An Old, Old Problem …

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.

17 thoughts on “An Old, Old Problem …”

  1. The problem is not with France, or even with Europe. Anti-Americanism is rife in Russia (remember the Cold War?), China and the rest of Asia, Africa, South America, and right now in our own Democratic Party.

    And the reasons for this are simple and obvious:

    1. The United States possesses incredible and unprecedented military, economic, and political power. Our nuclear arsenal alone is capable of destroying all human life on the planet, and those are just the weapon technologies that aren’t Top Secret. Moreover, we have demonstrated our willingness to use these weapons when not under direct threat, ie. offensively, in Japan, and have threatened massive Global Thermonuclear retaliatory strike against the USSR which would have wreaked global devastation.

    2. The rest of the World doesn’t have any direct representation in our government or control over how this power is used. We loath “taxation without representation”, but the rest of the world fears “nuclear annihilation without representation.” And it’s not just the nuclear arsenal that concerns them, it’s the entire matrix of American power. Imagine you’re a European: how would you feel, if your fate, indeed the fate of all life on the planet, were being decided by voters half a world away, some of whom can’t even find France on a map?

    Of course, the American view is that the countries that are now criticizing us gave the world Hitler, Stalin, and Mao and a century of slaughter and oppression and the idea that we should now surrender our power and decision making to them is laughable.

  2. Yes, the uniquely American formula of making your enemies prosperous after you crush them is kind of hard to beat.

    No other people appear to have the collective scruples to flat walk away from the levels of even greater direct domination that the US has turned down, post-WWII and post-Cold War.

    We trust people enough to let go, and that scares them (the anti-Americans), because they can’t let go of power, as they lust after it.

    Americans tend to culturally not give enough of a damn to want power, hence we have it.

  3. “The rest of the World doesn’t have any direct representation in our government or control over how this power is used. ”

    uh ? And how much representation do Americans have in France or Germany ?

    As for not finding France on a map, find me a French voter who can put Georgia, Idaho or even Massachusetts on the US map. Or the states of New York and Washington; most people think they’re only cities.

    Where’s France anyway ?

  4. I wonder how the Vietnamese feel about the French? (Serious question.)

    As for the control issues David raises above: do the French have any control over Russia’s nuclear arsenal? No. Do the Spanish control France’s nukes? No. Do the British control Pakistan’s nukes (which I might add are considerably more likely to be used)? If the British have direct representation in the Pakistani government, I missed it.

    Yet everybody hates us – no one else, just us – because they don’t control our government. Hmmm. (Now I think this is an accurate observation, and it accounts for much of what’s gone on in NATO and the UN in the last couple of years: they’ve been transmogrified from alliances into mechanisms for other countries to control US policy and to gain absolute veto power over US actions, and it’s badly deformed both organizations. This only makes sense if you assume the governments doing this believe the possibility of bringing the US under their collective control is worth losing effective international organizations over.)

  5. uh ? And how much representation do Americans have in France or Germany ?

    We’re only represented by our soldiers standing in Europe as human trip wires against Soviet or German aggression. Trip wires for a nuclear exchange that would see American cities leveled first to protect French ones, I might add.

    My younger brother just shipped out to S. Korea to act as a human trip wire against N. Korean aggression, and I don’t have a say in S. Korean politics and their “Sunshine policy”. But what worries me most is not that he might give his life to defend the citizens of another country, but that the S. Koreans might react the way France, and the Saudis, and Muslims have reacted after Normandy, and the first Iraq war, and Kosovo/Somalia/Afghanistan. We’ve sent our boys to die for their freedom and they’ve stabbed us in the back.

    The Sept. 11 terrorists were Saudi Muslims, the group that has benefited most from US intervention in the last 20 years in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Somalia.

    Anyway, I’m not trying to defend anti-Americanism, I’m just trying to explain it, and the fact that it’s not limited to France.

  6. David, nobody said France was alone. But there is a difference between people hailing from backward, poor, wretched places, or in countries dominated by religious extremism (Saudi), people who are either not educated, or were fed lies all their lives, and people who were born in a modern, free, overall fairly open democratic society.

