Anti-Americanism is an ideology: it does not relate directly to what the U.S. does or doesn’t do in specific circumstances or locations. Anti-Americanism is a consequence of what the U.S. is, or how the U.S. is perceived. Like any ideology, anti-Americanism does not describe reality; it invents a substitute to reality or pretends to describe the true reality, beyond the veil of appearance. If we remember Marxism, it pretended to be a scientific interpretation of history and a description of social forces which no one could actually see; it is only through the Marxist magnifying glass that the enlightened, scientific, observer could understand the true march of history. The same goes for anti-Americanism which is a sort of sub-plot in the vast Marxist interpretation of history.
Let us consider trivial examples of how anti-Americanism works. Take the global expansion of McDonald’s corporation. The U.S. entrepreneur behind its global marketing would advocate his economic rationale: he is just making money everywhere he can. This entrepreneur would add that he is selling clean, reliable food, at a cheap price for people who like it. But the enlightened anti -American will not buy this too simple story. He will understand that McDonald’s is part of a global U.S. imperialist plot, out there to destroy the cultural singularity of local people; fighting McDonald’s becomes, from the anti-American perspective, part of a global war against U.S. imperialism in order to defend a threatened culture and the local small business which could be wiped out by the U.S. food juggernaut.
At this stage, we should admit, both interpretations are partly true; both actors, the entrepreneur and the anti-American activist, cannot act otherwise. Each one follows his own logic. The U.S. company has to expand globally to satisfy its shareholders and employees; it cannot take the local diversity into too much consideration as standardization is a seminal part of its global success. For McDonald’s, a human being is more or less the same, wherever he lives, whatever his culture; the McDonald’s success demonstrates that the McDonald’s rationale is experimentally true.
However, the McDonald’s enemy is also right. As a consequence of McDonald’s strategy, local restaurants will disappear, local food will appear obsolete to the younger generation; the country will be engulfed by the Americanization of the world. McDonald’s may or may not see itself as part of an imperialist project, but as a consequence of its dynamism, it is part of an imperialist outcome.
How can we reconcile these two incompatible interpretations as they both look to be true? My answer is that the U.S. is an unwilling Empire, unwilling because the U.S. itself is quite divided on the necessity to go global and to export its own values; this debate goes through the very beginning and the very core of the U.S. civilization. Some of the U.S. founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson viewed the U.S. as the empire of liberty, the embodiment of universal values which were made for all mankind. Also the U.S. Constitution was not initially devised for a specific territory. On the other hand, a strong political trend within the U.S. is protectionist and isolationist: to keep the U.S. as a small paradise, not to be spoilt by foreign entanglements.
However, this debate between U.S. expansionists and U.S. isolationists is a bit theoretical since the U.S. is everywhere, but the imperial unwillingness remains. Ask any U.S. soldier based in Korea, Iraq, or the Philippines what his aspirations are. Whenever I speak with the U.S. military, anywhere in the world, he always long for his home State, hoping to return there as soon as possible. These soldiers make poor imperialists: it is hard to imagine the Roman, Dutch, French, or British Empire having been built with such reluctant soldiers.
The anti-American will not buy my argument; like Karl Marx, he would observe that men write a History that they ignore. The reluctant U.S. soldier abroad is a cog in the machine, alienated to the U.S. empire even when he does not know it.
Beyond these significant anecdotes, when we examine the history of anti- Americanism, it appears as a remarkably flexible ideology; it is not really impacted by time nor circumstance. From the very early nineteenth century, when the U.S. was still a weak nation without international influence, many European observers despised the U.S. for basically two reasons: the U.S. was dominated by the mob, a.k.a democracy, and it had no true culture. Two centuries later, with the U.S. style of democracy the global norm and U.S. culture having invaded every corner of the planet, the same old arguments go: anti-Americans will argue against the vulgarity of U.S. culture and, without attacking democratic principles, they will observe that the U.S. rules are unsophisticated, or too dependant on a versatile public opinion and/or Wall Street interests. Any admiration for the dynamism and creativity of U.S. culture pins you as an imperialist stooge. If you underline the transparency of the U.S. democratic debate, the anti-American will scoff at you and presume you have been bought by the CIA.
Anti-Americans usually do not define themselves as such: they would rather argue that if the U.S. behaves differently, anti-Americanism would not exist. To a certain extent, the levels of anti-Americanism as measured by opinion polls do vary, but not too much. In circumstances when the U.S. troops did liberate Western Europe or South Korea, pro-American enthusiasm was short lived; after a while, some months in the case of France in 1945, anti-American slogans reappeared. In the case of Iraq, anti-Americanism reappeared a few days after the U.S. troops liberated the country from Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. This can be easily understood from a psychological perspective: few people like to be liberated as it shows that they were unable to reach freedom or independence by themselves. A U.S. general based in Seoul said it best: “Anti-Americanism comes with territory.” Also, when some are actually liberated by the U.S., others do lose their power or advantages, like the Sunnis in Iraq or the Koreans who cooperated with the communists or with the Japanese.
Beyond these personal interests, the U.S., because it is the U.S., is the natural enemy of alternative ideologies. If you are not pro-democracy, if you are not pro-market, the U.S. is the enemy by definition; this will have nothing to do with U.S. behaviour as the U.S. is rooted in democracy and free market. Take the radical Muslims: their hatred has less to do with U.S. policy than with U.S. existence. Sayed Qutb, the Egyptian scholar who founded modern radical Islam, lived in the U.S. in the 1940s. When studying there, a guest of the U.S. government, he qualified the U.S. as the Devil to be destroyed. He came to this radical conclusion (with consequences on September 11, 2001) basically because of women's status in the U.S. He hated a society where all women were, as he wrote, prostitutes; that is so to say, not veiled and equal to men. Even if there were peace in the Middle East, these radical Muslims would still want to destroy the U.S. as long American women remained free. A milder, structural anti-American streak affects intellectuals worldwide.
Scholars everywhere, including in the U.S., seldom like the U.S.; they usually despise American society for its supposed absence of culture. In reality, culture in the U.S. is far from absent; therefore, intellectual anti-Americanism has more to do with the social hierarchy in the U.S. as opposed to Asia and Europe. Money, power, and glamour seem to dominate the U.S. scale of values; out of the U.S., the learned scholar has the feeling that he is more respected than he would be in the U.S. How could a scholar not despise a society which does not put scholarship at the top of its social values?
All of these attitudes are, of course, perceptions and not a description of the real U.S.; anti-Americanism does not deal with the reality. On the reverse, you could say that many admirers of the U.S. model do not consider the real U.S.; they just love more free market, or less trade unions, in their own countries. Anti-Americans and pro-Americans pursue their own agenda, using the U.S. as a scapegoat or a promise land. As a consequence, both sides do not help to understand why we all live in a de facto American Empire; pro or anti do not offer any alternative to the U.S.-made global order. Where would the anti-Americans go if they lost their best enemy?
Guy Sorman, à New-York