[Overseas view]What is anti-Americanism?Anti-Americanism is an ideology. It does not relate directly to what the United States does or doesn’t do in specific circumstances or locations. Anti-Americanism is a consequence of what the United States is or how the United States is perceived. Like any ideology, anti-Americanism does not describe reality, but rather invents a substitute or pretends to describe true reality beyond the veil of appearance. Marxism pretended to be a scientific interpretation of history and a description of social forces that no one could actually see. It was only through the Marxist magnifying glass that the enlightened scientific observer could understand the true march of history. The same goes for anti-Americanism, which is a sort of subplot in the vast Marxist interpretation of history.
Let us consider a trivial example. Take the global expansion of the McDonald’s corporation. The U.S. entrepreneur would say he is just making money everywhere he can. This entrepreneur would add that he is selling clean, reliable food at a cheap price for people who like it. But the enlightened anti-American will not buy this. He will understand McDonald’s as part of a plot to destroy the cultural singularity of local people; fighting McDonald’s becomes part of a global war against U.S. imperialism.
At this stage both interpretations are partly true; both the entrepreneur and the anti-American activist cannot think otherwise. Each follows his own logic. The U.S. company has to expand globally to satisfy its shareholders. It cannot take local diversity too much into consideration as standardization is essential to its success. For McDonald’s, a human being is more or less the same, wherever he lives, whatever his culture. The success of that brand demonstrates that the McDonald’s rationale is right.
However, the McDonald’s enemy is also right. As a consequence of McDonald’s strategy, local restaurants will disappear, local food will appear obsolete to the younger generation and the country will be engulfed by Americanization. McDonald’s may or may not see itself as part of an imperialist project, but as a consequence of its dynamism, it plays a part in the imperialist outcome.
How can we reconcile these two incompatible interpretations? My answer is that the United States is an unwilling empire because the United States itself is quite divided on the need to go global and to export its values. This debate is at the very core of U.S. civilization. Some of the founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, viewed the United States as the empire of liberty, the embodiment of universal values. Also, the U.S. Constitution was not initially devised for a specific territory. On the other hand, a strong political trend within the United States is protectionist and isolationist.
However, this debate between U.S. expansionists and isolationists is a bit theoretical since the United States is now everywhere, though the imperial unwillingness remains. Ask any U.S. soldier based in Korea, Iraq or the Philippines what his aspirations are. He always longs for his home state, hoping to return as soon as possible. These soldiers make poor imperialists. It is hard to imagine the Roman, Dutch, French or British empires having been built with such reluctant soldiers.
The anti-American will not buy my argument. Like Karl Marx, he would observe that men write a history that they ignore. The reluctant U.S. soldier abroad is a cog in the machine, alienated from the U.S. empire even when he does not know it.
Beyond these significant anecdotes, when we examine the history of anti- Americanism, it appears to be a remarkably flexible ideology. From the very early 19th century, when the United States was still a weak nation with little international influence, many European observers despised the United States for two reasons ― it was dominated by “mob” democracy, and it had no “true” culture. Two centuries later, with U.S.-style democracy the global norm and U.S. culture in every corner of the planet, the same arguments are heard. Anti-Americans argue against the vulgarity of U.S. culture and, without attacking democratic principles, they observe that U.S. rules are unsophisticated, or too dependent on changing public opinion and/or Wall Street’s interests. Any admiration for the dynamism and creativity of U.S. culture pins you as an imperialist stooge. If you underline the transparency of U.S. democratic debate, the anti-American will scoff at you and presume you have been bought off by the CIA.
Anti-Americans usually do not define themselves as such. They would rather argue that if the United States behaved differently, anti-Americanism would not exist. To a certain extent, the level of anti-Americanism, as measured by opinion polls, varies, but not too much. In circumstances when U.S. troops liberated Western Europe or South Korea, pro-American enthusiasm was short-lived. After a while, some months in the case of France in 1945, anti-American slogans reappeared. In the case of Iraq, anti-Americanism reappeared a few days after the U.S. troops liberated the country from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. This can be easily understood from a psychological perspective, since few people like to be liberated by an outsider as it shows they were unable to attain independence themselves. A U.S. general based in Seoul said it best: “Anti-Americanism comes with the territory.” Also, when some are actually liberated by the United States, others do lose their power, like the Sunnis in Iraq or the Koreans who cooperated with the communists or the Japanese.
Beyond these personal interests, the United States is the natural enemy of alternative ideologies. If you are not pro-democracy, if you are not pro-market, the United States is the enemy by definition; this will have nothing to do with U.S. behavior. Take the radical Muslims: Their hatred has less to do with U.S. policy than with U.S. existence. Sayed Qutb, the Egyptian scholar who founded modern radical Islam, lived in the United States in the 1940s. When studying there as a guest of the U.S. government, he came to the conclusion that the United States was the devil and should be destroyed. He came to this radical conclusion basically because of women’s status. He hated a society where all women were, as he wrote, prostitutes ― that is so to say, not veiled and equal to men. Even if there were peace in the Middle East, these radical Muslims would still want to destroy the United States as long as American women remain free. A milder, structural anti-American streak affects intellectuals worldwide.
Scholars everywhere, including in the United States, seldom like the United States; they usually despise American society for its supposed absence of culture. In reality, culture in the United States is far from absent; therefore, intellectual anti-Americanism has more to do with the social hierarchy in the United States as opposed to Asia and Europe. Money, power and glamour seem to dominate the U.S. scale of values. Away from home, the learned scholar has the feeling that he is more respected than he would be in the United States. How could a scholar not despise a society which does not put scholarship at the top of its social values?
All of these attitudes are, of course, perceptions and not a description of the real United States. Anti-Americanism does not deal with reality. On the reverse, you could say that many admirers of the U.S. model also do not consider reality. They just want a larger free market or fewer trade unions in their own countries. Anti-Americans and pro-Americans pursue their own agenda, using the United States as both scapegoat and promised land. As a consequence, neither side helps us understand why we all live in a de facto American Empire ― pro or anti, they do not offer any alternative to the U.S.-made global order. Where would the anti-Americans go if they lost their best enemy?
*The writer is a French journalist, economist, philosopher and civilization critic.
by Guy Sorman