Many claim that the United States has very few friends in the world today.
But of course! you might exclaim. There is a reason for that. After Sept. 11, the world rallied to our side. President Bush had the opportunity to end terrorism, reduce carbon emissions, eradicate poverty in Africa — but he squandered all the goodwill on a failed war in Iraq. Bush’s pathetic policies have caused the world to lose its respect for American ideals and U.S. leadership.
There remains, however, one glorious hope: “engagement” with other countries through an “aggressive” campaign of diplomacy.
This fairy tale may be comforting, but it’s futile. For one, it ignores the complex nature of anti-Americanism. Since World War II, various groups from around the world have had grounds — some more legitimate than others — for resenting American government, economy and culture. From America’s eagerness to interfere with foreign governments, to its reluctance to interfere with oppressive regimes, to the impact of economic globalization, to the diffusion of American films, music and even food around the world, our actions and identity have been the subject of much criticism and anger.
The reasons are sometimes conflicting, and they don’t necessarily follow an expected pattern. Take the Suez Crisis, a major source of French resentment towards the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. It’s more than a little ironic: The French came to doubt seriously that America was a loyal ally because America wouldn’t support a French, British and Israeli attack on Egypt. Imagine that: French anti-Americanism predating alleged American militarism-at-all-costs and strong American support for Israel!
The causes of anti-Americanism have clearly changed over time. They can’t be traced to a simple principle that holds in all cases, so let’s stop claiming that we would have more pals “if only we just changed X, or tried harder to do Y…” Yes, there was the show of solidarity for America around the world after Sept. 11. On Sept. 12, 2001, the French daily Le Monde printed an editorial headline that would define French sentiment toward America for nearly two weeks (at least): “We are all American.” But American in what sense? In the sense, perhaps, that the French felt natural human sympathy for the victims, families and fellow citizens of a shocking and brutal attack on the most powerful country on Earth.
There is nothing surprising about the fact that billions around the world were horrified and saddened by Sept. 11. The question, however, is to what extent people in Indonesia and Italy and Pakistan (and everywhere else) were willing to translate their sympathy into supportive policies. Whether they would be willing to do so depended crucially on their understanding of the causes of Sept. 11. To come to a consensus over the matter was difficult even in the United States. Naturally, it was much harder for, say, Saudia Arabia and Germany to agree.
The Le Monde editorial, for instance, goes on to say: “But the reality is perhaps also that of an America trapped by its own cynicism. If bin Laden, as the American authorities seem to think, really is the one who ordered the Sept. 11 attacks, how can we fail to recall that he was in fact trained by the CIA? … Might it not then have been America itself that created this demon?”
Many other attempts to explain the anti-Americanism that led to the terrorist attacks principally involved blaming the United States for previous foreign policies: American support for Israel, the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf War and so on. When the United States decided that we faced real enemies outside our borders and acted accordingly, it is no surprise that nations with such interpretations of Sept. 11 decided not to support us in the long run.
We now pin anti-Americanism on the war in Iraq and the president’s lack of diplomatic skills. Of course, both areas could be handled more effectively. But we should not treat other countries like little children who can be pacified by soothing words and meaningless gestures. Interpretations of Sept. 11 that put the blame on America stem from complex historical resentment of American political, military and economic power, self-centered interests on the part of foreign powers, as well as an ideological distaste for American liberal ideals in many parts of the world. We cannot presume that mere “engagement” with those who distrust America will propel us to a position of respected international leadership — these governments do not want us to be leaders in the first place.
The roots of anti-Americanism extend past our current international crisis. Wrapping ourselves in shiny new rhetoric will do little to change that underlying reality.
Rachel Bayefsky is a junior in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.