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Is Bush Really Responsible for Anti-Americanism Around the World?

We are constantly reminded nowadays of how much the world hates America. According to polls, many Chinese believe that the United States deliberately started the SARS epidemic; Islamic leaders in three Nigerian states blocked critical polio inoculations for children, denouncing them as a U.S. plot to spread AIDS or infertility among Muslims. And best-selling books in France and Germany claim that 9/11 was a propaganda stunt by American intelligence agencies and the military industrial complex. While anti-Americanism came most sharply into focus with the most horrific act of anti- Americanism the world has ever known -- the 9/11 attacks -- it is important to remember that ever since there was a America to love, there was an America to hate.

The kind of attacks encountered today would have been all too familiar in tone to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who had to spend as much time and energy as current leaders proving to Europeans that their country was not inherently bad. Many of the best-known public figures in Europe over the last 240 years simply could not resist bashing America. They include such a diverse lot as British author Samuel Johnson, who said "I am willing to love all mankind except an American," to George Bernard Shaw, who quipped that "an asylum for the sane would be empty in America," to Sigmund Freud, who called America "a mistake, a gigantic mistake." The criticisms are so varied, so numerous and at times so improbable that it has long seemed as if America can never overcome them. Almost fifty years ago, American humorist Art Buchwald placed a classified ad in the London Times asking those who disliked Americans to let him know why they felt that way. He concluded from the results that their dislike would only be solved "if Americans would stop spending money, talking loudly in public places, telling the British who won the war, adopt a pro-colonial policy, back future British expeditions to Suez, stop taking oil out of the Middle East, stop chewing gum, . . . not export Roll n' Roll music, and speak correct English." Wouldn't the results likely be very similar today?

In order to really understand today's anti-Americanism, we must consider its deep roots in the past. In our book, we have identified five phases in this anti-Americanism, and even now, in this most recent phase, the historical continuity and repetition of the themes from each of the different eras remains striking.

The Early Years

The first phase began in the eighteenth century with the argument that there was something inherently wrong with America that made animals there smaller and people physically and mentally inferior. Both animals and humans who came here from Europe were due for the same fate. The so-called degeneration theory, propounded by leading 18th-century European scientists such as Georges Louis LeClerc, Comte de Buffon, found support among such prominent thinkers as Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel. and Friedrich von Schlegel, and in the 19th century, even the father of evolution, Charles Darwin. The degeneration theory would eventually be discredited and forgotten, but the idea behind it would continue on in the nagging proposition that what eventually became the United States was somehow innately bad.

From Revolution to Civil War

By the 1830s, with the United States a political reality, the American character replaced the American climate as the focus of explanation regarding its inferiority. Increasingly, stress was placed on the idea that the American democratic experiment had failed, leading to a degraded society and culture. So began the second phase of anti-Americanism, which lasted through to 1880. The United States was a laboratory for a new type of country with no monarch, aristocracy, strong traditions, official religion, or rigid class system. It regarded itself as superior to the existing European systems, all of which might be in jeopardy if the United States worked.

Consequently, due to unfamiliarity, self-interest, and long-formed taste, many Europeans saw the United States as a travesty or even as a threat, should its example appeal to their own peoples. They agreed with those like Frederick Marryat, a British naval officer who wrote "democracy is a miserable failure" and that in America the good citizens had retired rather than submit to the "insolence and dictation of a mob." There were also just as many criticisms of the cultural side of the United States. Frances Trollope, author of Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), probably the single most influential person shaping European perceptions of America in the nineteenth-century, observed that the greatest difference between England and the United States was "want of refinement." In America, she explained, "that polish which removes the coarser and rougher parts of our nature is unknown and undreamed of."

In this second stage of anti-Americanism, it was believed that if the United States posed any threat to the world, it was because of its potential to serve as a bad example rather than because it had any global ambitions. The American "model" was dismissed in anti-American literature, which predicted the nation's demise. But the United States did not collapse.

