With Friends Like These...

Monday, January 23, 2012

Whatever happened to anti-Americanism in Europe? The war of words and the angry demonstrations that defined trans-Atlantic relations during the Bush administration seem to have subsided. Today, Europe is more focused on its own problems, notably the financial crisis centered on Greece. It is not easy to blame Europe’s bad fiscal habits on the United States.

Washington is not asking much of Europe these days, so there’s no particular reason for Europeans to resent the United States. Yet, as with most trans-Atlantic matters, the backstory is complex. History weighs on the present, especially when it comes to the Old World, and recent flashpoints suggest a lingering anti-American potential in European political life.

Not every criticism of this or that American policy constitutes a case of European anti-Americanism. There are robust policy debates within the United States, and there is no reason why Europeans—or for that matter, America-watchers elsewhere in the world—should not weigh in.

Anti-Americanism does come into play when particular issues are linked to negative stereotypes of Americans or American culture. It’s one thing for an observer to criticize American gun-control laws as insufficient; it’s quite another to explain those laws by arguing that Americans have always been violent. Similarly, in terms of culture, it’s fine for a European to complain that a new Hollywood release is a bad film (I might well share that judgment) but it becomes anti-Americanism when the low-quality movie is taken as a symptom of cultural crudeness.

European anti-Americanism draws on a relatively defined collection of stereotypes about the United States, each with its own background. Perhaps the most enduring is the image of the obnoxious American who lacks sophistication and finesse. This perspective gives expression to long-standing elite European anxieties about democracy and its potential to spiral downward toward an ever-lower common denominator. In this account, Europe remains the protector of high cultural values, while the United States promotes bad taste and the low cultural values that result from the mob mentality that elitists expect from mass democracy.

Distinct from this aristocratic disdain, a second stereotype of the United States is a legacy of old communist rhetoric: America as the native land of plutocracy, the ultimate capitalist country—where capitalism is taken to be a negative term. To be sure, capitalism thrives in Milan, Frankfurt, and London, but any dissatisfaction with capitalism is projected onto the United States. For example, many Europeans believe that the 2008 financial crisis was primarily the fault of the United States. This perspective overlooks all the homegrown flaws in Europe’s economy.

In addition, a third common stereotype in Europe depicts the United States as profoundly or even fanatically nationalistic. American policies are suspected of serving only U.S. interests—as if European nations had renounced all self-interest and entered an internationalist utopia of perpetual peace. This allegation of fanaticism is linked to a discomfort with American religiosity. Western European culture is more emphatically secular than is American life, and the European opinion-making class has little tolerance for public expressions of spirituality, especially those it finds in the United States. It takes offense at references to religion in American public life, including the conventional “God bless America” at the end of political speeches.


These three expressions of anti-Americanism—aristocratic, anticapitalist, and internationalist-secular—do not encompass all European views of the United States. The United States has plenty of friends in Europe. Still, during the administration of George W. Bush, these stereotypes circulated widely. Germany’s then-chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, ran his 2002 re-election campaign around an attack on “American conditions,” and former French president Jacques Chirac promoted himself as the antipode to Washington. That was the era of fierce debates over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The gulf between the United States and Europe grew deep, not only because of genuine policy differences but also because anti-Americanism had erupted in European political culture.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama promised to end all that and to heal America’s strained relations with Europe. The enormous crowd that applauded him in Berlin when he delivered a speech in 2008 at the Victory Column—a monument to the German victory over France in 1871—seemed to promise a grand trans-Atlantic reconciliation. Would hope and change cure the anti-American disease?

European anti-Americanism draws from a relatively defined collection of stereotypes, each with its own background.

The European demonstrations have subsided, and by and large, so has the continent’s angry rhetoric. Obama is harder to vilify than Bush. Yet while the tone has changed, it is worth noting that in the sole policy initiative in which the Obama administration tried to gain significant support—the 2009 decision to launch a military surge in Afghanistan—Washington failed to persuade Europeans to increase their troop numbers commensurate with the American investment. The result of the Obama surge was therefore a decrease in the proportion of European troops in Afghanistan—an Americanization of the war. Although Obama has tried to sell Afghanistan as the war of necessity, Europeans are growing ever more skeptical.

