Tuesday, October 24, 2006


This article, by two authors of a recent book on the topic, offers a workable definition of "anti-Americanism." Peter J. Katzenstein and Robert O. Keohane write, "we define anti-Americanism as a psychological tendency to hold negative views of the United States and of American society in general."

I'll take that (with the addition of "and of Americans as individuals"). It's a label that gets thrown around too loosely. It needs a template. Katzenstein and Keohane write that "[b]oth left and right need to rethink their positions" on the roots and significance of anti-Americanism, and that "big explanations" that attempt to trace it to a single cause are doomed to fail.

Overall, it's an intelligent analysis. Here are a few highlights I liked:

Since liberal anti-Americanism feeds on perceptions of hypocrisy, a less hypocritical set of United States policies could presumably reduce it. Hypocrisy, however, is inherent in the situation of a superpower that professes universalistic ideals. It afflicted the Soviet Union even more than the United States. Furthermore, a prominent feature of pluralist democracy is that its leaders find it necessary to claim that they are acting consistently with democratic ideals while they have to respond to groups seeking to pursue their own self-interests, usually narrowly defined. When the interests of politically strong groups imply policies that do not reflect democratic ideals, the ideals are typically compromised. Hypocrisy routinely results. It is criticized not only in liberal but also in nonliberal states: for instance, Chinese public discourse overwhelmingly associates the United States with adherence to a double standard in its foreign policy in general and in its conduct of the war on terror specifically.

Hypocrisy in American foreign policy is not so much the result of the ethical failings of American leaders as a byproduct of the role played by the United States in world politics and of democratic politics at home. It will not, therefore, be eradicated. As long as political hypocrisy persists, abundant material will be available for liberal anti-Americanism.

Yes. The German theologian Reinhold Niebuhr noted the paradox 50 years ago: America cannot at the same time project its world power and maintain the image of an innocent, virtuous nation. Katzenstein and Keohane note correctly that America's domestic innocense was lost long ago, about the time the first election was held.

They also explain something about France that often is overlooked in the general American dismissal of that nation, based on years of hectoring.

Elitist anti-Americanism arises in countries in which the elite has a long history of looking down on American culture. In France, for example, discussions of anti-Americanism date back to the eighteenth century, when some European writers held that everything in the Americas was degenerate.2 The climate was enervating; plants and animals did not grow to the same size; people were uncouth. In France and in much of Western Europe, the tradition of disparaging America has continued ever since. Americans are often seen as uncultured materialists seeking individual personal advancement without concern for the arts, music, or other finer things of life. Or they are viewed as excessively religious and therefore insufficiently rational. French intellectuals are the European epicenter of anti-Americanism, and some of their disdain spills over to the public.

However, as our book shows, French anti-Americanism is largely an elite phenomenon. Indeed, polls of the French public between the 1960s and 2002 indicated majority pro-Americanism in France, with favorable ratings that were only somewhat lower than levels observed elsewhere in Europe.

Finally, they tackle the bogeyman of "Americanization:" An odd sort of defensive reaction against U.S. popular culture, often made by the same people who, out of the other side of their mouths, sneer that America has created nothing new in the world.

“Americanization,” therefore, does not describe a simple extension of American products and processes to other parts of the world. On the contrary, it refers to the selective appropriation of American symbols and values by individuals and groups in other societies — symbols and values that may well have had their origins elsewhere. Americanization thus is a profoundly interactive process between America and all parts of the world.

A few years ago an anti-war blogger sneered that Americans ought to give up claiming "I don't agree with what you say, but I'll die for your right to say it" was an expression of American ideals, since it was not said by an American. She attributed it to the French and to Voltaire -- a common error.

[The quote is first used in 1906, by a woman named Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1868-1919), an Englishwoman who wrote a biography of Voltaire under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre. She said it was a paraphrase of Voltaire's words in his "Essay on Tolerance": "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too." The quote is so often misattributed that one historical researcher has paraphrased it as, "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to mis-attribute this quote to Voltaire."]

I wrote to her: "Really, very little of America is original, and almost none of the best of it is. We know that, and it doesn't bother us. Everyone here is from somewhere else, ultimately. Every idea that formed our Declaration of Independence and Constitution was first hatched in some European mind -- a considerable chunk of it from Voltaire, in fact. Doesn't bother us. Many of the men who led the colonies into independence were born overseas. ... Arnold Schwarzenegger is a famous American governor, but he wasn't born here."