America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked
(Henry Holt & Company, 2006), 259 pp., $25.
Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century
(Public Affairs, 2006), 251 pp., $25.
Nobody likes Goliath, the fitting sobriquet Michael Mandelbaum has used for America in his most recent book.1 That the United States is unpopular in the world these days is clear from even a casual reading of the newspaper or a glance at the evening news. A complex mixture of anger, resentment, envy and fear has distilled into a potent brew of anti-Americanism. Far less clear is why so many people apparently dislike us so much. Two new books, Bruce Stokes’ and Andrew Kohut’s America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked, which uses absorbing polling data from the Pew Center’s Global Attitudes Project, and Julia E. Sweig’s Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century, attempt to explain this phenomenon.
For Sweig, the answers are obvious. Although she mentions the weight of history, especially in Latin America (her specialty), and resentment of U.S. power and wealth, she lays blame squarely on the personality of President Bush, perceived American unilateralism, U.S. policies in Iraq, and American opposition to the Kyoto climate-change treaty and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Focusing on traditional American allies, friends, partners and dependents, she provides breezy snapshots of recent anti-American incidents and statements. But for Sweig, it is not simply what we do; she also takes critical aim at who we are and how we appear to others around the world.
Stokes and Kohut do this much better. America Against the World attempts to understand how foreign publics view the United States, how American attitudes and values differ from those of other publics, and how these differences in turn feed the image problems America currently experiences. Putting aside questions over the accuracy of polling data from closed societies, especially in the Middle East, America Against the World contains a wealth of striking information, from both foreign and domestic audiences, on issues ranging from American values like individualism and religiosity to U.S. policy preferences on the unilateral use of force and democracy promotion.
Their analyses, however, are what might be termed necessary but not sufficient reasons to explain the current strain of anti-Americanism. Strong presidential personalities, policy disagreements and aesthetic differences have long been fodder for anti-American attitudes overseas. One need only recall the virulent European opposition to President Reagan, who was often portrayed there as a combination of cowboy and simpleton, and it goes without saying that there have always been at least faint strains of clearly irrational anti-Americanism, as well.2 But the underlying sources of today’s anti-Americanism are far more powerful and, unfortunately, liable to be far more lasting.
What distinguishes America’s current unpopularity from previous periods is a cluster of systemic divisions—shifts of the global tectonic plates, so to speak. These changes in the international system are the most important and least analyzed reasons for the unprecedented levels of hostility toward the United States. First, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union changed profoundly the nature of the international system and the nature of the Transatlantic relationship. With the bipolar world that had grown out of the debris of World War II turned into a unipolar one, the United States now stands alone in attracting the lion’s share of the world’s fears and hopes, grievances and disappointments. Consider the paradox: The United States is blamed for being too strong, but at the same time it is faulted for not using its strength to solve the world’s problems.
In the post-Cold War era, too, the United States does not need its allies as much as before, nor they us. As G. John Ikenberry has observed, a shared fear of the Soviet threat was the “glue” at the core of the Transatlantic relationship and America’s alliances around the world, and the global War on Terror simply doesn’t supply “glue” to the same extent.
Second, a fundamental rethinking of the legal underpinnings of war and peace, and the use of force more generally, is now taking place. September 11 has catalyzed intense questioning over how well the inherited system of international law can operate in the current environment, specifically whether our legacy notions of preemption, legitimacy and the use of force still make sense. No new consensus has yet been reached. Even when countries agree on the threats we face (and there is broad agreement on the dangers posed by terrorism, WMD and failing states), we often disagree over the policy prescriptions.
For example, according to the UN Charter, a state can use force only in self-defense after it has suffered an armed attack or if authorized by the Security Council to redress a threat to international peace and security. Some have long argued that the charter implies an exception if a threatened attack is “imminent”, which would allow a state to strike first—to preempt, as the United States and its Coalition partners did in Iraq. That argument is clearly more persuasive in the present technological environment. What responsible policymaker would recommend waiting for a country to be attacked if he knew that some state or terrorist group was about to use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons? But there is still no formal consensus on a right to wage preemptive war, and there is even greater disagreement over what “imminent” means in practice. The implication for anti-Americanism is clear: If there is no consensus on such fundamental questions, then the United States invites widespread hostility every time it uses military force without prior UN Security Council approval.
The debate over when the use of force is legitimate reaches well beyond the U.S. war in Iraq. It pertains also to humanitarian interventions to prevent wholesale slaughter up to and including genocide. What happens when states breach their “responsibility to protect” their own citizens and, indeed, actively abuse them? This question suggests a third systemic change: the gradual and uneven erosion of state sovereignty. Under the Westphalian system, states have long been free to do as they liked within their own borders without interference from other states. In recent years, however, this strong form of sovereignty has given way to the increasing acceptance of intervention in the internal affairs of states. There are now fewer principled inhibitions on powerful states intervening in the domestic affairs of weak and troubled states. But this erosion of sovereignty has not been matched by a rise of new agreements about when and how the “international community” should intervene.
These questions of world order, war and peace, the use of force, and state sovereignty would be interesting, but hardly compelling, without the presence of a fourth new factor on the international scene—the rise of unprecedented and unrivalled American military power. American defense spending is now larger than the rest of the world’s military spending combined. In this post-9/11 world, where earlier truths about world order and the rules of war and peace are increasingly being questioned, only Washington has the military power to engage in large-scale uses of force on a global scale. For many, the uncertainty over the new rules of military engagement, the erosion of state sovereignty and the rise of American military might all coalesce into a generalized anxiety over how the United States wields its power.
