Anti-Americanism's Deep Roots

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Robert Kagan
Monday, June 19, 2006

I recently took part in a panel discussion in London about civil conflict and "failed states" around the world, centered on the interesting work of the British economist Paul Collier. The panelists included the son of a famous African liberation-leader-turned-dictator, the former leader of a South American guerrilla group, a Pakistani journalist, a U.N. official and the head of a nongovernmental humanitarian organization. Naturally, our reasoned and learned discussion quickly transmogrified into an extended round-robin denunciation of American foreign policy.

The interesting thing was that the Iraq war was far from the main topic. George W. Bush hardly came up. The panelists focused instead on a long list of grievances against the United States stretching back over six decades. There was much discussion of the "colonial legacy" and "neo-colonialism," especially in the Middle East and Africa. And even though the colonies in question had been ruled by Europeans, panelists insisted that this colonial past was the source of most of the world's resentment toward the United States. There was much criticism of American policy during the Cold War for imposing evil regimes, causing poverty and suffering throughout the world, and blocking national liberation movements as a service to oil companies and multinational corporations. When the moderator brought up nuclear weapons proliferation and Iran, the panelists talked about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As for "failed states" and civil conflict, several panelists agreed that they were always and everywhere the fault of the United States. The African insisted that Bosnia and Kosovo were destroyed by American military interventions, not by Slobodan Milosevic, and that Somalia was a failed state because of American policy. The Pakistani insisted the United States was to blame for Afghanistan's descent into anarchy in the 1990s. The former guerrilla leader insisted that most if not all problems in the Western Hemisphere were the product of over a century of American imperialism.

Some of these charges had more merit than others, but even the moderator became exasperated by the general refusal to place any responsibility on the peoples and leaders of countries plagued by civil conflict. Yet the panelists held their ground. When someone pointed out that the young boys fighting in African tribal and ethnic wars could hardly be fighting against American "imperialism," the African dictator's son insisted they were indeed. When the head of the NGO paused from gnashing his teeth at American policy to suggest that perhaps the United States was not to blame for the genocide in Rwanda, the African dictator's son argued that it was, because it had failed to intervene. The United States was to blame both for the suffering it caused and the suffering it did not alleviate.

The discussion was illuminating. There is no question that the Iraq war has aroused hostility toward the United States around the world. And there are many legitimate criticisms to be made about America's conduct of the war. But it is worth keeping in mind that this anger against the United States also has deep roots.

The Iraq war has rekindled myriad old resentments toward the United States, a thousand different complaints, each one specific to a time and place far removed from the present conflict. It has united a diverse spectrum of anti-American views in common solidarity -- the Marxist Africans still angry over American policy in the 1960s and '70s, the Pakistanis still furious at America's (bipartisan) support for the dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in the 1970s and '80s, the French theoreticians who started railing against the American "hyperpower" in the 1990s, the Latin ex-guerrillas still waging their decades-old struggle against North American imperialism, the Arab activists still angry about 1948. At a conference in the Middle East a few months ago, I heard a moderate Arab scholar complaining bitterly about how American policy had alienated the Arab peoples in recent years. A former Clinton official sitting next to him was nodding vigorously but then suddenly stopped when the Arab scholar made clear that by "recent years" he meant ever since 1967.

The Iraq war has also made anti-Americanism respectable again, as it was during the Cold War but had not been since the demise of the Soviet Union. People who a decade ago would not have been granted a platform to spout the kind of arguments I heard on this panel are now given star treatment in the Western and global media. Such people were always there, but no one was listening to them. Today they dominate the airwaves, and this in turn is helping produce an increasingly hostile global public opinion, as evidenced in a recent Pew poll.

There are two lessons to be drawn from all this. One is that in time the current tidal wave of anti-Americanism will ebb, just as in the past. Smarter American diplomacy can help, of course, as can success in places such as Iraq. But the other lesson is not to succumb to the illusion that America was beloved until the spring of 2003 and will be beloved again when George W. Bush leaves office. Some folks seem to believe that by returning to the policies of Harry Truman, Dean Acheson and John F. Kennedy, America will become popular around the world. I like those policies, too, but let's not kid ourselves. They also sparked enormous resentment among millions of peoples in many countries, resentments that are now returning to the fore. The fact is, because America is the dominant power in the world, it will always attract criticism and be blamed both for what it does and what it does not do.

No one should lightly dismiss the current hostility toward the United States. International legitimacy matters. It is important in itself, and it affects others' willingness to work with us. But neither should we be paralyzed by the unavoidable resentments that our power creates. If we refrained from action out of fear that others around the world would be angry with us, then we would never act. And count on it: They'd blame us for that, too.

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, writes a monthly column for The Post.


More Washington Post Opinions

PostPartisan

Post Partisan

Quick takes from The Post's opinion writers.

Washington Sketch

Washington Sketch

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the capital.

Tom Toles

Tom Toles

See his latest editorial cartoon.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity