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The future of anti-Americanism

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Tuesday, 28 October 2008

In the 1970s as the Vietnam War turned from bad to worse and America's image around the world slipped precipitously, opportunities arose for America's rivals and new dictators. The Soviets became more openly aggressive in their endeavours in the Third World and by the end of the decade they had invaded their neighbour Afghanistan. Pol Pot and the Ayatollah Khomeini also came to power. The endorsement of these anti-American fanatics by certain Western intellectuals suggests just how on the nose America was in the 1970s.

Are we living through similar times? It would seem so: American global prestige and popularity is at an all time low. Russia is now more emboldened than at any time since the end of the Cold War. China is on the march in Africa and Latin America, selling weapons to Zimbabwe and buying oil from Sudan with relative impunity. Opinion polls constantly show that in the Muslim world America's standing among the public is nothing short of abysmal.

Assessing this situation Senator Obama contended in the second presidential debate that "strains that have been placed on our alliances around the world and the respect that's been diminished over the last eight years has constrained us being able to act on something like the genocide in Darfur, because we don't have the resources or the allies to do everything that we should be doing".


Often quoting Ronald Reagan, McCain and Palin have been quick to respond that America has a history of bouncing back and emerging victorious. It is true that many of the anti-American dictators who emerged in the 1970s imploded due to their own brutality, mismanagement and unpopularity. The same words could be used to describe the reasons for the disintegration of the Soviet Union. America was fortunate to have such flawed opponents.

Also to America’s advantage was the loyalty of their allies in the late Cold War. Although large protests about the placement of US missiles in Britain and on the Continent demonstrated the build up of frustrations and disappointments with the US, the governments of Western Europe and America's Cold War allies elsewhere largely stayed the course and supported US policies.

Public opinion toward the US in the Western world is now much more negative than even at the height of Reagan's global unpopularity. Despite this, America's allies have largely continued to work closely with the US and, in some cases like Australia, have strengthened relations. However, public patience with this approach has its limits.

A McCain/Palin victory could create an increased surge in anti-Americanism and make alliance management even more difficult.

Despite McCain’s attempts to distance himself from George W. Bush, foreigners would tend to see another Republican in the Oval Office as an endorsement of economic, foreign and environmental policies they have largely seen as an abject failure.

This dismay would be compounded given the tendency of the foreign media to overplay good polls and news about Obama outside of America. Some would blame an Obama loss on lingering American racism, but given the lack of minority leaders in Western nations this response would likely be short lived. More profound would be the realisation that America is even more conservative and insular than previously realised. And then there is how people would feel about vice president Palin.


International newspapers have been full of stories on Governor Palin. Just as she symbolises the mythical small town hero who appeals to many Americans, she also fits the stereotype of the know-nothing frontiersperson to many around the world.

George W. Bush has been so easily and widely scorned because he too pretty much fitted this caricature. However, with Bush there was a flip side: his East Coast establishment dad, degrees from Yale and Harvard, and elite connections everywhere. Palin appears more genuine and more untainted, but also more ignorant and possibly scarier than George W. Bush to much of the world's population. Palin's lack of knowledge about world affairs is undoubtedly seen by many foreigners as a slap in the face.

Of course the conduct of a McCain/Palin administration would be crucial and could allay much of the trepidation that foreigners would have. However, if this administration wants to bomb Iran or support Israel bombing Iran, then America could be in for a lonely time. Even getting more NATO or Australian troops to serve in Afghanistan could become problematic.

Australia and Britain have been extremely loyal allies during the last eight years; however, there are clear signs in public opinion surveys that the British and Australians could well lose their faith in American global leadership. This would particularly be the case if another Republican administration was to make what seemed like rash or unilateral decisions. Out of electoral necessity, governments in these countries would be tepid in their support of the US and over time America’s dealings with the world could become much more arduous.

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First published in ABC's Unleashed on october 21, 2008.

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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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