If American military power doesn’t worry people, then the economic reach of the United States often does. So a fifth source of anti-Americanism is globalization. Those who find globalization enormously disruptive and threatening to traditional cultures and long-established ways of life identify the United States as the source of all evil. For that reason, anti-globalization protests are often indistinguishable from anti-American rants.
Sixth, and finally, we stand amid a major global demographic shift. The postwar generation in Europe, Korea, Japan and Australia is leaving center stage. The impact of the passing of the generational torch cannot be underestimated. Previously, governing elites in Europe and the United States shared the historical experience of World War II and the Berlin Airlift. Europeans had positive feelings toward the United States, rooted in America’s wartime bravery and power, as well as in its postwar creativity and generosity. Older Koreans and Japanese also experienced first-hand America’s compassion in rebuilding their homelands. That generation is now almost entirely gone from the scene, and with it leaves a reservoir of historic goodwill toward the United States. Instead, there is a younger generation in power today in Europe and Asia who came of political age while protesting the Vietnam War and what they viewed as American imperialism. Those who are reflexively pro-American are far fewer and less able to counter the mostly younger voices of anti-Americanism.
So, in short, important systemic changes entail a higher profile for the United States and require us to play a larger role as a provider of regional and international security at a time when old rules are changing but new ones are not yet settled. Both Friendly Fire and America Against the World address, more or less, many of these subjects, but neither book links them together to explain the underlying, systemic forces shaping anti-Americanism. Nor does either book attempt to analyze whether, or how much, America’s low esteem matters. Foreign policy is not a popularity contest. Unpopular policies today may win greater acceptance and support tomorrow. More important, unpopular policies may nevertheless serve the U.S. national interest better than popular ones.
The authors do understand and amplify at least one key point about the impact of anti-Americanism on Americans: Rising anti-Americanism will fuel greater isolationism within the American electorate. Stokes and Kohut cite a 2005 poll where 42 percent of Americans surveyed thought that the United States should “mind its own business and let other countries get along on their own.” This should be a warning to us all. It is hard to imagine any scenario in which an isolated, disengaged United States would be a better friend and ally, would better promote global prosperity, would more forcefully endorse democracy, social justice and human dignity, or would do more to enhance peace and security.
So what can the United States do to revive its image in the world? Sweig seems to recommend the large, the vague and the impossible. “It is time to declare the death of American exceptionalism”, she intones. Stokes and Kohut, too, conclude that “American exceptionalism and anti-Americanism are inextricably linked.” But a complete makeover of our national DNA isn’t in the cards, and the systemic changes described above can’t be wished away. Indeed, they’re already upon us.
Despite our best efforts, then, the United States will often remain the target of criticism by governments and regimes that cynically wish to distract their own people from home-grown failures: their unwillingness to deliver basic goods and services, to allow free speech and fair elections, to provide for a decent education or develop a free market that creates meaningful jobs. As Tip O’Neill might have put it, all anti-Americanism is local.
It is most unlikely, too, that the world will stop being hypocritical. Isn’t it curious that there have been massive protests against the United States for its involvement in Iraq, but nary a one against the decades of misrule and mountains of human rights abuses that Saddam Hussein inflicted on the Iraqi people? That there have been no street rallies condemning Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, despite the thousands of innocent lives they’ve destroyed and the threat they continue to pose? Or, to shift the focus slightly, that the Arab world is more outraged by a few cartoons in an obscure Danish newspaper than by the slaughter of 300,000 Muslims in Darfur?
While there are no quick fixes, there are steps the United States can and should take. We need to explain and defend our choices much better. For a country that virtually invented modern communications, we don’t do a very good job of telling our story. Contrary to Sweig’s belief, U.S. officials understand that more effective public diplomacy, by itself, is not “the answer du jour to the question of how to improve America’s standing in the world.” But it undeniably has an educational role to play. For example, everyone knows that the United States hasn’t joined the International Criminal Court, but how many know that the U.S. government has committed close to half a billion dollars to international criminal tribunals in the last decade? That the United States has contributed more funds to the Palestinian people than the entire Arab world combined? That the United States does a better job than Europe or Japan of opening its markets to developing countries? That the U.S. government has increased assistance to sub-Saharan Africa by more than 250 percent in the past five years? That the U.S. HIV/AIDS relief effort is the largest international health initiative in history? Far too few.
We also need a greater appreciation that many of the challenges we face in the 21st century can best, perhaps only, be solved by international cooperation—not least the War on Terror and countering weapons of mass destruction. Aggravating allies gratuitously and diminishing useful if imperfect international institutions are not just self-indulgent; they are harmful to U.S. national interests. Even if U.S. policies will not change anytime soon on issues like Kyoto and the ICC, it is obvious that words and tone do matter, as the authors of both books rightly maintain. A little less arrogance, along with a more mature kind of self-confidence, might go a long way. This used to be called having a decent respect for the opinion of mankind.
Mandelbaum, The Case for Goliath (Public Affairs, 2006), reviewed in these pages by Therese Délpèch, “Goliathan”, The American Interest (Spring 2006).
As noted by Josef Joffe, “Dissecting Anti-Isms”, The American Interest (Summer 2006).