Anti-Americanism’s Deep Roots
I took a step back from the issue before writing because I get a bit unreasonable over these kind of topics at times (see here and here). It’s difficult to remain reasonable at times when the country is under attack for various, often contradictory, reasons. Nevertheless, I shall try.
This is usually James’s bailiwick and I’m sure he’ll speak up if he wants, this being his site and all. I read Robert Kagan’s column every month and usually find myself nodding along. This month is no exception. He points out that “international legitimacy” has a value in and of itself, and I agree, as long as we are discussing normal times. That we have a horribly flawed institution through which this legitimacy flows is a topic for later.
Here, he participated in a panel with a group of people that are obviously not fond of the United States. In fact, they would probably blame us for the Plague if they could find a way to. From Kagan’s description, it sounds as if contradictions in their own statements regarding our posture allows us to be blamed when things go right or wrong, whether we do something or do nothing. Here’s Kagan:
Anti-Americanism’s Deep Roots
The interesting thing was that the Iraq war was far from the main topic. George W. Bush hardly came up. The panelists focused instead on a long list of grievances against the United States stretching back over six decades. There was much discussion of the “colonial legacy” and “neo-colonialism,” especially in the Middle East and Africa. And even though the colonies in question had been ruled by Europeans, panelists insisted that this colonial past was the source of most of the world’s resentment toward the United States. There was much criticism of American policy during the Cold War for imposing evil regimes, causing poverty and suffering throughout the world, and blocking national liberation movements as a service to oil companies and multinational corporations. When the moderator brought up nuclear weapons proliferation and Iran, the panelists talked about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As for “failed states” and civil conflict, several panelists agreed that they were always and everywhere the fault of the United States. The African insisted that Bosnia and Kosovo were destroyed by American military interventions, not by Slobodan Milosevic, and that Somalia was a failed state because of American policy. The Pakistani insisted the United States was to blame for Afghanistan’s descent into anarchy in the 1990s. The former guerrilla leader insisted that most if not all problems in the Western Hemisphere were the product of over a century of American imperialism.
Some of these charges had more merit than others, but even the moderator became exasperated by the general refusal to place any responsibility on the peoples and leaders of countries plagued by civil conflict. Yet the panelists held their ground. When someone pointed out that the young boys fighting in African tribal and ethnic wars could hardly be fighting against American “imperialism,” the African dictator’s son insisted they were indeed. When the head of the NGO paused from gnashing his teeth at American policy to suggest that perhaps the United States was not to blame for the genocide in Rwanda, the African dictator’s son argued that it was, because it had failed to intervene. The United States was to blame both for the suffering it caused and the suffering it did not alleviate.
There are two lessons to be drawn from all this. One is that in time the current tidal wave of anti-Americanism will ebb, just as in the past. Smarter American diplomacy can help, of course, as can success in places such as Iraq. But the other lesson is not to succumb to the illusion that America was beloved until the spring of 2003 and will be beloved again when George W. Bush leaves office. Some folks seem to believe that by returning to the policies of Harry Truman, Dean Acheson and John F. Kennedy, America will become popular around the world. I like those policies, too, but let’s not kid ourselves. They also sparked enormous resentment among millions of peoples in many countries, resentments that are now returning to the fore. The fact is, because America is the dominant power in the world, it will always attract criticism and be blamed both for what it does and what it does not do.
No one should lightly dismiss the current hostility toward the United States. International legitimacy matters. It is important in itself, and it affects others’ willingness to work with us. But neither should we be paralyzed by the unavoidable resentments that our power creates. If we refrained from action out of fear that others around the world would be angry with us, then we would never act. And count on it: They’d blame us for that, too.
Go ahead and read the whole thing.
My own theory about these resentments includes the fact that, yes, we have done some things that were hurtful, but generally when our choices weren’t good in any case. One instance is our interference in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. We were engaged in an existential struggle with communism and, as part of that struggle we opposed communist dictatorships and supported other types of dictatorships. It is clearly resented in Latin America, but I can’t say I would do things differently given what we were facing. The whole world was a chess board with us playing the Soviet Union in a series of proxy conflicts, at least in part because if we fought one another, the outcome would have been horrendous.
My other theory is that much of this comes from envy. Some of it is relatively benign, like French politicians using the U.S. as a whipping boy to get elected. I’m sure that stuff doesn’t go unnoticed, but most people understand that’s how politics works. The other things, like the African dictator’s son damning us for acting in one instance (Bosnia) and not in another (Rwanda) is simply throwing up things to see if they will stick. There is a market for this kind of nonsense in Europe and elsewhere, and given the detachment from reality and/or stupidity of the accusers, I’m not overly concerned with that either. We will be resented by someone no matter what we do simply because of our current place in the world.
One instance that demonstrates what we should do is the tsunami. We figured out the right thing to do, and we did it with the help of Japan and Australia. We had ships on the scene shortly after the catastrophe to help by flying people out of soaked areas, bringing fresh water and food to others and various other things. While we were doing this, to distract from their own incompetence, the UN had Jan Egeland complaining that we didn’t give enough of our GDP to international institutions. While they were having conferences about setting up more conferences, we were helping people. That’s how I believe we should handle these matters: Decide the right thing to do and do it; let others bicker over insignificant side issues. We should probably accept that no gratitude will be forthcoming when we do help. It’ll be another reason to criticize us later on.
We should help anyway.