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Anti-Americanism: Why Do Europeans Resent Us?

At the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in April 2003 Mr. Ellwood delivered the following lecture.

Anti-Americanism as a cultural and political phenomenon can be defined by its history, or rather by a study of the evolution of all the commonest forms of antagonism to the nation, people, civilization and actions in the world of the United States in all its expressions. This presentation identifies the three great roots of anti-Americanism and places them in historical order: representations, images and stereotypes (from the birth of the Republic onwards); the challenge of economic power and the American model of modernization (principally from the 1910's and '20's on); the organized projection of U.S. political, strategic and ideological power (from World War II on). Expressions of the phenomenon in the last 60 years have contained ever-changing combinations of these elements, the configurations depending on internal crises within the groups or societies articulating them as much as anything done by American society in all its forms. With the ascendancy of the U.S. to superpower status post-1945 came the decisive change, but without the two categories of precedents and pretexts supplied by history, this development alone would never have attracted the resentments and envies which classical anti-Americanism has expressed.


Behind its pseudo-ideological authority, its provocative associations and its lexical facility, the true usefulness of the phrase 'Anti-Americanism' as a label for a variety of thought-categories or behavior lies surely in its catch-all nature. Conveniently but misleadingly, it hides the important distinctions between those intent on attacking America the nation, the government, the foreign policy; those who find repugnant whatever or whoever is American: the way of life, the symbols, objects, products and people; and the critics of Americanism, those who reject the explicit values and ideals of the United States in their distinctive normative form, the ideals that Lipset calls the central principles of "the American Creed."

Whether we like it or not, the question of semantics, even of discourse, can't be ignored in a historical treatment of the subject. It seems safe to say, for instance , that the word 'Americanism' was in use in the mid-19th century, inside and outside the U.S., long before the phrase 'anti-Americanism' came into being, certainly long before its common use as we understand it today. It's not even clear whether the first users of the phrase were Americans or non-Americans. Because it is an "ism," it is also evident that the contemporary usage appeared in the age of ideologies, i.e.in the 1920's-30's. For sure the pattern of discourse most strongly associated with the phrase appeared then, as Philippe Roger has confirmed in his authoritative new study of the French experience.

Yet if we look at American sources of the time, commentaries on European attitudes, they do not use the phrase. The journalist Mowrer's fascinating 1928 account of This American World doesn't employ it, even though he has entire chapters on Americanism in Europe, on Americanization there and on the limits of the latter, which certainly refer to new waves of hostility and rejection. The diplomatic historian Carlton Hayes's remarkable survey of the construction of contemporary French patriotism, of 1930, refers politely to "anti-American sentiment." Rienhold Niebuhr talks in the same year of the "rising tide of resentment against us," in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly and discusses the phenomenon with the greatest acuteness, as we shall see. But he doesn't make use of the phrase.

Philippe Rogers's remarkable tome insists that the phenomenon is entirely hot air, a distinguishing cultural rhetoric produced by the clerical class of his country - the intellectuals - whose sacerdotal relationship with the holy grail of French identity has been, enhanced, legitimized even modernized by their denunciations of all things American ever since Baudelaire in 1855 (not Tocqueville). In this picture any connection with events, or with specific American behavior as a nation, people or power, is quite casual, optional, uninteresting even. The outpourings are self-propelled, self-referential and not even meant to be heard by Americans.

This is where my disagreement appears. At the heart of every manifestation of fully-formed anti-Americanism. will always be found an all-embracing mystification which conflates what America is - or is alleged to be - with what America does - or is alleged to do. Unfortunately this mystification is present in many critical comments on anti-Americanism too, and for sure almost all American ones. Much of the political angst addressed to denouncing the phenomenon is in fact a moral and political reflection on whether this conflation is conscious or not, willing or unwilling, in bad or good faith.


Just as positive visions of America in all their complex European forms accompanied the growth of the new nation from its earliest days, so did a mounting backwash of criticism and hostility. Professor Spiro of the special Annals of the American Academy of Political Science edition of 1988 on anti-Americanism was quite certain: "Anti-Americanism has been endemic among the ruling classes in continental Europe since 1776 at the latest." Now it is well known that the commercial materialism, social fragmentation, lack of culture and the sheer artificiality of the American experience were well-established stereotypes even before Dickens and Tocqueville produced their classics in the 1830's-40's. However, although they winced at their criticisms - in a fashion Tocqueville famously presented as a form of cultural insecurity and which was repeatedly confirmed by later observers - no American of the time is known to have accused these writers of "anti-Americanism."