    The point is that France, and Germany, by virtue of their history, should be the last to hate America. Normandy is in France, last time I checked. Germany was rebuilt by the US, just like Japan was. So was a chunk of France.

    South Korea is somewhat different. The South Korea we know today is a fairly recent entity. Military leadership is what this country got for decades, and America supported it and looked the other way at its abuses. If France had been subjected to some sort of military regime with the benevolent support of the US, I suspect I’d a lot more suspicious about its foreign policy objectives too.

    And this, by the way, is the one and main point I concede in the anti-American liturgy. Due to its otherwise refreshing pragmatism, American foreign policy can play it a bit too fast and loose with the rights and freedom of others, as long as their leaders play along and serve the immediate US national interest. Short-term policies turn into long term ones and nothing changes, when the regime in place does not entrench itself further with American support; again think Saudi Arabia.

    Sure, everybody else does it. But this is America we’re talking about, and complaining about Pinochet’s human rights abuses while looking away at Saudi Arabia’s is inconsistent. And whether it’s marketing a product or selling a policy, inconsistency is bad. Specially if people die in jail from it.

    Of course, America needs Saudi oil to be secure. But where else are the Saudis going to go for protection ? The US are in a position to make demands too. At the very least, its female soldiers and officers should not have to comply with medieval Islamic practices forcing them to wear a veil. For starters, they’re not Muslims. And second, if we protect you and put our people on the line, the minimum expectation is that you respect and tolerate us. Respect is either mutual or doesn’t exist.

  7. You can’t look at this history without the Cold War context. South Korea was considered a front-line state, it was in ruins, and we were afraid it would be overrun. So, as the war wound down the US supported a military dictatorship, which looked like it could hold the place together. Similarly, we supported all kinds of people we didn’t like very much simply to oppose the Soviets. Is this consistent with our principles? I have always said that America compromised its principles when it was in danger, but didn’t abandon them. That’s about as good as you are going to get most of the time. It also noteworthy that as the Cold War ended we pushed for democratization in various places, like the Phillipines and South Africa and South Korea. I don’t think this is hypocrisy, I think it is rationality. The leadership in this country believed, and I believe, that the Soviet Union was a world-wide menace, and that if it prevailed over us, then everything would be lost. So, trade-offs were made. Of course, none of this means that people who opposed our local strong man are going to like the United States. There is no particular reason why they should. But to return to the main point, the countries with the least reason to be hostile to us are probably France and Germany. This shows that their animosity is driven by things other than legitimate grievances. In France’s case, it’s mostly hurt pride.

  8. True, but this short to medium term rationality has indirect, long term costs. Among other things in terms of future trust and confidence by the local population. I can’t really blame those South Koreans who lived that period from being ambivalent or doubtful.

    What about Saudi Arabia though ? Any significant pressure to liberalize since the end of the Cold War. Quite the opposite it seems. It’s taken 9/11 for the tone to change. But of course, with Iraq, rationality demands we keep them stable for another decade…

  9. I tend to think that a major source of the resentment among Europeans is the fact that we did save them. Though people tend to think this would cause you to feel good feelings, this is rarely the case. As the earlier essay made clear, Europeans have long looked down on Americans and thought of them as inferior. How would it feel to think you are number one and then end up having to have some lowly turd of a country (in your eyes) come rescue you? And then build you back up in their image? It must be especially galling to know that for centuries, they were the prime actors with the rest of the world as their stage. Suddenly, it was us and the Soviets as the only actors and the primary stage was Europe. It must have been pretty miserable to see what it was like to be manipulated by other more powerful countries in a giant game of power politics after doing the manipulating for so long. It also must be kind of irritating to know that the main reason why you are still significant to the degree that you are is because of the United States. US military presence and security guarantees preclude the necessity of military expenditures that would take away from all the nice things like subsidies and social welfare. The Marshall Plan made it so that Europe wouldn’t still be rebuilding. And Europe also benefits from a kind of cultural collateral benefit. By being closest to us historically, Europe gains a bit of cultural influence (think what Europe’s role in say, the media, would be if we switched places with China. do you think they would be as influential?) Combine all this with the fact that the Europeans all think they are the elite, the peak of civilization, and there is little wonder they hate us.

