Missing Links

Anti-Americanisms

A guide to hating Uncle Sam

For all the post–September 11 focus on Islamic anti-Americanism, the world’s reaction to the carnage in New York City and Washington has actually exposed the variety, complexity, and ubiquity of antipathy toward the United States. In Argentina, Hebe de Bonafini, an internationally known human rights activist and president of the Association of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (mothers of Argentines who "disappeared" during the dictatorships in that country), said, "When the attack happened…I felt happiness." In France, the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique summarized his view of the world’s reaction: "What’s happening to [Americans] is too bad, but they had it coming."

Although few America-haters actually resort to terror, their simmering rage not only incubates violence; it also provides the moral support that can transform a crime against humanity into the opening salvo of a global struggle. Thus the need to understand it better.

Anti-Americanism’s most frequent expressions usually reflect a mishmash of grievances. In order to identify and understand anti-Americanism’s varied roots, it is useful to isolate its five "pure" types: politico-economic, historical, religious, cultural, and psychological.

Politico-economic anti-Americanism represents a reaction to current U.S. foreign policies. A few examples of policies that rouse opposition include U.S. support for Israel or for repressive governments in the Middle East, the U.S. role in the Balkans, its embargo on Iraq or Cuba, the U.S. Congress’s practice of "certifying" certain behaviors of other countries (including friendly ones like Mexico), and the lack of U.S. support for the Kyoto Protocol on climate change or for the establishment of the International Criminal Court. U.S. international economic policies also draw fire, whether trade policies that limit imports from poor countries or the use of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to advance U.S. interests.

Historical anti-Americanism has its roots in past U.S. behavior. In a newspaper column entitled "The Last September 11," Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean novelist, reminds readers that on September 11, 1973, the democratically elected government of socialist President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a military coup backed by the United States. "[B]oth in Chile in 1973 and in the States today, terror descended from the sky to destroy the symbols of national identity, the Palace of the Presidents in Santiago, the icons of financial and military power in New York and Washington." Similar sentiments rooted in past deeds of the United States are common in many other countries. Nearly 50 years of anticommunist struggle created memories and instincts that continue to inspire anti-American feelings not just in former communist countries but also in Italy and France, which together had millions of Communist Party members. Moreover, for decades, politicians and intellectuals in developing countries have blamed the economic underdevelopment of their countries on their exploitation by rich ones, notably the United States.

Religious anti-Americanism is most virulently expressed by Islamic fundamentalists. In the words of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s late spiritual leader, "[Americans] are the great Satan, the wounded snake." But religious anti-Americanism is by no means exclusively Muslim. Roman Catholic liberation theologists, Greek Orthodox prelates, fundamentalist Jewish rabbis, and U.S. televangelists also deliver scathing condemnations of American society’s corrupting immorality — never mind that the United States is actually among the more religiously observant of the Western democracies, at least in terms of church attendance and public self-perception.

Cultural anti-Americanism is stirred by the ability of American culture to influence and often displace local cultures. Satellites that beam American television overseas and commercial brands that attract billions of consumers also stoke anxiety and anger about cultural invasion. The list of American realities that jar the sensibilities of citizens in other countries is long: women’s rights, sexual permissiveness, drug use, gun ownership, the death penalty, intrusive marketing techniques, fast food, tolerance for economic inequality, racism, and high incarceration rates.

Psychological anti-Americanism is fueled by jealousy, resentment, ambivalence, and crushed expectations. The seductive allure of American capitalism, freedoms, products, and culture often coexists with ambivalence about them as economically or politically unattainable. This love-hate relationship can spark the most intense hatred. In the early 1990s, millions around the world believed it was just a matter of time before economic liberalization, political reforms, and globalization propelled their standards of living closer to that enjoyed by Americans. Ten years later, Americans are more prosperous while people in most transition economies and emerging markets still struggle, their frustration heightened by cheap, almost universal access to images and information about how much better Americans live. As the Greek writer Takis Michas notes, while anti-Americanism used to be driven mostly by what America did, now it is also motivated by what America is.

What to do? Recognizing the various types of anti-Americanism is an essential first step in combating them — a goal that should be viewed as a vital component of not just fighting terrorism but of creating a more stable world. U.S. foreign policies need to be screened against this overarching interest. Think, for example, about the effect that the U.S. reluctance to pay its U.N. dues had on global public opinion. Is the ill will generated by such behavior worth it? The need to stem anti-Americanism must become part of the mind-set of the State Department, Pentagon, Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. Agency for International Development, and Congress. Also, American politicians and policymakers should recognize that as tempting as it may be for the United States to act alone in world affairs, unilateral actions usually bear the price tag of promoting anti-American feelings. For years that cost was considered negligible. Even today anti-Americanism is often dismissed as an unavoidable byproduct of superpowerdom or as mere hypocrisy. "Lots of those folks who burn the U.S. flag in front of our embassies are back applying for visas a few days later," said a former top American diplomat. True, but as we now know, not all of those who burn American flags also want visas. Some really want to burn America and are willing to die in the process. These suicidal anti-Americans will never be persuaded to change their minds. But other critics of the United States might; some might even be converted into friends.

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