|03-04-2005, 10:03 AM||#1|
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America seen from abroad
America seen from abroad
Feb 17th 2005
From The Economist print edition
George Bush will encounter a more complex animosity than is often portrayed when he ventures through Europe
Ever since the days of the Founding Fathers, America has regarded what George Washington called “the foreign world” with a degree of suspicion, and the foreign world has often reciprocated. Never more than now, it seems. Under George Bush, anti-Americanism is widely thought to have reached new heights—and, in the view of the Pew Research Centre, a Washington surveyor of world opinion, new depths. Its latest report says that “anti-Americanism is deeper and broader now than at any time in modern history.” But though anti-Americanism spans the globe, the phenomenon is not everywhere the same. It mutates according to local conditions, and it is seldom straightforward.
No wonder. Most people’s feelings about America are complicated. “America”, after all, is shorthand for many other terms: the Bush administration, a Republican-dominated Congress, Hollywood, a source of investment, a place to go to study, a land of economic opportunity, a big regional power, the big world power, a particular policy, the memory of something once done by the United States, a set of political values based on freedom, democracy and economic liberalism, and so on. It is easy to be for some of these and against others, and some may wax or wane in importance according to time, circumstance, propaganda or wishful thinking. So it should be no surprise that some people can hold two apparently contradictory views of America at once. The incandescent third-world demonstrator, shrieking “Down with America!” in one breath and “Can you get me a green card?” in the next, has become a commonplace.
As Mr Bush may discover when he meets his French counterpart over dinner on Monday, no country contains this mixture of attitudes in greater abundance than France. France is a longstanding ally of the United States (since 1778); it gave America the Statue of Liberty; it conferred honorary citizenship on Madison; it was the country of Lafayette (American revolutionary hero), of Montesquieu (profound influence on Jefferson) and of L’Enfant (designer of Washington, DC). Yet France is also the country that rails against American hyperpuissance (hyperpowerdom), cheers when rustic thugs lay waste McDonald’s and laps up books like “11 Septembre 2001: l’Effroyable Imposture”, whose thesis, that the attacks on the twin towers were “an appalling deception” to justify American adventurism, won it sales of 100,000 in its first week of publication. France, moreover, is the home of Gaullism, a form of nationalism saturated with anti-American bilge—and the well-spring of Mr Chirac’s political creed.
All this has made France the locus classicus of anti-Americanism. Yet many ordinary French people, as distinct from their more politically-minded countrymen, are rather pro-American. They go to American movies, take holidays in the United States, eat in McDonald’s (rustics permitting) and shop in places that look much like American giant stores. In a poll conducted in 21 countries by the BBC World Service last month, only a small majority (54%) of those interviewed in France said they viewed American influence unfavourably—not much more than in Australia (52%), and rather less than in Mexico (57%), Canada (60%) and Germany (64%).
The repulsion of similars
So what explains France’s reputation for anti-Americanism? The main answer is that it is proclaimed bombastically by so many of those in France who strike political attitudes. They do this partly because of the rivalry between France and America, based on their remarkably similar self-images: the two countries both think they invented the rights of man, have a unique calling to spread liberty round the world and hold a variety of other attributes that make them utterly and admirably exceptional. Jealousy also plays a part. America is often better than France at activities that the French take great pride in, such as making movies or even cooking—at least if popular taste is the judge. And French politicians are not blind to the value of criticising someone else in order to divert attention from their own failures: French anti-Americanism tends to rise when France has just suffered a setback of some kind, whether defeat at the hands of the Germans, a drubbing in Algeria or the breakdown of the Fourth Republic.
Not many countries share all these characteristics, but several have some of them. Take Iran, where political diatribes, religious sermons, rent-a-mob demonstrations and heroic graffiti regularly denounce the Great Satan and all his doings. Anti-Americanism is central to the ideology of Iran’s ruling Shia clerics. Yet Iranians at large, like the French, are not noticeably hostile to America. The young in particular seem thoroughly pro-American, revelling in America’s popular culture, yearning for its sexual freedoms, some even hoping for an American deliverance from their oppression. Whether the affection runs deep is another matter: pro-Americanism among the young is a form of anti-regime defiance that might evaporate quickly if their country were attacked.
Yet why should the clerics bang on so relentlessly about the United States when the British were just as deeply involved in the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh’s regime in 1953, when Iraq under Saddam Hussein posed a much greater threat, and when, recently at least, America has shown itself ready to get rid of the Baathists next door and pave the way for a Shia-led government in Iraq? The main explanation, as in France, is rivalry. Iran’s theocratic regime has clear ambitions to be a leader not just of the Middle East but of the entire Muslim world. America, now avowedly bent on spreading democracy across the region, is in the way.