The steady build-up of negative images, tropes, impressions left by all the aristocratic travellers of the 19th century, no matter how critical, cannot in fact be categorized as anti-Americanist. How can we compare the sentiments of a Mrs Trollope or an Ernest Duvregier towards America with what the same people may have said about some other nation? How do the individual condemnations of the day applied to the U.S. compare with those directed by their declarers at other societies and cultures, bearing in mind that to most Old World visitors America remained an extension of Europe evolving in different circumstances? Kipling may have said he found Chicago less civilized than much of India, but unless we investigate systematically where the U.S. fitted into the world-view of such cosmopolitan travellers, the specific weight to be attached to their judgments on America is no more or less significant than that applicable to, say, the merits of Rome versus Paris in the opinions of a William Dean Howells.

But when the play of images among élites gave way to shared experience on a mass scale, then a qualitatively different process of attraction and repulsion was set in motion. Late 19th century emigration was of course the first of these shared experiences. The Bologna historian Paolo D'Attorre noted that in the work of Italian Catholic writers close to the world of the emigrants, the idealized promised land of the first rural emigrants progressively gave way to a much more contradictory and ambiguous judgment. At the turn of the century negative judgements prevailed by far over positive ones, said D'Attorre, a mixture of "snobbish scorn and hostile diffidence" characterizing the tone of commentary, with "explicit anti-Americanism" very much in evidence. But did anyone think of calling it such at the time? Neither was the Vatican's open attack on the new free-wheeling, liberal Catholicism developing in the U.S. at the end of the century characterized as anti-Americanism, though it did contain an ominous new doctrinal element.


Then, from the era when American industry, media, entertainments, business and diplomacy began to exert a discernible power presence in Europe in the final decade of the 19th century, the questions of elite imagery and collective emigrant experience were obliged to give way to the need to come to terms with a concrete force or challenge whose permanence no one now doubted. In his masterly survey of Old World perceptions of the New World, C.Vann Woodward wrote:

The future intruded in the shape of missionaries, evangelists, salesmen, advertisements and movies. It took the form of new brides in the oldest of families, new faces in the highest society. It also appeared at lower social levels in strange attitudes and ideas, new ways of thinking, new styles of living, and alien values. Europeans began to hear these innovations from the mouths of their own children and with increasing apprehension and dismay.

As awareness of the country's new strength grew, theorists of America's destiny began to express the view that the United States would and should substitute the European empires, especially the British, and hence should prepare consciously to organize the projection of its power, economic and strategic. Here were anticipations of trouble to come, and the passions surrounding the Spanish-American war contained much to worry about. Although most British opinion was enthusiastic about the outcome of the war, a British economist writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1901 used the phrase anti-Americanism explicitly, and made clear what it was about. To a "despairing (European) envy of her prosperity and success" was coupled a disagreeable new sense of impotence, commercial, diplomatic and moral. "Cultured Europeans intensely resent the bearing of Americans; they hate the American form of swagger, which is not personal like the British, but national." Here was a country "crudely and completely immersed in materialism." Little wonder that "anti-Americanism" (sic) was on the march, with a wave of lesser incidents aggravating the big differences over trade, China, and above all Latin America. There lay an entire continent over which the United States had hung a great "hands-off" sign, the Monroe Doctrine, "the most domineering mandate issued to the world since the days of Imperial Rome." Germany and Russia were said to be particularly aroused, each for its own geo-political reasons, but in Continental Europe as a whole feeling was running high, reported Brooks:

"In newspapers, in clubs, in society, even in the street, the dislike of America, the desire, if it were only safe, to give her some savage snub, is unmistakeable."

These feelings died down, but a new conception of America's potential for good and evil in the world - especially as economic menace and strategic rival - takes root in this time and lays down another crucial building block for the full 20th century development of the phenomenon. There remained to be added the ideological dimension, and this of course arrived with the 14 Points. Woodrow Wilson's conviction that to the new-found American power of his time there should be added a moral mission aroused vast enthusiasm among the masses of war-torn Europe; among its governing class the deepest suspicion. Universalism, moral exceptionalism, altruism - all were identified with Wilson's project. Yet, as Henry Kissinger points out, the pretense that they might become the operational standards for conducting international relations everywhere was "largely incomprehensible to foreign leaders," if not worse.

Wilson's plan for world reform was effectively disabled by his Allied partners in Paris in 1919. But the visionary status of his project was destined to endure, and to participate in inaugurating a new era of "isms" in the western world's international affairs. It was after Wilson that the accusation of "anti-Americanism" began to alight ever more frequently on those who, in bad or good faith, felt driven to mount a sustained criticism of whatever America produced, represented, believed in or did, on America as a modern civilization, behaving in the world in a certain way. Wilson himself of course seems never to have used the "anti-Americanism" phrase, not even in Paris.


