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A New Kind of Anti-Americanism

by Norman Markowitz on Apr 4, 2003

As the war against Iraq grinds on, recent polls show that large majorities of people throughout the world now have a much lower opinion of the United States and its foreign policies than was reflected in polls of previous years.

Remarkably, this is true both in countries whose governments support President Bush’s war policy, such as Britain, Italy and Spain, and in those whose governments oppose the war, such as Germany, France and Russia.

This sharp increase in animosity toward the United States may remind some of attitudes abroad toward U.S. foreign policy at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s. The Soviet Union and its allies then propagated the view that the United States was advancing a policy of imperialist intervention to control everything from Guatemalan bananas and Cuban sugar to Middle Eastern oil. Familiar as these charges may sound, there are more differences than similarities between the present “anti-Americanism” and the hostility to the United States during the Cold War era.

Most Europeans in the Cold War era were not against American policies of increasing trade, encouraging the development of the European common market and paying the lion’s share for NATO, the multilateral alliance to defend Europe. In the poor countries of the Third World, many condemned the U.S. policy of supporting right-wing dictatorships in the name of halting communism, but also saw the United States as a defender of the United Nations, which groups across the political spectrum supported as the most important international organization in history.

Moreover, even traditional left-wing critics of U.S. policy, both in the developed countries and in the Third World, distinguished sharply between the U.S. government and the American people. They viewed U.S. policy as imperialist, but identified American culture and the American people with egalitarian and democratic values.

Today, that distinction is increasingly blurred as allies and former enemies have come to regard the United States much as European nations saw imperial Germany in the decades before World War I ­ a state brandishing great military power and proclaiming that its might made right: “Gott Mit Uns,” or “God is on our side,” as the slogan on the belts of the German army read.

That view of Germany and Germans as warmakers led Europeans and Americans to loathe not only German imperialism but the German culture of Goethe and Beethoven. Leaders in Britain, France and Russia feared Prussian militarism and forgot about German achievements in the arts and sciences. Eventually, they composed their differences and formed an alliance that halted German expansion.

While no one would compare President Bush literally to Kaiser Wilhelm, the German emperor during World War I, he has managed to bring France, Russia and Germany, three historic enemies, together against his Iraq war policy. In the international press and the global court of public opinion, the America of Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr., is being replaced with stereotypes of trigger-happy cowboys cheerfully supporting the death penalty at home and their God-given right to rain death and destruction, regardless of the views of the United Nations or their NATO allies.

In the high Cold War period of the 1950s, French intellectuals sometimes called American anti-communism (displayed in such movies as “My Son John” and “Big Jim McLain”) “primal anti-Communism” ­ the tendency of American leaders and media to substitute screaming, name-calling and the demonizing of enemies for rational arguments in defense of capitalism and liberal democracy. Thanks to the policies of the Bush administration and the statements of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, tens of millions of people around the world who formerly looked at the United States positively are denouncing American policy and the American people as arrogant and hypocritical, a nation of self-aggrandizers on a path of military interventionism that has only begun.

Whatever happens in the Iraq war, this trend in global public opinion, if it is not reversed, will be disastrous for both American policy and the American people.

Norman Markowitz is a member of the history faculty at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and a writer for the History News Service.