“America, Non!”

Wednesday, July 30, 2003
this is an image
this is an image

During the past year, much attention has been paid to anti-Americanism in political life around the world. The argument is made that certain American policies provoke ill will and that, if it were not for these policies, the ugly face of anti-Americanism would dissolve into warm smiles of welcome. Not surprisingly, this proposition is typically put forward by domestic opponents of precisely those policies that, allegedly, elicit anti-Americanism overseas.

It is natural to wish that friendship replace hostility. It is also the case that anti-American protests do respond to particular policies: the rejection of the International Criminal Court, the refusal of the Kyoto Treaty, and, especially, the engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is not always the case, however, that policies such as these are the root cause of anti-Americanism; it is therefore wrong to assume that policy change would eliminate hostile attitudes. On the contrary, anti-Americanism is a complex cultural phenomenon that reflects problematic issues in local cultures and deep features of global competition.

To gauge the significance of anti-Americanism today, it is important to distinguish among distinct regional phenomena. Hostility toward the United States in parts of Latin America is a consequence of a long and troubled history, including the various interventions during the past century. Meanwhile, the American occupation presence in Japan sometimes leads to irritation around particular events. Obviously, these two examples are very different from each other, and neither is particularly related to current policy.

The Arab world offers a third example. In this case, anti-Americanism has been nurtured by the largely state-controlled press with its propagandistic treatment of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Rather than underscoring anti-Americanism in the Arab world, however, it is more interesting to recognize its unexpectedly limited scope. Opponents of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have regularly warned that provoking “the Arab street” would topple the moderate regimes in the region, conjuring up frightening images of unlimited fanaticism. So far, these worst-case predictions have not been fulfilled. Indeed, the large and most antagonistic demonstrations have not been in Cairo or Amman but in Europe.

The genuine epicenter of anti-Americanism today is in Europe, not in the Islamic world. Indeed it can be localized even further as “old Europe,” the continental Western European countries, especially France and Germany but Spain and Italy as well. (In the latter two cases, the political leaders were willing to take a political risk and side with the United States, thereby resisting anti-American sentiment in their domestic publics.) In contrast, anti-Americanism is negligible in the “new Europe,” the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. This difference within Europe became apparent in 2002: During President Bush’s visit to Berlin in May, he faced large, hostile demonstrations, but friendly crowds greeted him in November in Vilnius and Bucharest. One can easily explain a pro-American predisposition in the formerly communist countries, given the leadership role played by the United States in the Cold War. Explaining anti-American predispositions in the countries that have long been counted among our closest allies is a more difficult challenge.

Understanding this West European anti-Americanism is the crux of the matter. The accusation of anti-Americanism of course often elicits a defensive denial: The anti-American claims to be only “anti-Bush.” Obviously it is important to distinguish between reasoned criticism of United States policy, as part of a vigorous public debate, and an anti-American animus that goes beyond reason, that takes on an irrational character, and that draws on underlying hostilities that have nothing to do with objective estimations of current affairs. It is a prejudice, and, as such, it is immune to rational objections.

One can observe three distinct aspects of the prejudicial character of the anti-American mentality in Western Europe. First, although anti-Americanism may point fingers at the United States, it is primarily an expression of local identity problems. German anti-Americanism always involves escaping a troubled national past, hence the constant Nazi metaphors. French anti-Americanism, in contrast, imagines retrieving a former great power status through a special relationship to the Arab world, hence the prominence of anti-Semitism and the violent attacks on Jewish demonstrators and Iraqi dissidents. Italian anti-Americanism, often moderated by the many transatlantic family ties, has largely been a vehicle to express opposition to Berlusconi, unpopular on the Left long before his support for U.S. Iraq policy. In all three cases, it turns out that U.S. policy is really only a pretext for acting out local identity issues. Attacking an external scapegoat is a convenient camouflage for internal problems.

Second, although anti-Americanism opposes U.S. foreign policy in the name of its presumed victims, there is no evidence of any particular solidarity with these countries prior to American engagement. The anti-American sector of the European public that has resisted, with increasing vehemence, the U.S. role in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq had previously expressed absolutely no interest in the misfortunes of the victims of Milosevic, the Taliban, or Saddam Hussein. Their suffering became noteworthy only at the point when the United States initiated attempts to bring such suffering to an end. There never were mass demonstrations in European capitals against any of these regimes; indeed opposition to regime change was the common denominator between the “European street” and the governments. Anti-Americanism is not concerned with the particular issues at hand but only in adopting an automatic opposition to any U.S. role. There is apparently no regime so wrong than an American effort to right it would not provoke protests.

Third, like any other prejudice, anti-Americanism is characterized by an ongoing loss of reality. It has little to do with the reality of American life or U.S. policies, and it is equally oblivious to the lives of the Afghans and Iraqis, who only serve as interchangeable tokens, pretexts for an obsessive hostility to the United States. Anti-Americanism offers a securely ideological worldview that will simply not yield to facts. Hence we see the grotesque willingness of large parts of the European mass media to treat the Iraqi information minister seriously, while directing unrelenting skepticism toward American reports. For anti-Americans, any evidence of American success can only have been fabricated, just as expressions of pro-American support on the part of Iraqis are denounced as counterfeit.

Anti-Americanism functions like a prejudice in that it is impervious to facts. Debate and criticism of American policy are surely possible and legitimate, but an a priori hostility to American positions indicates a closed-minded ideology. It is important to consider the sources of this ideology.

Even today, European expectations regarding the United States depend on a distant history of the first encounters with the New World in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. From the European vantage point in the age of Columbus, the Americas appeared to be realms of savagery and violence, extraordinary wealth, and threatening power. These images formed a tradition, with both positive and negative versions: noble nature versus base violence. This tradition continues to structure the European perceptions of America and echoes through accusations of a “simplistic” foreign policy or the threat posed by a “hyperpower.”

Religion also plays an important role in European attitudes. For American self-understanding, the search for religious freedom provides a foundation to national history. European anti-Americanism has inverted this story by accusing the United States of religious excess: too much moralizing, too emphatic a distinction between right and wrong, and too great a willingness to enter on “crusades.” This religious anti-Americanism is not primarily about allegations of proximity between the current administration and the religious right. The criticism goes much deeper and locates a cultural deficiency rooted in that very first chapter of American history: the departure of Protestant sects from Europe in search of religious freedom. On a deep cultural level, European anti-Americanism resents that departure and views the United States in light of that original rejection. It even equates the United States with a Protestant fundamentalism that it places on a par with the Islamic fundamentalism of the terrorists.

There is, however, a much more contemporary explanation for anti-Americanism in Europe. The current process of European unification is painful in many ways. The importance of long-standing national identities diminishes, as political authority shifts to the centralized European Union, beyond significant local control. A so-called democracy deficit has resulted; most Europeans experience the E.U. as a primarily bureaucratic matter, lacking any compelling ideals or deep principles that could stir the hearts of the public. Anti-Americanism has filled that gap; it has become the European ideology of the hour, providing an emotional underpinning for a unified Europe that stands for nothing of its own, except its distance from Washington. The incapacity of the Europeans to act in concert, particularly in foreign policy matters, only adds fuel to the fire. Anti-Americanism is much less about the character of American actions than about the European inability to act at all.

Given the prejudicial character of European anti-Americanism, it is illusory to imagine that changing U.S. policy would significantly change European attitudes. European anti-Americanism will remain a fact of political life, at least until the Europeans come to grips with the standing of the E.U. and decide what sort of political role it might play in the world. In the meantime the clash of transatlantic civilizations is bound to continue.