Sylvain, in this post quotes British Foreign Minister Jack Straw as saying that “… a significant part of the way in which the French political diplomatic class defines itself is against America, and this has been a continuing neurosis amongst the French political class for many decades.” This is pretty much right. Straw is just off in his timing by an order of magnitude. In fact, French and Continental intellectuals have been defining themselves against America for over two centuries. There is an excellent and enlightening article at the Public Interest website, entitled “A Genealogy of Anti-Americanism” by James W. Ceasar. (This article is a short version of Ceasar’s book Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought, which I bought but haven’t read yet.)
Ceasar tells us that European Anti-Americanism is not about the America which concretely exists, but is directed against an idea, even a mirage:
It is tempting to call anti-Americanism a stereotype or a prejudice, but it is much more than that. A prejudice, at least an ordinary one, is a shortcut usually having some basis in experience that people use to try to grasp reality’s complexities. Although often highly erroneous, prejudices have the merit that those holding them will generally revisit and revise their views when confronted with contrary facts. Anti-Americanism, while having some elements of prejudice, has been mostly a creation of “high” thought and philosophy. Some of the greatest European minds of the past two centuries have contributed to its making. The concept of America was built in such a way as to make it almost impervious to refutation by mere facts. The interest of these thinkers was not always with a real country or people, but more often with general ideas of modernity, for which “America” became the name or symbol. Indeed, many who played a chief part in discovering this symbolic America never visited the United States or showed much interest in its actual social and political conditions.
Ceasar traces the history of Anti-Americanism in European thought, and argues at the end that the Europeans, freed from the fear of the Soviet Union, now are free to indulge in this prejudice in safety. He also suggests that there is a real “Clash of Civilizations” going on between the United States and Europe, in large part because many in Europe see America as a symbol of all they despise. He concludes that Americans cannot use this reality as a way to ignore or avoid legitimate criticism, but that “[a] genuine dialogue between America and Europe will become possible only when Europeans start the long and arduous process of freeing themselves from the grip of anti-Americanism – a process, fortunately, that several courageous European intellectuals have already launched. ” Bring on the courageous European intellectuals. We need more of them.