The regime has other reasons as well, no doubt: to divert attention from its many failures; to keep alive the thought that the wicked shah, restored to power in the 1953 coup, was the creature of the Americans, even though memories of his rule glow ever more brightly for many older Iranians; and, inevitably, to exploit the widespread feeling among Muslims almost everywhere that the United States is pro-Israel, anti-Palestine and indeed anti-Islam, a feeling that has intensified, according to the polls, since September 11th 2001. Pew says anti-Americanism is nowhere more acute than in the Muslim world.
Even here, though, the picture is not uniform. In Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country, anti-Americanism is largely an armchair affair. People are happy to curse the United States—a current rumour suggests it could have given warning of the December tsunami but chose not to—yet none of the recent terrorist attacks in Indonesia seems to have been directed at Americans. In Arab countries, by contrast, some people are clearly ready to take up arms in pursuit of al-Qaeda’s jihad.
Arab anti-Americanism is a much younger phenomenon than its European counterpart. Although it shares with European left-wingery much claptrap about the wickedness of American materialism, it became widespread in the Middle East only with America’s open support for Israel after the 1967 six-day war. Eleven years earlier, Arabs had been all for the United States: it had just put a stop to the Suez affair, the British-French-Israeli attempt to overthrow the Nasser regime in Egypt. But since 1967 America has been considered by Arabs to be incomprehensibly pro-Israeli. The potency of this view probably owes more to Arab failures than to anything else—failures to deal with Israel, to establish democracies, to create modern economies, to produce heroes in virtually any field of respectable human endeavour. This must be someone’s fault. Whose? Why, the local thug (Israel) and its sponsor (America), of course.
A seminal event, akin to the 1967 war for Arabs, may be found in plenty of other places where anti-Americanism flourishes. In Greece it was America’s backing for the rule of the colonels (1967-74). In Spain, it was the support—implicit, if not explicit—of the Franco regime that came with America’s military bases in the 1950s. Some say Spain’s dislike for America dates back to the Spanish-American war of 1898, but in truth that made little impact on the left, which saw the war as an agent of Spain’s modernisation. When American soldiers arrived at Torrejón and other bases in the 1950s, though, the Spanish left saw them as collaborators, not liberators.
Most of the far left in Europe is still anti-American, for familiar reasons: America is materialist, imperialist, interventionist, etc. But right-wingers, too, are sometimes hostile. The ideas of the American revolution have inevitably challenged anciens régimes and anti-democrats of any stripe (including Franco’s, until the bases). As conservatives have come to terms with democracy, those who have taken against America have done so mostly for snobbish or cultural reasons: hence the antagonism of such British writers as Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis.
Latin Americans may think they have better reasons to harbour a grudge. Mexico, for instance, lost about half its territory to the United States in the war of 1846-48. In the BBC survey last month, only 11% of the Mexicans polled had a mainly favourable view of the influence of their northern neighbour, less even than the proportion of Argentines, who are in other respects even more hostile. Cubans have resented the United States ever since 1898, when their hard- and long-fought war of independence against Spain was in effect stolen from them by the yanquis prosecuting the Spanish-American war.
The United States then made some 30 military interventions in and around the Caribbean in the next 30 years, many of them under Smedley Butler, a marine corps general, who summed up his career thus: “I helped make Honduras “right” for American fruit companies in 1903. I helped make Mexico…safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street…I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China, I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.”
For most of the 19th century, Latin Americans—including their great liberator, Simón Bolívar—had drawn inspiration from the American colonists’ anti-British revolt. But the war of 1898 and the interventions that followed turned most of them against the great power next door. The hostility remains, in varying degrees, though 15 years of democratisation, emigration to and trade with the United States have done much to soften attitudes, especially in Central America.
Other nations that have experienced American meddling also continue to resent it. For evidence, just go to Congo, where Mobutu Sese Seko ruled imperiously for decades courtesy of the United States, or to Angola, whose long wars were drawn out by the superpower sponsorship of its local tyrants. Yet anti-Americanism in such places does not seem to run deep. This is not just a matter of distance. The Philippines is hardly adjacent, yet its experience as an American colony for half a century has left it with a persistent strain of anti-Americanism—as well as an infatuation, among the young at least, with basketball and country music.
Proximity makes the heart grow colder
That suggests that the intensity of the American experience may be the decisive factor in the creation of lasting anti-Americanism. It would explain why Indians, for instance, though their governments were long hostile to America in foreign policy, have never shown much antagonism in other ways. Yet the intensity test certainly does not provide an iron rule. On the one hand, Canada, which has never suffered anything worse from its neighbour than cultural imperialism, ignoration and disdain, is perpetually critical of the United States. If it were not—if it did not define itself in opposition to its neighbour—Canada, it seems, would have no reason to exist. On the other hand, Vietnam, less than 30 years after a long war against the Americans in which it lost about 5m of its people, seems to harbour little hostility towards its old foe. Perhaps it is just too busy to hate.
