Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Understanding Anti-Americanism

Understanding Anti-Americanism

One of the most contentious issues of this presidential election is the high level of anti-Americanism in the world today. Is the problem due to an understandable reaction against the policies of President George W. Bush or rather the product of forces opposing freedom and democracy?

Like many partisan disputes, this debate misses the point and mashes the facts to suit a predetermined objective: whether Bush is the architect of hostility against the United States or the champion of a free world against totalitarians and whether Bush or Senator John Kerry would be a better president.

If one examines anti-Americanism apart from these set arguments, though, a much more accurate picture emerges.

Anti-Americanism is a phenomenon as old, actually even older, than the United States itself. Although it has gone through various periods and emphases, the main themes have remained remarkably consistent, long predating either the influence of Hollywood or America being a great power internationally. Two of the most important are the vision of the United States as a bad society, which threatens to become the model for the whole world, and that of America as seeking global conquest.

For example, the first clear statement of anti-Americanism came from the French lawyer Simon Linguet in the 1780s. The dregs of Europe, he warned, would build a dreadful society in America, create a strong army, take over Europe, and destroy civilization. If one were to be talking about the spread of notions like democracy and liberty, Linguet’s fear was something of a personal premonition. A few years later, he was guillotined by the French revolution.

Similarly, the first use of the word “Americanization” has been traced to an 1867 article in a French journal which warned that the import of American agricultural machinery would end with the elimination of French culture. It is no accident that France has long been the global capital of anti-Americanism. Indeed, the level of hatred toward the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as other decades, has been arguably higher than today.

In considering the roots of anti-Americanism, a dislike of U.S. policies has often been set off against a disdain for American values. Yet there are problems with both explanations. Regarding values, withering criticism and even hatred often arise among people who share those values in broad terms. Europeans are also pro-democratic.

Sometimes, of course, criticism may be on target but what is often being ejected so passionately is either the details of how America interprets those values or a notion of American life based on bizarre stereotypes. For instance, America is seen as typified by capital punishment, yet most states do not put people to death while many Americans oppose this. Thus, capital punishment does not typify America.

By the same token, Americans do not spend all their meals eating pizza and hamburgers. There is a greater variety of culinary experiences available in the United States than in any other country, not to mention the high quality of food that can be found. Another anti-American technique is to compare the average or even lowest level of culture or society in the United States with elite habits in Europe. The average Frenchman does not spend his time reading philosophy and eating haute cuisine.

Most important of all, however, may be the fact that the United States has always been a symbol of modernity. Whatever people did not like about the way the world was heading — urbanization, secularism, mass culture, and so on — was portrayed as a specifically American characteristic. In the Middle East, the nature of American society is even more distorted and misunderstood than in Europe.

The same basic points apply to U.S. policy. One can like or dislike any given American action in the world but what marks the difference between respectful criticism and contorted, even murderous, hatred? If it is assumed that American motives are evil (wanting to steal Iraq’s oil and rule the world), then obviously antagonism will prevail.

One question is whether actions are viewed as mistakes or crimes proving the evil nature of America as imperialistic and aggressive. Another is if a systematically negative vision is portrayed, in which anything positive done by the United States is deliberately ignored while other actions are made to seem negative or worse than they are.

As to the timing of this particular wave of anti-Americanism there are different causes. In the Cold War’s aftermath, the United States is the world’s most powerful country whose political, economic, and cultural influence seemed ever-spreading. It is not surprising that many would perceive that such a strong power was the great threat to their own societies and countries. In a real sense, the current situation is the realization of the two-centuries’-long nightmare of anti-Americans.

In this context, Bush also seemed to fit long-standing anti-American stereotypes in every detail of his life and deportment. The negative image of America is closely tied up with those who could be portrayed as cowboys, religious, conservatives, and unintellectual. Being unpopular doesn’t mean being wrong, however, and only the American voters can determine how they feel about his record and global image.

There is, however, one more extremely important factor that is virtually always omitted in discussions of anti- Americanism: self-interest. Those purveying anti-Americanism have always been those who benefited from doing so, whether promoting their material well-being or ideas.

Dictators use anti-Americanism to convince their subjects to support them. Intellectuals and cultural figures have been the main carriers of anti-Americanism as a weapon against a country whose products compete with their work. Moreover, the spread of the American model would greatly reduce their power and prestige. For Europeans and Middle Easterners, albeit in far different ways, anti-Americanism seems a good slogan to unite around.

Come to think of it, the issue is often used similarly within the United States, as a political tool or a partisan bludgeon. Actually trying to understand the phenomenon in its complexity, however, is the only way to respond successfully to the very real problems it presents us with today.