October 31, 2008
My American friends believe that, after Barack Obama becomes president, America will once again be loved around the world. They are wishful thinkers.
Anti-Americanism didn’t begin with George Bush and it won’t end with an Obama presidency. With rare exceptions, America has always inspired hatred and contempt, and for reasons that aren’t about to go away. Those who expect America’s haters to convert on November 4 need to get out more.
I first noticed anti-Americanism abroad as a teen from Canada living in Paris in 1967 – Americans were commonly held in contempt in the 5th Republic of Charles De Gaulle (1958-69), who glorified France by slurring the U.S., and who explicitly sought to undermine U.S. stature in the world. As was popular among French intellectuals, De Gaulle decried America’s “arrogance of power” and its soulless materialism.
Then I noticed anti-Americanism in a trip around the world in 1973, and so did the many Americans I crossed paths with in youth hostels and cafes. Their backpacks could be counted on to display the Canadian flag, the better to avoid unpleasantries (German youths, reviled for their country’s Nazi past, sported backpacks with Swiss flags). All told, I have visited some 60 countries over the last 40 years. With the general exception of the then-Communist countries, the sentiment – at least among the reform-minded people I tended to associate with – was overwhelmingly anti-American.
The bitter criticisms of the U.S. often confused me. Anil Agarwal, a prominent environmentalist (now-deceased) from India for whom I had the greatest respect, decried the “Coca Cola-ization” of the Third World (this was circa 1980 – today we would call this “globalization”). You can visit the poorest, most remote village, he lamented, and you will see Coca Cola signs, and people drinking Coca Cola, despite the expense.
But why blame Coca Cola or America?, I asked, particularly perplexed because Anil was inspired by the villager’s knowledge and resourcefulness, and was an outspoken proponent of individual and community control. If villagers voluntarily purchase Coca Cola, why would Anil object?
Anil never did answer in a way I found satisfying, other than expressing a discomfort that the U.S. had become too powerful, that its corporations’ reach had become too extensive, that the U.S. presence had gone too far. It was then common to decry “U.S. imperialism,” although the U.S. never sought or got much of a colonial empire, unlike Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Italy, which between them militarily conquered and colonized much of Africa, Asia and the Americas. “U.S. imperialism” was short for “U.S. economic imperialism,” meaning that the U.S. was attempting to control the world marketplace through often nefarious non-military means, including covert support for dictators.
America’s military, of course, inspires resentment and hatred when it engages in war – witness the reaction today to the war in Iraq, or a generation ago to the Vietnam War. But America’s military also inspires contempt for its passivity. During the First World War, the German Kaiser repeatedly claimed that America would not fight, whatever the provocation; President Woodrow Wilson, with his policy of “watchful waiting,” bore him out for years, entering the war only at the end and after being attacked. Roosevelt, likewise, entered the Second World War late, and after America was attacked.
The view around the world that America doesn’t have the stomach for a fight remains – Muslim extremists took this lesson from Reagan’s flight from Beirut in 1984 and Clinton’s from Somalia in 1993. American restraint following the first World Trade Center attack, the embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole confirmed this analysis prior to 9/11, as did the anti-war movement during the Vietnam war, as does the anti-war movement now. Whether the loathing for America is greater when it fights or when it does not is arguable; not arguable is that the U.S. has been loathed regardless of its military stance.
The most enduring of the stereotypes that denigrate the U.S. is that of the Ugly American, a best-selling book that came out in 1958, and then became a Marlon Brando movie. This American is loud and tasteless, insensitive to other cultures. A boor, and not one in uniform, the ugly American came to represent the American tourist above all, but also corporate big-wigs and stay-at-home slobs. This characterization was nothing new, however. An earlier America hater, Charles Dickens, in 1844 painted Americans in an equally boorish light and America as “so maimed and lame, so full of sores and ulcers, foul to the eye and almost hopeless to the sense, that her best friends turn from the loathsome creature with disgust.” Almost a century earlier still, the French had decided that the natural environment in the Americas was not conducive to producing hardy flora or fauna, and that humans who settled there would become degenerate. Voltaire was one exponent of this view, the French encyclopedist Abbe Raynal another: “America has not yet produced a good poet, an able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science,” he concluded in 1770, setting off a debate among such men as Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson, who now had to defend themselves from attack by their more cultured critics across the sea.
Many, many scholars have examined the phenomenon of anti-Americanism, some likening it to a kind of secular religion that explains all the world’s evils, from poverty and injustice to wars and environmental destruction. My explanation is less complicated: America is an unparalleled success, and with success comes envy and resentment, especially of those who don’t have it.
The world has seen other great military powers – the ancient Romans, the Ottomans, the British. None has extended its military reach throughout the planet, as has the U.S. Neither has any one nation before so dominated the world economy – the U.S. represents 25% of world GDP. Neither has any one nation so dominated technological advancement – the U.S. soars in scientific achievements, whether measured by the number of Nobel Prizes won or the number of patents acquired. Neither, and most gallingly, has any one nation ever dominated culture so thoroughly. From Hollywood to Broadway to TV, from music to clothing to food, America is everywhere supreme. This Coca-Cola-McDonalds-Starbucks culture may be reviled but it cannot be disputed.
Finally, America is loathed because its brand of free-market capitalism remains ascendant, having outperformed European-style socialism and utterly defeated Communism, ideologies that attract many if not most of the world’s intellectuals. More than two centuries since its founding, the U.S. shows no sign of losing either its economic or military supremacy.
Will the world pay obeisance to U.S. superiority should President Obama take office? French president Sarkozy reportedly characterized Obama’s stance on Iran as “utterly immature” and comprised of “formulations empty of all content.” Worse, he believes, Obama is “arrogantly” displaying a willingness to act unilaterally in talking to Iran without preconditions, ignoring the consensus forged by France, Germany and other members on the UN Security Council. The EU’s trade commissioner called Obama’s advocacy of trade protectionism “irresponsible” and a “mirage,” the UK’s foreign secretary echoed trade concerns.
America will be America after Nov 4. Anti-Americanism is safe.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute.
Photo: Supporters of Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr burn American flags. (Kareem Kaheem/Reuters)