What are the sources of the American image around the world? How has it changed in recent years? And what, if anything, can the U.S. government do to shape that image? The American Interest posed these questions to a distinguished group of international observers. Their answers reflect diverse histories and circumstances, and offer some useful counsel.
How does France perceive America? What has defined and shaped that image? It all started in the late 18th century at the time of the American War of Independence against the British Empire. Just when this strange country, the United States of America, established its national freedom in the most modern sense of the term, France was its best, closest and most effective ally—never forget that France, and not only the France of Lafayette, but also that of Louis XVI and Beaumarchais (ah! Beaumarchais’ weapons!) stood side-by-side with the Americans in what remains the first and most celebrated of all wars of decolonization in Universal History.
The French know this. And they know that another great liberation, this time of their own country from the absolute evil of Nazism, was thanks to the Americans of 1944–45. These two liberations form the basic context of Franco-American ties. These relations rest on a pedestal of memory embedded in the most beautiful stones—those of anti-colonialism on one side, antifascism on the other. But something untoward has settled on this pedestal: French anti-Americanism.
What is anti-Americanism, and how has it now become woven into the fabric of French national ideology? Contrary to a common preconception, French anti-Americanism did not arise on the Left. It may have become a left-wing concept, however. Indeed it has become the favorite weapon of all the neo-progressives, of all the proponents of alternative globalization, and of all the fellow travelers of political Islamism. But that’s precisely the point: This is what French anti-Americanism has become, very belatedly, after a long journey that began at the other end of the cultural and political spectrum, for, historically, French anti-Americanism was a right-wing idea, and an extreme one at that.
Anti-Americanism in France was born from the belief (completely wrong, incidentally) that America embodied what always struck terror in the French Right, including the followers of Charles Maurras and especially during the first decades of the 20th century. Maurrassians are thrown into a towering rage by the concept of an abstract nation with no roots and no memory, an artificial, disembodied nation whose nature stems from free will, from a pact or a contract. Look closely, they used to say: This nightmarish cosmopolitan nation, with no common race and no roots, this challenge-nation based only on the resolve to live together in a new way, with liberty and justice for all, is now eschewing the status of a pipe dream it once had, for example, with the wretched Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and is now finding a place on this earth where it can assume an actual form. That place is America. Maurrassians hated the United States because it arose in and of the world as well as the mind, because it took on both a geographical and ontological reality: It became the part of the socialized human being that defied the demons of roots and race.
Has the American image in France changed over the past five years, on account of the Iraq war and its related troubles? Has it gotten worse? No, not really. George W. Bush’s personality, his cynicism, his uncouth “bad boy” manner, seemingly in line with the worst of middle America, has done nothing to smooth things over, of course. Nor has the prominent arrival of neoconservative intellectuals, whose main weakness, as perceived by their French counterparts, has been an unhesitating proclamation that their goal is to marshal unprecedented power in the service of morally grounded political change. And it is true that the absurd, useless and counterproductive war in Iraq, in which we French saw the United States display all the autistic arrogance of a country that looked as though it was trying to cause both its enemies and its allies to hate it, has not helped. But French anti-Americanism, as with all strong political passions, feeds more on images than on facts. It rages against an imagined, fantasy America, an America that has turned into an abstract category of the soul, not against America as it actually is today. French anti-Americanism, both in its right-wing origins and in its long journey to the Left, is a form of political unconsciousness that dispenses with the actual events of a given situation. Consequently, the American image is mostly immune to reality. Had John Kerry or someone else been elected president, the situation would not be that much different. And as genuine anti-Americanism is not intensified by America’s mistakes, it can not be mitigated by America’s changes of policy or heart.
Can America improve its image, and if so, how would it do so? Same problem, therefore same answer. Anti-Americanism shares a dreadful privilege with anti-Semitism in that it requires no reason to flare up and requires no additional fuel to keep it burning. Whatever you do, you lose. Be bad, people will hate you for your malice. Be good, people will hate you for your presumptuousness. What’s more, your true enemies make no mistake about this, bothering not to hate what is loathsome about you (America’s resignation toward poverty, its cruelty toward the weak, its racist residue, its founding crimes—flaws that are nowhere mentioned in al-Qaeda’s literature). They rather stab at what is most respectable and laudable about you (your appetite for democracy and liberty, your propensity for debate, your ideological and religious tolerance, the right for women to walk freely, your passion for equality).
And then there is the other part of me that nonetheless wonders if America’s image would change if America emerged more often alongside of what is righteous, true and good—in other words, as Julien Benda would put it, alongside the “unselfish” values. America need not do this for the sake of convincing Frenchmen of anything, but just imagine what would happen if the world saw America get involved “free of charge” in Darfur. Or if America used its tremendous power to separate the factions tearing each other to pieces in Burundi, the very name of which is no doubt unknown to many American citizens. Or if America started to care about the terrible war that has brought the Sinhalese army into conflict with the Tamil Tigers for decades, without having any strategic interest in that remote area of the world. These are three examples of forgotten wars, black holes where the worst in human nature is multiplied against itself like a contagion run wild, while the major powers of the world do nothing. If America wishes to do well by doing good, why not go for a stroll in the seedier areas of the planet? If America would fight relativism and spread universal values, why not do so precisely in areas where it is least appreciated, and hence most pure? That might be one way to do things. That might be one way for America to dazzle the world once again. Nothing less will disrupt the conceit of French anti-Americanism.