  10. I suggest that the distinction be made between ‘institutional’ bias in Europe against America and general sentiment on the part of the public. Often discussion about this topic fall into the age old trap of assuming a tiny political elite is representative of the entire populace in its particular prejudices… cultural, political, or otherwise. And with regards to attitudes towards America(s) the various ruling establishments of Europe have rarely been of the same opinion as their constituencies. Probably the recent anti-Americanism generational trend in several large US institutions (academia and showbiz especially) has caused European establishments that have ALWAYS been anti-American to seem stronger today, but if so this would be due in part to the large numbers of Americans trying to use Europeans as a justification for some policy they themselves want, yet lack the courage sans US public support to push openly.

    Put simply… what aristo elite anywhere has any reason whatsoever to think well of small ‘r’ republicanism?

  11. A, the problem is the public opinion is in sync with their leaders in this department. As noted in another post about Caesar’s essay above, the leaders have been following public opinion lately. Chirac does not have much spine. He takes the stand he does with the US because of the political credit this gets him at home and across the European electorate.

  12. Sylvain… I think the popular electorates in Europe and the political cultures especially are trained to take their cues along institutional lines much more so than in the US. So when I hear Oxbridge types moaning about the ‘vital’ public role in Britain of the BBC being lost, or the ‘French Exception’ being used by some Parisian bureaucrat to justify censorship of sources of public information (Yahoo, even!) by limiting control of those sources either via State regulation of content or State ownership and control of management… when I hear these types of claims, I don’t think European elites are so much concerned with their ‘subjects’ opinions as they are with retaining their own grasp on power and the perks that political power implies in European culture.

    In Chiracs case, I think you are correct that he’s using a cynical type of ignorance regarding the US in order to deflect from other problems, but I don’t think he’s exactly a shining example of a pro-American politician… he’s Parisian and Gaulist, after all. It’s worth noting that Le Pen and the far-right are as anti-American as the far-lefties, and that any politician in France or Germany who’s feeling the pressure from the activist bases on both sides of the European political divide over the EU experiment is usually safe in blaming Americans across the ocean who rarely bother to correct popular misconceptions about themselves. This type of demagoguery is common to all politicians everywhere (and always has been) and certainly is regular here in the US, but because urban elitist culture in the US is restricted to a handful of cities that kind of appeal to the half-educated Mobile Vulgus (a la London, Berlin, or Paris) isn’t as effective as elsewhere.

    Chirac himself (and the Parisian elite) has at least three major policy problems that are easily avoided by diverting the public with America-hysteria. The first is that France, a catholic country at heart, has allowed too many people from hostile cultures (mostly Muslim) to migrate and hasn’t been able to integrate them into the mainstream of French political tradition (which is cultural, and not institutional). The second problem is the development of the EU as an alien institution no longer able to be tightly controlled by Paris, and certain to care about as much as a million Parisians protesting/striking as Washington does about a million New Yorkers doing the same (not a bit). The third problem Chirac has is that the fifth Republic has become unwieldy, and any sixth Republic will likely include judicial reforms that would send Chirac (or his successors) to jail… or worse! to political obscurity!. In one way or another each of these political problems can be deflected or deferred by using the US…. So French Muslims are pointed to Iraq and Israel to focus their anger on the US instead of Paris (which gave the Israelis their nukes and was responsible in part for the Yugoslav debacle). If it’s common knowledge everywhere that if the US actively opposes the formation of the EU as a ‘rival’ it’ll be much easier to blame Washington for future messes in Brussels, and to escape the public actually questioning the false premises used to justify the EU that are what’s likely going to cause it to fail. And while Chirac seems to the public like a classic Gaulist, instead of a toothless President, powerless to oppose National policies being implemented by a strong PM, then the fifth Republic won’t be seriously reformed for the time being (probably not until safely after Chiracs dead and gone).

    I think it’s historically safe to say that in European countries every time the political establishments use the anti-American schtick to deflect their public from more important issues at hand the result has been that that strategy has backfired on those that have indulged in it. The current debate has focused so much on the WWII era and the Cold War that historical perspective is lost… for the last FOUR Centuries at least every social, political, and cultural reformation/revolution in Europe has been foreshadowed by conflicts in the Americas (Rio was founded by a French Calvinist, don’t forget!). Maybe that’s another thread topic, but my point is that there’s nothing unique about the Parisian elites current disdain for the US… certainly ENA and Polytec aren’t cranking out Amer-o-philes anymore than Oxbridge or the LSE!

