've wanted to do something similar but covering a much longer time horizon using Google's Ngrams, but once you go beyond eight or so items in a single line graph, it quickly degenerates into an aesthetically displeasing cluster.
So instead, I captured the last 208 years of American literary history of what constitutes the 50 countries I'd guess Americans would be most likely to jot down if asked to write the first 50 that came to their minds. It's an arbitrary selection, but there are places like Bhutan and Saint Kitts that are simply meaningless to most people. The y-axis is auto-fitted to the entire range over the last two centuries, so inter-country comparisons are relative, not absolute.
Parenthetically, one nice feature of Ngrams is that searches are case sensitive, so while some countries like Turkey conceivably are over counted a bit in some years if a book contained a sentence starting with the regular noun "turkey", this is essentially a non-issue.
Holland (the Netherlands):
Russia (Soviet Union):
The Old Continent doesn't loom as large as it used to. A tale of two cities no longer, as thinking about who Americans should have greater affinity for, the English or the French, is about as antiquated as the debates between federalists and anti-federalists are. Russia was a big deal as the Bolsheviks took over and the Soviet Union started making headway. As the latter fell apart, its mother country followed a real-life decline paralleling that of its decline in importance from an American perspective. Switzerland, true to its notorious neutrality, scoots along horizontally minding its own business. The immigrant waves from Poland and Germany show up, but like the rest of Europe, it's all downhill in the 20th century.
Hello Anglosphere! I assume increased globalization brought first world nations surrounded by the third world into greater focus among those in the US accustomed to paying the most attention to Western European. As the world 'shrank', I guess Australia moved into throwing distance, just like England and Germany had, uh, been all along!
Vietnam and Afghanistan would rank alongside Laos and the rest of the crapistans, respectively, if we hadn't gone into those countries, spent lots of time, blood, and money killing the bad guys, and planted the seeds of freedom that sprouted into the dynamic, modern, liberal nations that Vietnam and especially Afghanistan are today.
We pay attention to explosive growth as (South) Korea and Thailand demonstrate, but sort of lose interest after a country on the ascent peaks and then starts sliding downwards (see Japan). Hu Jintao is a pretty big deal, but he still yet to get out from underneath Mao's shadow.
In the 1960s, Americans met their father's poor mistress for the first time (Ethiopia and Madagascar don't count, as they're not genuinely African!) and realized that though they'd been estranged for a few centuries, the Dark Continent was the United States' other parent continent. Some parts of Africa were just too depressing to pay attention to for long, but others, like South Africa, the Congo, and Zimbabwe captured the popular imagination when they overthrew their oppressors and through self-determination allowed themselves to become the flourishing nations they are today!
You might think we'd be paying more attention to South America as it creeps northward, but you'd be wrong. The canal is fine. What more do you want to know?
The places that have little direct influence on the flow of oil, like Egypt and Syria (yes, they both produce about enough to provide for themselves, and there is the Suez applies, but they aren't Saudi Arabia!), mattered a lot more when our ancestors were in control of them than they do now. Today we only tune in (and get giddy) when their pious throwback populations overthrow their relatively secular, friendly rulers because we're masochists. Or when neocons alert us to the threat of a rising superpower bent on Isra-, er, our destruction.