In the 1980's, when historians first began systematic analysis of European antagonisms to the U.S., it was no coincidence that they should have started on the interwar period. Taylorism, Hollywood, Jazz, dance halls, cafés, retail chains, new forms of advertising, leisure pursuits, role models swept through postwar Europe with extraordinary efficiency and ruthlessness. Traditional élites engaged in the very difficult business of re-constituting their power and legitimacy after the catastrophe were greatly antagonized, because the new American realities of Fordism and mass communications, coupled to the expanded democracy of the era, threatened to undercut their weakened authority, unleash new expectations and provide alternative role models for the restless masses.

Starting from this vantage point, the new 1980's approach to anti-Americanism established that the full 20th century flowering of the prejudices, rejections of modernity and suspicion of American power gathered together in the concept took place in decades of the 1920's and '30's, that it went beyond the question of perceptions of American society to invest the entire range of America's incarnations as a presence in Europe's new mass society, and that cycles of alienation were established which persisted down to the present. (Starting in this era, patterns of reaction to Hollywood, for instance, have been extraordinarily consistent over time). It was apparent that the more ideology was exalted by the totalitarian régimes, the more criticisms of America took on a militant, comprehensive aspect throughout Europe, henceforth with a dynamic of their own, often independent of the ebbs and flows of America's prestige in popular culture, as well as of U.S. actions in foreign and economic policy.

The most acute American commentator on this development was Reinhold Niebuhr. In 1930 and again in 1932 he warned his fellow citizens that their nation had become an empire of a new economic type, and they should prepare with open minds to meet the resentments this situation would inevitably cause :

It is inevitable that men should hate those who hold power over them. They may love the virtuous and admire the brilliant, but they hate the powerful. Hatred is compounded of envy and fear, and power breeds both. The fear is justified because powerful individuals and nations, even when they make benevolent pretensions, are not as generous as their pretensions or even as their intentions.

But until the outbreak of the Second World War, relative disinterest characterized in general reactions within the U.S. to the new European anti-Americanism.


Once the U.S. began to organize systematically the projection of its power in peacetime, after 1945, a new historical source of antagonism - Washington's foreign policy - was added to imagery, the empire of the dollar and modernization pressure as a driving force of anti-Americanism. Henceforth the specific expressions of the phenomenon would usually be composed of some if not all of these elements. In the France of the 1950's, notes Richard Kuisel, "foreign policy acted as a volatile variable that caused abrupt swings in popular appreciation of the United States while raising the specter of foreign domination." In fact a comprehensive fear of hegemony began to haunt the French during the first postwar decade. Up to a quarter of interviewees in opinion polls, (but especially those on the militant left) expressed "negative feelings that ranged from apprehension or irritation to antipathy and dislike."

In Italy a more contradictory set of forces was at work in these years. The "political anti-Americanism of the Left co-existed with an undying, though now more discriminating, passion for American culture," comments a local specialist. This the rebellious new generations of the late 1950's and 1960's came to see as a source of inspiration in their defiance of traditional mores and patterns of authority. But the Right also felt encouraged and threatened simultaneously:

..the same forces which were turning Italy into a political satellite of the United States, were also vociferously worried about the invasion of American cultural artifacts, undermining our humanistic civilisation and our classical culture - as well as our rural, Catholic way of life.

Although not studied as such at the time, the years of the Cold War were also readily identifiable as a period when a new equilibrium between Americanization and anti-Americanism had to be constructed, not least because the eager adoption of an American-style standard of living by many sections of European society failed to silence the strident rejection by others of the methods and objects of United States foreign policy, first in the Cold War and then in the Third World, (managing this contradiction was one of the many purposes of NATO and Atlanticism).

It was in fact a Third World experience, the Vietnam war, which transformed the role of the foreign policy factor in European anti-Americanism. The urge of growing swathes of public opinion to condemn official U.S. behavior for its ruthlessness, arrogance and ideological absolutism was accompanied by an awareness that American society was deeply split on the war, and that the more Washington administrations insisted on the ideological stakes in Vietnam, the more America's credibility (key word of the era) as a model society and set of values was compromised. Tracing the rise through these years of a new conception of American "imperialism" in Dutch opinion - in liberal and denominational circles as well as on the Left - Rob Kroes notes that the experience left a lasting residue of pacifism and disaffection from U.S. security policy in that society. Yet it did foster admiration for America's capacity to express an effective oppositional culture in a time of crisis.


