Confronting Anti-Americanism Abroad—and at Home

Friday, January 30, 2004

The story of the war and occupation in Iraq is a story of widespread anti-Americanism. In nearly every society, citizens have taken to the streets to oppose American-led military action against the former regime of Saddam Hussein. Long-standing allies—including the citizens of Great Britain and Western Germany—have expressed consistent and overwhelming opposition to Washington’s war against terrorism. Public protests began in late 2002 throughout the world, and they have continued to manifest themselves in the rhetoric of politicians, intellectuals, and celebrities for more than a year. From French president Jacques Chirac to German philosopher Jürgen Habermas to American actor Susan Sarandon, it seems that prominent voices everywhere disdain American military activities. These critics share a perverse relish for the difficulties American forces have encountered from Baathists and other thugs on Iraqi territory.

Contemporary anti-Americanism is global in a way it never was before. Despite significant cultural differences, the men and women who criticize Washington’s international behavior use similar rhetoric. They rage against the apparent arrogance of American “hyperpower.” They offer sympathy for the victims and innocent civilians who live in foreign lands dominated by the United States, with little attention to the serious threats that imperil American and non-American lives. The sympathetic victims of U.S. force are commonly depicted in images of earnest women and suffering children—all allegedly stricken by the burdens of American brutality. Protesters across the globe have mobilized against a common enemy, the U.S. government, and they speak on behalf of a common constituency, the poor and the innocent. At times, protesters go so far as to identify with terrorist supporters, lashing out against the United States.

This is strange considering that the vast majority of America’s detractors have never suffered directly from U.S. power. In fact, most protesters, particularly those in Western Europe, have benefited enormously from American generosity and goodwill in the decades since the Second World War. In so many ways, the United States saved Europe from fascism, communism, and postwar impoverishment. American occupation and force projection made contemporary European prosperity possible to such an extent that the beneficiaries have grown to resent their benefactor.

Washington’s critics are intimately familiar with the Americans they criticize, but they have little firsthand knowledge of the victimized people for whom they claim to speak. This imbalance between a known benefactor and an unknown set of alleged victims does not seem to matter. If anything, it allows for a reverse form of cultural prejudice, through which critics idealize large groups of people they barely understand. Why take to the streets against a recognized benefactor and on behalf of distant and unknown peoples? Why resist America’s dominant power when it is deployed against horrific regimes?

The answer to these crucial but often neglected questions brings us back to the 1960s. That decade began with citizens in nearly every society—even totalitarian regimes—expressing general faith in their leaders. We need only glance at pictures of the adulatory crowds surrounding John F. Kennedy, Mao Zedong, and many other political personalities to remember this fact. After the experience of the Vietnam War, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the turmoil of 1968 throughout Western Europe and the United States, citizens turned against their leaders. This manifests itself in one of the clearest and most consistent public opinion trends since 1968: the universal decline in voter turnout, and political participation in general, across the globe. Nearly everywhere the children of the 1960s report that they do not vote because they do not feel connected with their representatives. We have become a globally integrated but politically fragmented world community.

The respect for leaders that preceded the 1960s has given way to a deep distrust of authority. Working within “the system” today implies a willingness to sacrifice moral ideals for the corrupt realities of power. Even after September 11, 2001, my students rarely express any serious interest in government service. They simply assume that the State Department, the intelligence agencies, and even the White House require that you check your integrity at the door. Our “postmodern” sensibility encourages this prejudice and a general reaction against government, against leaders, and against the use of force. Memories of the 1960s have made many citizens cynical and, in some cases, self-hating. This is evident from the obsession with American misdeeds in the contemporary media, and the extraordinary public neglect of the inhuman brutalities perpetrated by Saddam Hussein and other foreign dictators.

Those who held high ideals in prior generations—leaders such as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill—argued that the use of force was necessary for the achievement of moral purposes. They pledged to use their power against perpetrators of extreme violence and repression. Their followers trusted them to wield the sword in defense of the righteous. Despite his own personal revulsion at the carnage on the battlefield, Wilson proclaimed that war was necessary to “make the world safe for democracy.” Roosevelt and Churchill combined forces to fight fascism when most of their contemporaries had given up hope.

The manipulation of this moral argument for the use of force in the 1960s discredited the legacy of Wilson, Roosevelt, and Churchill. In particular, America’s tragic experience of military quagmire and political dishonesty in Vietnam convinced the children of the 1960s to reject the use of military force out of hand. In contrast to the Second World War, the Vietnam War undermined moral justifications for the exercise of power. It gave rise to a widespread and profound distrust of politicians. In the aftermath of the My Lai massacre and other deviations from public expectations about American honor in war, many citizens concluded that no war conducted by a powerful state could ever make the world safe for democracy. Vietnam and the larger experience of the 1960s discredited a half-century of American foreign policy ideals.

America’s global detractors—including many residing in the United States—share a conviction that military power is inherently evil. Despite some evidence of general public trust in the military, our popular culture frequently reproduces clichés about the shallowness, prejudice, and self-defeating nature of armed force. We do not discuss military power in public as much as we subject it to simplistic assumptions. In some quarters of academia, people do not even want to study the military because it carries such an explosive cultural taboo.

The anti-military politics of the 1960s has left us with a profound political paradox. Some of the most ardent advocates of human rights have condemned the two most recent wars—in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq—that were prosecuted against regimes whose gross human rights violations are indisputable. Critics of the United States have come to the defense of cold-blooded killers because they do not have faith in American leadership. Such is the mistrust of American power that protesters would shelve their human rights convictions to condemn Washington’s use of force.

Opposition to American policy in Iraq is not really about Iraq. It is a reaction against the exercise of military power by American and other national leaders. Idealists around the world refuse to fight for their ideals. The global rhetoric of human rights is dangerously disentangled from any serious consideration of how we fight for justice in a world of dictators, terrorists, and other extremists.

The global anti-Americanism that we have witnessed in the last year will surely continue. Washington’s detractors will not, however, achieve real gains until they offer new alternatives—including military engagement—for the pursuit of human rights in a world where the most vicious threats do not come from American or other democratic leaders. If we believe in human rights, it is time we, as a global community, begin to acknowledge the legitimate moral uses of force. We should work to build new instruments for cooperative military deployments, rather than pretend that such activities are avoidable.

As the strongest military power for the foreseeable future, the United States must play an active role in fighting tyranny, totalitarianism, and terror. We certainly cannot and should not fight everywhere. Nor, however, can we categorically disavow our will to fight, as the children of the 1960s would have us do. The challenge is not whether to use military force but where and how. The challenge is not to choose between the image of moral purity and the reality of messy military engagements but to recognize the necessary connection between the two. The challenge is not to live with the anti-Americanism born of the 1960s but to forge a revitalized vision of American democratic assertiveness in a dangerous contemporary world.