American Ascendancy

After the Civil War, when the third phase of anti-Americanism began, there was a growing fear abroad that the American model of populist democracy, mass culture, and industrialization might come to take over the world, changing everyone's way of life. It was this fear that had prompted many in Europe to support the slave-holding states of the Confederacy, seeing those Southern states as sharing more closely the values of the European aristocracy. The most celebrated European writers brought their pens down on the heads of America. French poet Charles Baudelaire lamented in 1873 that humanity was hopelessly Americanized -- the word "Americanized" came into usage around this period -- because of the triumph of the physical over the moral element in life, while in Britain a resolution was passed in 1900 denouncing the demoralizing effects of American plays on the British stage. The idea took hold that in Europe, as German philosopher Richard Muller-Freienfels wrote, technology was (at least in theory) the servant; but that in America it had become a despot.

The fear that America would take over the world reached its height in 1898, when America showed its strength in its military victory over Spain. By the new century, anti- Americanism penetrated Latin America, one of the few regions where it actually now seems to be on the decline. Ignoring any lessons they might learn from their northern neighbor's success, and notwithstanding their own bad experiences with Europe, many Latin American thinkers firmly placed themselves in the European, especially French, camp of high culture and good taste, in contrast to what they saw as America's lack of both.

Uruguayan Jose Enrique Rodo wrote an allegorical essay, Ariel (1900), which was hailed for decades as the definitive manifesto of Latin America. The title character, representing Latin America, personifies the "noble, soaring aspect of the human spirit, he is spirituality in culture, vivacity and grace in intelligence." The United States is depicted as Caliban, who embodies the "spirit of vulgarity." As Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes wrote decades later, agreeing with Rodo's assessment, "It was France that gave us culture without strings, and a sense, furthermore, of elegance, disinterestedness, aristocracy, and links to the culture of the classics solely lacking in the vagabond, unrooted homogenizing pioneer culture of the United States."

This French belief in the superiority of their own culture has contributed to France's anti-Americanism from the two nations' early days. The relative lack of immigrants to early America from France, compared to the high numbers from England and Germany, left France with no expatriates in America to soften public opinion back home. Nor did France share in the Anglo-Saxon heritage. By the twentieth century, despite, or perhaps because of, America's coming to France's rescue in the world wars, the French left and right alike saw the United States as the land of harsh and brutal "absolute capitalism" that threatened to engulf the world with its malformed society. A series of influential books of the interwar years had such unambiguous titles as The American Cancer and America's Conquest of Europe. Everything American was open to criticism, from jazz music to refrigerators to the American woman, a figure allegedly wielding too much power.

Among French intellectuals, America made even the Soviet Union look good. While both the U.S. and the USSR are totalitarian, Alain de Benoist, leader of the French intellectual right, wrote: "The Eastern variety imprisons, persecutes and mortifies the body, but at least it does not destroy help. Its western counterpart ends up creating happy robots. It is an air-conditioned hell." But the French could not deny that America was attractive to the masses, who have always been more pro-American than the intellectuals, and this may be what disturbed them most.

Postwar Years

In the fourth phase of anti-Americanism, from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War, fear of American domination became less abstract. America was supposedly taking over the world and had to be prevented from so doing. A striking illustration was the battle over exporting Coca-Cola, that quintessentially American drink, into Europe. The popular communist newspaper in Italy warned that it would turn children's hair white, while French critics spread a rumor that the company wanted to put an ad on the front of Notre-Dame Cathedral. Similar criticism eventually attended the opening of McDonald's and Disneyland in France.

Of course, by this time the United States was also being pilloried by the Soviet Union at the extreme left and European fascists at the extreme right. The extreme right argued that America had changed European society too much, while the leftists claimed that it had not gone far enough. Marxists saw America as racist, while fascists saw in it a mongrel society based on race mixing. Beyond avoiding the danger of imitating America, both doctrines sought to use its alleged threat and bad example to mobilize supporters for their own plans to revolutionize society.

Post-Cold War

With the Cold War's end, the United States was left as the sole superpower, thus beginning the fifth and current stage of anti-Americanism. Those who hold anti-American views see a dominant U.S. as a terrible model for civilization, the centerpiece of those supposed ills of globalization, modernization, and Westernization. This has stimulated the most angry and widespread anti-Americanism ever seen. Moreover, hatred is reinforced by claims that America's higher level of development comes at everyone else's expense and, by the same token, America deliberately brings about the failure of others to duplicate its success.


This piece appears courtesy of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.