Does the E.U. Hate You?

Despite popular myth, anti-Americanism in Europe isn’t on the rise

Paul Hockenos

On Feb. 15, 2003, protestors marched through the Bradenburg Gate in Berlin to demonstrate against the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq.

In Europe, as in near­ly every­where else in the world, the image of the Unit­ed States has tak­en a severe bat­ter­ing dur­ing the Bush years. Sur­vey after sur­vey shows that neg­a­tive feel­ings toward Amer­i­ca and U.S. poli­cies have soared. Only 36 per­cent of Euro­peans, for exam­ple, view U.S. lead­er­ship in world affairs as desir­able, accord­ing to a 2007 Ger­man Mar­shall Fund poll. Marked­ly low­er is their approval of the Bush admin­is­tra­tion: a dis­mal 17 per­cent. In Har­ris polls since 2003, the major­i­ty of Euro­peans have even cit­ed the Unit­ed States as the great­est threat to inter­na­tion­al secu­ri­ty – more so than Iran, North Korea or Russia.

But dis­tin­guish­ing between an all-encom­pass­ing ani­mus toward the coun­try and its peo­ple, and legit­i­mate crit­i­cism of U.S. gov­ern­ment poli­cies, has proven extreme­ly dif­fi­cult. Only the for­mer is anti-Amer­i­can­ism – an irra­tional, deeply embed­ded cul­tur­al aver­sion to a pre­sumed Amer­i­can nation­al char­ac­ter.” A stan­dard dis­tinc­tion between Amer­i­ca-bash­ing and ratio­nal cri­tique is between dis­ap­proval of what Amer­i­ca is and what Amer­i­ca does. Yet they inevitably blur into one anoth­er: After all, what one is informs what one does, and vice versa. 

The Bush admin­is­tra­tion attrib­uted the oppo­si­tion of France and Ger­many to the Iraq War as a blunt expres­sion of anti-Amer­i­can­ism. Even some left-of-cen­ter intel­lec­tu­als, such as Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Andrei Markovits, claim that a vir­u­lent anti-Amer­i­can­ism is cur­rent­ly sweep­ing Europe – worse even than that dur­ing the Viet­nam War or dur­ing the 1980s, when the Unit­ed States deployed nuclear mis­siles in West­ern Europe.

How­ev­er, the range of Euro­pean issues with the Unit­ed States is not wan­ton Amer­i­ca-trash­ing but con­flict­ing visions of how to orga­nize soci­ety and con­duct rela­tions in the wider world. In the Euro­pean Union (E.U.), cit­i­zens are voic­ing a pref­er­ence for a greater Euro­pean role in glob­al affairs, with Ger­mans (87 per­cent) and Spaniards (81 per­cent) at the top. As Jere­my Rifkin put it in his 2004 book, The Euro­pean Dream, Europe’s vision for the future has replaced that of the Amer­i­can dream.

In the Unit­ed States, many who backed the Iraq inva­sion would glad­ly echo Markovits’ con­clu­sions in his 2007 book, Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dis­likes Amer­i­ca. He writes that under­ly­ing Europe’s hos­til­i­ty to every­thing Amer­i­can” is a mas­sive Europe-wide resent­ment of the Unit­ed States that reach­es well beyond Amer­i­can poli­cies, Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and Amer­i­can government.” 

Markovits con­tends that the Bush administration’s con­tentious for­eign poli­cies have sim­ply shot into over­drive a hatred for Amer­i­ca that has long flour­ished in Europe, and is ulti­mate­ly linked to anti-Semi­tism. On the right, Euro­pean nation­al­ists despise Amer­i­ca as the epit­o­me of the mod­ern, a mate­ri­al­is­tic and hedo­nis­tic place run by Jews. The left’s anti-Amer­i­can­ism focus­es on the Unit­ed States being an impe­ri­al­ist pow­er – and in league with Zion­ist Israel.

