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.
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 9⁄11, “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.