What does Afghanistan have to do with European anti-Americanism? Obama’s promise to overcome that atmosphere of suspicion and animosity that prevailed during the Bush administration has succeeded only in ratcheting down the tone, not in leading to any major policy collaboration. The administration’s overtures have yielded no results.

This points to lingering suspicion in Europe toward the United States. The significant bias against the United States in key parts of the European public can have policy consequences. This bias was painfully obvious in two key, and very different, events: the German response to the killing of Osama bin Laden and the French reaction to the legal proceedings of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case in New York City. In each case, familiar anti-American stereotypes came into play.

Capitalism thrives in Milan, Frankfurt, and London, but any dissatisfaction with capitalism is projected onto the United States.

Last May, U.S. forces killed bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, bringing a welcome end to a search that began right after the 9/11 attacks ten years before. Capturing bin Laden alive might have been preferable in terms of collecting intelligence, but it was difficult not to see his death as an appropriate end for a mass murderer and declared enemy of the United States. This was a win.Yet the German public sphere quickly filled with voices more prepared to scold the American celebrations than to condemn the Saudi terrorist.

Thus a prominent German radio moderator opined: “Carnival atmosphere in Washington, jubilation in the streets, euphoria in the newsrooms: no, this is not about discovering a cure for AIDS or cancer, nor a recipe for world peace. The euphoria responded to the death of a fifty-four-year-old father.” Bin Laden as a venerable family man, and Americans as a mob—this was anti-Americanism pure and simple.

Similarly, a popular television commentator, Jörg Schöneborn, issued the unambiguous moralizing condemnation: “What kind of country is this that celebrates an execution? Civilized nations once invented international law. They agreed that criminals would be brought to justice and not simply killed.” America, therefore, was outside the civilized world—European prejudice views the United States as the Wild West. These denunciations were not restricted to journalists. Former chancellor Helmut Schmidt also criticized the bin Laden killing as a breach of international law.

In gratifying contrast to Schmidt, Chancellor Angela Merkel clearly stated that she was happy to learn of bin Laden’s killing. Both for “our American friends” and for Germans, she emphasized, the important issue was that he could no longer wage his war of terror. She characterized the commando action as a “success” and said putting an end to bin Laden’s threat was “simply good news.” Her forthright statement immediately elicited a wave of sour criticism in Germany. She was accused of fostering a mentality of vengeance and violence, and one local judge even claimed that she had broken the law by endorsing an alleged crime. These responses demonstrated how quickly Europeans, with their anti-American predispositions, could be offended by the chancellor’s positive reference to “American friends.”


The saga of former International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was accused of rape last summer in New York, was of course closely followed in France, where “DSK” had long been politically prominent. Indeed, at the time of his arrest he was considered likely to be France’s Socialist candidate for president in this year’s election.

A prominent German radio moderator scolded Americans after bin Laden’s death, saying “the death of a fifty-four-year-old father” was nothing to celebrate.

Amid the attention focused on his guilt or innocence and the credibility of his accuser, the French people passed judgment on American justice. His arrest shocked the French public, not only because of his importance politically but also because of astonishment that a man of his stature could be subject to arrest at all. France saw a picture of American justice as corrupt, driven by money and media and mob rule, and crudely unwilling to offer special treatment to a member of the political elite. Prominent French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy was among those who rose to DSK’s defense with a strident critique of American justice.

The judicial systems differ, of course: in the United States, an adversarial system pits prosecutor against the defense, while in France the judge carries out the investigation, which makes matters less public. Perhaps the root of the disagreement lay in different interpretations of the value of public exposure: should criminal prosecutions be open to the public, and therefore the media, or should such matters be handled more discreetly? Note too that while the accuser’s name was initially kept out of the press in the United States, as is customary for people claiming sex assaults, it appeared in French headlines almost immediately.

Neither the German response to the bin Laden killing nor the French view of the Strauss-Kahn accusation translates into a specific trans-Atlantic policy dispute. Each, however, provides a snapshot of Europe’s pejorative views of the United States. European and American interests will sometimes point in different directions, as they must. But when they do, expect anti-Americanism to define parts of the European response.