Markovits is not entire­ly wrong: Anti-Amer­i­can­ism is alive and well in Europe, and, among hard­core Amer­i­ca haters, there is often an anti-Semit­ic ele­ment. But Markovits and his like are incor­rect about how per­va­sive this sen­ti­ment is and the extent to which it dic­tates Euro­pean atti­tudes about the Unit­ed States. While some anti-Amer­i­can­ism is embed­ded in Euro­pean opin­ion, it is actu­al­ly quite thin: In France, Ger­many, Great Britain and Italy, it hov­ers around 10 per­cent (it is strongest in Greece), ris­ing at times of transat­lantic polit­i­cal fric­tion, like the present. 

Yet more than a quar­ter of these pop­u­la­tions (40 per­cent in Italy) are con­sis­tent­ly sym­pa­thet­ic to the Unit­ed States. Even at the height of the Cold War’s great­est crises, most West­ern Euro­peans favored main­tain­ing a strong alliance with the Unit­ed States. Dur­ing the mass dis­ar­ma­ment protests in the ear­ly 80s, only 20 per­cent of West Ger­mans favored the with­draw­al of U.S. troops from the Fed­er­al Republic.

As Amer­i­can polit­i­cal sci­en­tists Robert Keo­hane and Peter Katzen­stein demon­strate in their 2007 book, Anti-Amer­i­can­isms in World Pol­i­tics, neg­a­tive Euro­pean atti­tudes, even at their peaks, have zero impact on offi­cial poli­cies toward the Unit­ed States – or on transat­lantic tourism, trade or con­sumer behavior. 

Like­wise, the over­whelm­ing reluc­tance of both the Ger­man polit­i­cal elite and pub­lic to attack Iraq was not found­ed on bias against Amer­i­ca. Ger­many, after all, par­tic­i­pat­ed in the 1999 NATO cam­paign against Slo­bo­dan Milosevic’s Ser­bia, as well as far-reach­ing post‑9/​11 anti-ter­ror­ism mea­sures and the top­pling of the Tal­iban in Afghanistan, all of which enjoyed pop­u­lar backing.

That sup­port declined grad­u­al­ly, how­ev­er, as Euro­pean and Bush admin­is­tra­tion con­cep­tions of coun­tert­er­ror­ism meth­ods diverged. Most Ger­mans seemed to feel that the mil­i­tary approach was only one option in the cam­paign against ter­ror­ism. There were oth­ers, the Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic-Green gov­ern­ment argued, such as diplo­ma­cy, dia­logue with the Islam­ic world, aid pro­grams, and bro­ker­ing a peace deal between Israel and Palestine. 

Ulti­mate­ly, using anti-Amer­i­can­ism to explain Europe’s anti­war feel­ings toss­es both anti-Amer­i­can tropes and per­fect­ly rea­son­able eval­u­a­tion of the Bush administration’s for­eign pol­i­cy blun­ders into the same pot, rob­bing the lat­ter of polit­i­cal con­tent. This effec­tive­ly dis­cred­its all cri­tique of America’s glob­al poli­cies, be it cli­mate pol­i­cy, deal­ings with the Unit­ed Nations or human rights issues – and this explains why Bush loy­al­ists invoke it. 

While research­ing the West Ger­man stu­dent upris­ing in the late 60s, I was con­sis­tent­ly impressed by how essen­tial Amer­i­can influ­ences were for the 1967 – 1969 cam­pus revolts. Even in protest­ing the Viet­nam War, the stu­dent activists were con­scious that they were using Amer­i­can protest meth­ods: sit-ins, teach-ins and oth­er forms of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence picked up from the U.S. civ­il rights move­ment. West Ger­man stu­dents told me their pol­i­tics would have been incon­ceiv­able with­out Bob Dylan’s lyrics, the works of Jack Ker­ouac and Allen Gins­berg, and the exam­ples of the Rev. Mar­tin Luther King Jr. and the Berke­ley Free Speech Move­ment. These young peo­ple (some of whom even yelled USA-SA-SS,” com­par­ing the Unit­ed States to Nazis) were more Amer­i­can than their par­ents ever could have been. 

Per­haps the best sym­bol of this para­dox was the Free Uni­ver­si­ty in West Berlin (FUB). Set up by the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary author­i­ties in West Berlin as an anti­dote to the not free” uni­ver­si­ty in East Berlin, the FUB was the bas­tion of the West Ger­man stu­dent move­ment. The spir­it of the project was to instil a new, par­tic­i­pa­to­ry demo­c­ra­t­ic eth­ic in post­war Ger­mans. Its Amer­i­can founders cer­tain­ly had no idea that the Ger­man stu­dents would take the man­date so literally. 

Europe’s alter­na­tive

The transat­lantic estrange­ment, Ital­ian his­to­ri­an Fed­eri­co Romero argues, is the prod­uct of a sub­stan­tive cul­tur­al and social part­ing of ways that began with the end of the Cold War. Dur­ing the East-West con­flict, a con­sen­su­al view exist­ed of what the West” and West­ern” meant – in terms of shared val­ues, insti­tu­tions and pro­ce­dures. Con­trary to Markovits, Romero says that the num­ber of hard­core Amer­i­ca haters dropped as the decades pro­gressed and were increas­ing­ly marginalized.

By the 1980s,” Romero writes in What They Think of Us: Inter­na­tion­al Per­cep­tions of the Unit­ed States Since 911, tra­di­tion­al anti-Amer­i­can­ism could be plau­si­bly dis­missed as a rel­ic of the past, and pub­lic cul­ture often cel­e­brat­ed the advent of a homog­e­nized transat­lantic society.” 

The end of the Cold War not only altered Europe’s strate­gic depen­dence on Wash­ing­ton, but also decou­pled Europe from the Unit­ed States as an eco­nom­ic mod­el, a cul­tur­al Mec­ca and polit­i­cal bea­con. Europe grew more self-con­fi­dent, and a ver­i­ta­ble roll­back” of America’s cul­tur­al pres­ence ensued. Ongo­ing social changes in Europe and the Unit­ed States – in reli­gious atti­tudes, demog­ra­phy, wealth dis­tri­b­u­tion and migra­tion pat­terns – only accen­tu­at­ed those dif­fer­ences. What’s more, the gen­er­a­tion that has come of age in a glob­al­ized world needs the Unit­ed States far less than their par­ents did.

This shift, argues Romero, is due large­ly to Europe’s own self-per­cep­tion: Europe as an adher­ent to a Euro­pean social mod­el” based on col­lec­tive sol­i­dar­i­ty, sec­u­lar­ism, wel­fare state prac­tices, post-nation­al­ism and envi­ron­men­tal respon­si­bil­i­ty. Euro­peans, even those who favor U.S. strate­gic lead­er­ship in the world, have become increas­ing­ly con­vinced that their mod­el is more just and more effec­tive. The Bush administration’s anti-ter­ror­ism strate­gies and bel­liger­ent inter­na­tion­al behav­ior sim­ply entrenched this belief. 

These con­trast­ing pref­er­ences in social mod­el, cul­tur­al bear­ing and inter­na­tion­al strat­e­gy go beyond what Amer­i­ca does and pen­e­trate the essence of what Amer­i­ca is. But they are dif­fer­ences based on ratio­nal com­par­a­tive analy­sis, not knee-jerk antipa­thy. And, luck­i­ly, there is no rea­son for Amer­i­cans to take per­son­al offense or can­cel their vaca­tion to the Alps: While Euro­peans’ opin­ion of Amer­i­ca has suf­fered, their over­all per­cep­tion of Amer­i­cans remains quite positive.

Paul Hockenos has writ­ten for In These Times from East­ern Europe since 1989. He is the author, most recent­ly, of Josch­ka Fis­ch­er and the Mak­ing of the Berlin Repub­lic: An Alter­na­tive His­to­ry of Post­war Ger­many (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press).
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