Explicit anti-Americanism next reached heights of fervor in the era of the Reagan escalation of the Cold War in the early 1980's, but this time - as already mentioned - it was accompanied by a new form of self-consciousness, an intellectual urge which saw the parallels with the 1960's but tried to approach the phenomenon afresh, with "dispassionate exactitude." A group of French scholars insisted that the "Vietnam syndrome" in their nation's anti-Americanism was by that time long gone, while France's military-strategic independence - "that indisputable triumph of Gaullism" - insulated it very beneficially from the agonized "Euromissiles" debate going on elsewhere in those years. So the group, used to experimenting at the time with the concept of "collective mentality," concluded that the phenomenon was an expression of "passion, instinct, irrationality," and hence a sort of "psychopathology," fostered in part by the Americans themselves out of Tocquevillean insecurity and narcissism. Fitful and exceptional compared to the nation's historic enmities with the English and then with the Germans, French anti-Americanism was not a serious cultural phenomenon.

But politicians and diplomats insisted that in times of international tension and crisis like the mid-1980's cultural preoccupations were swept aside, and that attacks were once more aimed directly at American foreign policy, and all the forces supposedly driving it.

"America the violent, America the crass, America the inept have all became everyday images in Europe" the United States Ambassador in London wrote in early 1987.

Then miraculously, within less than five years, all this would be done away with and forgotten. Following the collapse of the historic enemy, the old connections based on security and Atlanticism quickly began to fade in significance, reappearing in the public eye only in times of crisis such as the Gulf War and the Bosnian conflict. On what authority then - besides history - might America's now uncontested superpower status and leadership function rest? In a sense the old imperial questions of power and the resentments it inevitably gives rise to, of success and the envy it always provokes, not only persisted but had become more obvious. Gradually it was the long-term role of the United States as creator and seller of uniquely-appealing models and myths which began to attract attention once again. No longer held up as a society to be emulated or reviled, no longer organizing the now-uniting-now-dividing common response to the Red Threat, the question of American hegemony gradually re-appeared after the end of the Cold War in its 1920's form. By the mid-1990's the modernization challenge was back, dividing the Europeans and evoking in some of them - opinion-makers, writers, commentators, "intellectuals" - many of the Old World's most characteristic anti-Americanist reflexes.


By the end of the twentieth century, explicit resistance to America took the form not so much of rejection of whatever the United States stood for, produced or did, but of struggle against the perceived inevitability of the destiny of convergence and homogenization on the American pattern, "an attempt to preserve at least a sense of equality" in an unbalanced situation, as the Dutch scholar Verheyen put it in 1987. Stanley Hoffmann's 1964 intuition that "[t]he more European societies become alike in their social structures and economic makeup, the more each national society seems to heighten its idiosyncracies," had become, thirty years later, the focal point of a vast confrontation over identity, diversity and convergence in which a part-real, part-imaginary United States served often as the supreme counter-point against which each society sought to define its sense of itself and its future.

This explains why, with each and every one of the European nations undergoing a fundamental identity crisis of some kind after the Cold War, their reactions to United States power and hegemony in this era focussed so often on the mass culture challenge in their midst. Although the specific behavior on display in Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Austria etc. could scarcely have been more diverse, none of the Europeans could not match the world-wide spread of Hollywood and satellite television, the computer revolution symbolized by Internet and the Microsoft empire, the promise to fuse information and telecommunications technology under the auspices of global combines controlled from America. These challenges of the 1990's renewed ancient realities of impotence which belied the denunciations of "irrationality" and "psycho-pathology" so often applied to alleged anti-Americanism.

The classical version of that phenomenon had always reflected an inability to deal with the combined, cumulative effect of America's capacity to project its power in so many ways at any given time, and its unflagging ability to invent new ones according to circumstances. An exemplary 1990's case of this latter mechanism at work was the appearance of the reality and myth of the CNN world-wide TV network, alongside the projection of America's military power at the time of the Gulf War of 1991. Some European observers reacted by denouncing what they saw as a totally standardised, supra-national 'picture-producing system'.

When does ubiquity become intrusiveness, when does globalism turn into homogenization; at what point is hegemony experienced as hubris? However structured the power question is inescapable in any historical discussion of anti-Americanism, just as it has become in political and sociological treatments. Yet without the preceding baggage of images, stereotypes and shared experience, and the development of an exceptional modernizing dynamism with an ideology to accompany it, the ascendancy of America's economic, political and strategic force would never have attracted the resentments which anti-Americanism has traditionally expressed. Talking in 1996 of a "cultural backlash" visible in the world against America's historic urge to present itself as a nation with a missionary destiny, Samuel P.Huntington noted: "What is universalism to the West is imperialism to the rest." Even within the too familiar confines of the trans-Atlantic relationship, the same association between sentiments, ideas and power has often been at work in the course of Europe's American century.