It may help, too, that Vietnam has not had any subsequent reason, real or imaginary, to resent America. In many of the places where the embers of anti-Americanism burn brightest, some event has taken place to rekindle them. For Arabs, the war in Iraq is one. For Latin Americans, it was the United States’ support for Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile (and now its stomp-all-over-the-place war on drugs). For Greeks, it was the American-led interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo—interventions on behalf of Muslims, though many Muslims seem to forget it. The Greeks, though, did not. They were outraged by NATO’s attacks on the Serbs, another Orthodox Christian people. In the Philippines, America was considered far too friendly to the kleptocratic and ruthless Ferdinand Marcos. In every country with American bases, any outrage by American servicemen—the rape of a Japanese child, the running over of two South Korean girls, the severing of an Italian cable-car’s wires—tends to strengthen latent hostility.
The vigour of anti-American feeling varies strongly even among peoples who, to the casual observer, seem to have no good reason for their differing reactions. The Japanese, for example, defeated in war—Tokyo fire-bombed, Hiroshima and Nagasaki triturated with atomic bombs—seem far more pro-American than the South Koreans, who owe much of their freedom to American force of arms. Why? Perhaps because the Japanese feel, rightly or wrongly, much more threatened by China and North Korea than do the South Koreans, and are therefore much more grateful to a protective Uncle Sam.
Certainly, hostility to America is often mitigated by feelings of friendship and gratitude. Plenty of elderly Frenchmen remember America’s role in liberating their country. Plenty of Germans remember the Berlin airlift. Plenty of elderly Iranians are proud that they once studied in the United States. Many, if not most, of the reformist democrats in Latin American governments have been to American universities, as have several of their east and central European counterparts.
An American diaspora may also have a mollifying effect in the old country. France, which has sent few emigrants to North America since before the European Enlightenment, is unusual in providing no hyphenated Americans (which may help to explain why French anti-Americanism is matched by American anti-Frenchism). Huge communities of Latin Americans, Indochinese, Greeks, Koreans, Iranians, you name it, have grown up in recent decades in the United States and ensure that a constant flow of money, ideas and hope flow from America to other parts of the world.
Gestures that make all the difference
This background of ties, aspirations and shared values means that in some places anti-Americanism can be dissipated quite quickly with a visit (such as Bill Clinton’s trip to India in 2000) or some other gesture (debt forgiveness perhaps, or some post-tsunami assistance). In other places, though, it would take much more to change attitudes: an American-engineered peace between Israel and the Palestinians, say, or a credible commitment to tackle global warming, and even these might prove ineffective without other policy changes sustained over many years. And in some places it may well be impossible for America to do very much. The mere fact of being a great power ready to intervene (in, say, Kosovo) is enough to make enemies. And then some states, like some people, have chips on their shoulders. Anti-Americanism in Argentina and parts of the Arab world has as much to do with the inadequacies of these countries as with anything done by the United States.
Why, anyway, should America care if a bunch of foreigners dislike it, or affect to? Maybe, as a military and economic power without rival, it should not be too worried. Yet America needs the co-operation of other governments if it is to conduct trade, combat drugs, reduce pollution and fight terrorism. Moreover, Mr Bush is now committed to spreading “freedom” across the Middle East, indeed across the world. If foreigners, disillusioned with America, believe this is merely a hypocritical justification for getting rid of regimes he dislikes, the task may be harder. It is striking that Mr Bush’s 49 mentions of liberty or freedom in his inaugural address last month do not seem to have struck the sort of chord round the world that Jack Kennedy’s quixotic commitments did in the 1960s.
Shining city loses lustre
That may reflect the greater cynicism of the worldwide audience 40 years on. But the polls suggest it also has something to do with Mr Bush. Last month’s BBC poll found that opposition to Mr Bush was stronger than anti-Americanism in general, and that the particular had contributed to the general. Asked how Mr Bush’s election had affected their views of the American people, 42% said it had made them feel worse towards Americans.
That is the, perhaps short-term, view of some non-Americans. It is accompanied by another view, increasingly common among pundits, which holds that America is losing its allure as a model society. Whereas much of the rest of the world once looked to the United States as a beacon, it is argued, non-Americans are now turning away. Democrats in Europe and elsewhere who once thought religiosity, a belief in capital punishment and rank hostility to the United Nations were intermittent or diminishing features of the United States now see them as rising and perhaps permanent. Such feelings have been fortified by Mr Bush’s doctrine of preventive war, Guantánamo, opposition to the world criminal court and a host of other international agreements. One way or another, it is said, people are turning off America, not so much to hate it as to look for other examples to follow—even Europe’s. If true, that could be even more insulting to Americans than the rise in the familiar anti-Americanism of yesteryear.
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