Defining Ideas

'Ugly America'

Friday, August 5, 2011
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Barbara Kelley

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 some of its own problems, notably the pending financial crisis that threatens to spread beyond Greece and Portugal. It is not easy to blame Europe's bad fiscal habits on the United States.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently visited Washington DC for a warm and cordial, but fully inconsequential visit: she received the Medal of Freedom (a nice gesture, to be sure), but no new policy initiative resulted from her stay. Washington is not asking much of Europe these days, so there's no particular reason for Europeans to resent the United States.

Anti-Americanism
Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Yet, as with most trans-Atlantic matters, there is a complex backstory. History weighs on the present, especially when it comes to the Old World. And some recent controversial flashpoints point toward 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 the Europeans—or for that matter, America-watchers elsewhere in the world—should not weigh in on those debates.

Anti-Americanism comes into play however when the specifics of particular issues are linked to negative stereotypes of Americans or American culture in general. 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 general 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 as lacking 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.

Europeans think of Americans as obnoxious cowboys, lacking sophistication and finesse.

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 home-grown flaws in Europe’s economy.

In addition, a third stereotype common in Europe involves the depiction of the United States as profoundly or even fanatically nationalistic. American policies face the suspicion that they serve only U.S. interests—as if European nations have renounced all self-interest and entered an internationalist utopia of perpetual peace. This allegation of fanaticism is linked to a discomfort with American religiosity. Indeed, 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 that 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.

Though these three expressions of anti-Americanism—aristocratic, anti-capitalist, and internationalist-secular—exist in Europe, they do not define 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. Then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder ran his 2002 reelection campaign around an attack on "American conditions," and then 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 in those days, not only because of genuine policy differences but also because of the eruption of anti-Americanism in European political culture.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama promised to end that all and 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—which is 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?

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

Would hope and change cure the anti-American disease? As it turns out—no, it would not.

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 only succeeded in ratcheting down the tone but it has not led to any major policy collaboration—this is why the Merkel visit had no real content. The administration's overtures have not yielded results, campaign promises to the contrary.

This points to lingering suspicion in Europe toward the United States. There remains a significant bias against the United States in key parts of the European public, a bias that 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.

On May 1, U.S. forces killed bin Laden in his compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, bringing a welcome end to a search that began right after the 9/11 attacks ten years ago. Those attacks put the blood of nearly 3,000 on his hands, not to mention the countless other victims killed during his years leading al-Qaeda. While one might ask whether capturing bin Laden alive might have been preferable in terms of collecting intelligence, it is difficult not to see his death as an appropriate end for a mass murderer and a 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 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 54-year old family father." Bin Laden as a venerable family man, and Americans as a mob—this is 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, is placed outside the civilized world: the European prejudice views the United States as the Wild West. These denunciations were not restricted to journalists, either. Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt denounced the bin Laden killing as a breach of international law.

Bin Laden as a venerable family man, and Americans as a mob—this is anti-Americanism pure and simple.

In gratifying contrast to Schmidt, current Chancellor 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 is that he would no longer be able to wage his war of terror. She characterized the commando action as a "success," and she added that 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 Manhattan arrest and indictment of International Monetary Fund Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn on rape charges—and the on-going saga of this high profile crime story—were of course closely followed in France, where "DSK" has long been prominent in political life. Indeed he was likely to become France’s Socialist candidate for president in next year's election.

Yet, while most attention has focused on the determination of his guilt or innocence and the credibility of his accuser, a further aspect of this case involves the French judgment on American justice. His arrest shocked the French public, not only because of his importance politically but also because of the astonishment that a man of his stature could be subject to arrest at all. In other words, as the people of France watched the Strauss-Kahn drama unfold, they began to doubt the quality of American justice: corrupt, driven by money and media, and crudely unwilling to offer special treatment to a member of the political elite. In this view, America is the place of mass culture and mob rule under the sign of the almighty dollar. Prominent French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has come to DSK's defense, articulating a strident critique of aspects of American justice.

There are of course differences in the judicial systems: 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 underlying the different perspectives are alternative values of public exposure: should trials be open to the public—and therefore the media—or should these matters be handled more discretely? It is worth noting however that while the accuser's name has been largely kept out of the press in the United States, it is all over the headlines in France.

Neither the German response to the bin Laden killing nor the French view of the Strauss-Kahn trial translates immediately into any specific trans-Atlantic policy dispute. Each, however, does provide a snapshot of Europe’s pejorative views of the United States. It is the nature of politics that European and American interests will sometimes point in different directions. But when they do, expect anti-Americanism to define parts of the European response.