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The subtle differences between anti-Americanism and reasonable criticism

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Tuesday, 15 July 2003

In 2002 I received a US government-funded grant to organise a symposium on anti-Americanism. On first take this seems ironic but paying scholars to enhance understanding and knowledge between the US and other nations is what the Fulbright program has been doing since the end of WWII. No doubt the late Senator Fulbright, who launched the awards bearing his name in 1946, would have been disappointed that anti-Americanism has recently reached a new highpoint.

While the rest of the world sees and hears more about America than ever before, there is much misunderstanding, indifference and, let's be frank, dislike toward the most powerful nation in the world. Familiarity seems in many cases to have bred a fair degree of contempt. In a reflection of G. K. Chesterton's quip that travel often narrows the mind, the internationally popular nightly escapism of viewers into Homer's Springfield or Detective Briscoe's New York seems to be part of the narrowing of the minds of many non-Americans. In what is one of a series of current contradictions, American popular culture remains extremely widely consumed while at the same time being a source of resentment and negative stereotypes.

Another obvious contradiction is that although many nations are keen to be in alliances with the militarily powerful US, these same allies are increasingly disapproving of the way America uses its military might. Although sophisticated debates are ongoing on these issues, it is important to recognise that, faced with the power of American politics and culture, many non-Americans seem drawn to inarticulate ravings, making the types of comments that would generally be called racist if muttered about people of another colour.


America is not helping by remaining as seemingly disinterested in the rest of the world as ever. The lack of foreign languages study at American high schools and universities, the very ordinary geographical knowledge Americans have of the rest of the world, the limited number of American journalists stationed outside the US, and the political lack of willingness to become a nation-builder in Africa, Afghanistan, or Iraq all make it very hard for America to counter criticisms of its insularity.

The most negative stereotypes about America have also been generally reinforced by the political leadership of Bush and his administration. A born-again Texan conservative would have struggled to get a fair hearing from the international press whatever his attitude to the world. Bush, with his limited foreign-policy knowledge and his seeming lack of concern for the rest of the world, is significantly unpopular around the globe and, as recent international polls attest, widely ridiculed. Those who have bothered to read a little about Bush are as likely as not to see him as a pawn of the imperialist neoconservatives or of American oil interests.

During President Bush's second press conference in March 2003 on America's intentions in Iraq he declared, sounding more like Chuck Norris than a statesman, "they could have showed up at a parking lot and he could have brought his weapons and destroyed them." Around the same time US Navy Vice Admiral Keating boarded the USS Constellation, waved his arms about and proclaimed "It's hammer time!" while accompanied by Queen's "We will Rock You" at full blast. It's hard to imagine what viewers in Darwin or Santiago are supposed to make of such jingoism surrounding the most serious of all decisions governments make - the decision to go to war.

To make matters worse on the image front, America's neoconservative Secretary of Defense has a habit of behaving at times more like a FOX News presenter than a man with international diplomatic responsibilities. During the lead up to a second United Nations Security Council vote on Iraq in 2003, a variety of nations were threatened and condemned for not agreeing with the US position. Famously Donald Rumsfeld grouped America's NATO ally Germany with Cuba and Libya when criticizing those nations who would not support American military action in Iraq; on another occasion he wrote Germany and France off as part of "old Europe." During this period of name calling, Germany had 10,000 troops in Afghanistan and the Balkans trying to help keep the post-war peace. While it would seem to be the case that America can win wars on its own, it can't win the peace without the support of a variety of allied nations.

In the heady days before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, American columnist Robert Samuelson wrote in The Guardian Weekly "We Americans are people too" - a fair point that some of the anti-Americanism of the time was starting to overlook.

However, Samuelson soon moved on to lecture the world for not showing America enough respect and appreciation. He contended that an isolationist and protectionist America would hurt the rest of the world far more than it would America. Although there is some truth in his warnings, such self-righteousness and inability to tolerate criticism is the very source of much of the anti-Americanism that Samuelson argued against. And as the debates of the past year have made very apparent, one person's anti-Americanism is another person's reasonable criticism. That isn't to say that all of the anti-war criticism levelled at America was fair or principled; the motives and manoeuvrings of the French President should remind us that international politics is less a morality play between the forces of good and evil and more a complex interplay between frequently self-interested nations.


Despite the failings of Americans and non-Americans to live up to the Fulbright ideals over the past 50 years, it is worth remembering that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, American hegemony has coincided with relative harmony between Western nations. This is a situation that might have looked utopian viewed in the aftermath of two world wars. Even now, few in Europe or Australasia have reason to fear US influence in their societies as a matter of life or death. However, for Rwanda or Bolivia, American-manufactured weapons, American-driven economic policies, or just indifference on the part of the US all severely impact on the life chances of their citizens. To boot, this American power is yielded by the average American resident or president with no great sense of responsibility for the peoples of such countries. While this indifference and at-arm's-length exploitation is not just an American affliction, America has the greatest ability to do something about such injustices and human crises.

Not surprisingly these paradoxes and problems are the source of much confusion about America's role in the world among non-Americans and Americans alike. However, for any of these problems to be remedied, critics of America need to be mindful of the difference between informed critique and prejudice. And American decision-makers need to be much more aware that their audience (and responsibilities) are global and not just local. Because these simple, but important, truisms have slipped further from our grasp in recent times, we need Fulbright and other exchanges as much ever to help the willing work on addressing these goals.

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This article is based on a speech to the Fulbright symposium on anti-Americanism and Americanization at Griffith University on July 14-15 this year. Click here for more information.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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