Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Why is America so hated around the world, and particularly in the Middle East? According to an "advisory group" of alleged Middle East experts, the problem is a lack of "public diplomacy"--i.e., insufficient pro-American PR. Michael Holtzman argues instead for more retail generosity--"doctors, teachers, businesses, religious leaders, athletic teams and entertainers" helping and bonding with the inhabitants of the region. In other words, both writers imagine folks in that part of the world scratching their heads, contemplating their last personal encounter with something or someone American, and forming their geopolitical judgments accordingly.

One wonders if any of these people have bothered to consider how their own countrymen form their opinions of foreign countries. The only major public relations campaign I've heard of initiated by a foreign country in the US was undertaken by Saudi Arabia, and I doubt it's done much good. And how many Americans, really, think in terms of their personal contact with, say, French, or British, or Israeli visitors when deciding on their attitudes towards those countries?

On the contrary, Americans' opinions of other countries are an extension of their general political views, and we should expect non-Americans to form their opinions of America the same way. Fortunately, as a non-American, I can study the origins of anti-Americanism with a certain amount of dispassionate detachment. I discern at least three factors contributing to its steep rise:

  • As with anti-Israel sentiment, anti-Americanism is to a great extent a function of local partisan conflicts. In Canada, for example--the country with which I'm most familiar--anti-Americanism is strongly correlated with liberal (as opposed to conservative) leanings, Eastern (as opposed to Western) regional loyalties, and an educated or intellectual class affiliation.

    Something similar is likely happening in the Middle East as well. Bernard Lewis has written that there are two types of countries in the Middle East: those (e.g., Egypt, Saudi Arabia) where the government is allied with America, and the population is virulently anti-American, and those (e.g., Iran, Iraq under Saddam)where the government is virulently anti-American, and the public is enthusiastically pro-US. In other words, Middle Eastern anti-Americanism is, in his view, simply an extension of local dissatisfaction with oppressive national governments that happen to be friendly with America. I'm not sure this analysis is necessarily 100% accurate, but I expect that it's closer to the mark than any correlation between popular sentiment and American ads or Peace Corps volunteers.

  • Like every other political event, the end of the Cold War took time to sink into the world's consciousness. The slow-but-steady rise in worldwide anti-Americanism over the last decade or so is partly a reflection of--and a reaction to--everyone's gradual realization that America is globally dominant in a way it was not when it was in competition with the Soviet Union. The most powerful country may get the lion's share of the world's respect--but it will inevitably also get its share of the world's resentment, as well.

  • The upsurge in globalization during the nineties was wonderful for the world's economies. But any such boom inevitably causes rapid changes and dislocations, and thus provokes a serious backlash from those who were harmed--or who simply feel uncomfortable with and disoriented by all the upheaval, however lucrative. Most of the anti-American unrest we see around the world today--from Islamist terrorism to anti-globalist activism in the developed world--is of a romantic, anti-materialist, anti-modernist cast, railing against commerce, technology and luxury rather than tyranny, corruption and impoverishment. America is, of course, the world's primary symbol of the former list of "ills".

  • I'm sure there are more factors behind the global surge in anti-Americanism than just these three. But lack of cheerleading TV spots or earnest aid programs certainly isn't among them.

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