  13. Interesting discussion. A few days ago in the UK, I was chatting to a nice German lady, very obviously of the 1968 student rebellion era, who had thoroughly imbibed the mind-erasing junk of the Frankfurt School of philosophy. Her anti-Americanism was total. It is a given in her mental universe that the recent invasion of Iraq was evil, that the US is a nightmare of sweated labour and vulgar culture, etc. And yet I got the impression that deep down, she is vexed at how such a ghastly nation could be top dog and the most prosperous place on the planet.

    And yet this woman – who will obviously remain anonmyous – is in many respects highly intelligent and well travelled. I continue to be amazed at how widely read, obviously smart folk can hold such numbingly dumb views about certain subjects.

    Another point – there are disturbing parallels between hatred of the US and anti-semitism and it probably explains why some of the worst elements on the far left, as well as the extreme right, have a reflexive hatred of Israel and American support for that country.

    BTW, I made sure to annoy this German woman by saying how much I like the US and admire most aspects of its culture!

  14. A Crawford, some excellent comments in there. I totally agree with your general argument.

    Jonathan, this is exactly the attitude in Old Europe. People feel entitled to the top position. And they are so frustrated that the obviously stupid ignorant Americans have it; so they must make up stories to prove to themselves they’ve been robbed the top spot. That’s the only way. Another 200 years and maybe they’ll get the idea that it’s no accident. Let’s be patient…

    But you’re right, all of them accept the party line about the US and American culture and consumerism – pretentiously reviled, but they all buy clothes for the kids at Gap and take them to see the latest Disney movies, followed by a stop at McDonald’s… – and the obvious inferiority of American society, yet nobody asks how such a hellhole of mediocrity could consistently maintain itself on top, politically, economically, scientifically, technologically, even in athletic sports. For decades. Hence the need for ever growing conspiracy theories, to prove themselves all those gains are ill-gotten and unfair. Never has a collective state of denial be so profound.

    If I had to make an analogy, America is the Microsoft of the Left. Some occasional success is OK. Consistent and growing success cannot be tolerated.

    And it’s mighty hard to step out of it.

    Even once I moved out of the reality distortion field, it took me a while. (Ask Jonathan about some of our online arguments back in the MetaMarkets days). So I have a lot of respect for those Europeans who have managed to think independently without leaving. Quite an exploit, in my view.

  15. Johnathan… Three of my cousins married Germans, two are in the military and the other an academic who married a guy in the same field (psychology), so my experience with Germans in particular has probably been an exception rather than typical. Intellectuals, even the German variety, rarely pick political fights with soldiers, and Germans in particular are very sensitive about being teased for being effite.

    Still, I’ve had the same experience as yourself any number of times… and even have a set of stock replies depending on my tolerance for correcting others ignorant opinions.

    The reply to Germans: a) The majority of Americans are descended from German migrants, which has been suggested by other Europeans as a possible reason we’re so vulgar. b) The German government owns 30% of Daimer, a controlling stake, and since purchasing Chrysler has been the most vigorous union buster and plant closer in Canada and America. What is an American to think when criticised by a German citizen for exploitation by those she elected and from which she herself receives part of the profit? (He laughs in her face, points behind her, and says “hey frau-line, there’s a Jew. Why don’t you go blame him for living while you’re on such a roll”). c) Iraq. Easy. German lady! Make up your mind! I doubt that after buying the meat your butcher’s slaughtered you’d call him evil for selling the same cut to the next person in line! Why do you think the US invading another country to depose a genocidal dictator is “evil”, when only FOUR years ago THE US BOMBED AND INVADED the fucking Country next door to Germany to depose a genocidal dicatator at YOUR OWN REQUEST? &ect.

    It’s impossible to understand how German intellectuals can oppose US forces occupying Iraq and not oppose US forces STILL stationed in Germany (60,000 last count). Pure weirdness.

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