America’s moral standing in the world has precipitously declined since 2001. For starters, blame the Bush administration’s go-it-alone tough talk after 9/11, contempt for the Kyoto accord, war and then chaos in Iraq, secret prisons in Europe and alleged use of torture at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Democrats would have you believe that a new team—theirs—in Washington would change all this. Not so fast.
Around the world, anti-Americanism is not simply the result of anger about President Bush’s foreign policies. Rather, it is deeply entrenched antipathy accumulated over decades. It may take generations to undo.
Consider the causes:
• Cold War legacy: U.S. intervention in Vietnam, and covert attempts to overthrow governments in Iran, Guatemala and Cuba, among others, created profound distrust of U.S. motives throughout the developing world. Europeans also disdain these policies and bemoan the cultural coarseness of Americanization sweeping their continent.
Americans, by contrast, tend to dismiss this side of the Cold War. Gore Vidal famously referred to this country as the United States of Amnesia. We’re all about moving forward, getting over it, a nation of immigrants for whom leaving the past behind was a geographic, psychological and often political act. As the last guy standing when the Cold War ended, in 1989, we expected the world to embrace free markets and liberal democracy.
• Power and powerlessness: Power generates resentment. But the United States has lost the ability to see its power from the perspective of those with less of it. In Latin America, for example, U.S. policies — whether on trade, aid, democracy, drugs or immigration — presumed that Latin Americans would automatically see U.S. interests as their own. And when denied deference, we sometimes lash out, as did Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld when he lumped Germany, a close U.S. ally, with Cuba and Libya because Berlin opposed the Iraq war.
• Globalization: In the 1990s, our government, private sector and opinion makers sold globalization as virtually synonymous with Americanization. President Clinton promised that open markets, open societies and smaller government would be the bridge to the 21st century. So where globalization hasn't delivered, the U.S. is blamed.
• What we stand for: Bush is wrong to say that foreigners hate us because of our values and freedoms. Quite the contrary. U.S. credibility abroad used to be reinforced by the perception that our laws and government programs gave most Americans a fair chance to participate in a middle-class meritocracy. But the appeal of the U.S. model overseas is eroding as the gap between rich and poor widens, public education deteriorates, healthcare costs soar and pensions disappear. Most recently, the U.S. government’s seeming indifference to its most vulnerable citizens in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina further undercut belief in the American social contract. The immigration debates also have fostered the perception that the U.S. is vulnerable, hostile and fearful.
Nevertheless, the ideal of the United States as a beacon of justice, democracy, freedom and human rights still garners grudging respect abroad. Despite the perverse appeal of anti-Americanism, its proliferation hurts not only the U.S. but global security. For all the resentments that U.S. leadership generates, in the absence of an appealing alternative, it remains a much-desired resource. That’s why the U.S. could still get its global groove back.
But there is no quick fix. Liberals tempted to out-Bush Bush in the battle against terrorism risk sowing the seeds of a future backlash in the developing world. The U.S. will be no less powerful in the eyes of powerless nations if Democrats win control of Congress in November. Harsh global competition isn’t going away either. As a result, the wellsprings of anti-Americanism will not dry up anytime soon.
But anti-Americanism will begin to ebb if the new watchwords of U.S. policy and conduct are pragmatism, generosity, modesty, discretion, cooperation, empathy, fairness, manners and lawfulness. This softer lexicon should not be construed as a refutation of the use of force against hostile states or terrorist groups. Rather, a foreign policy that deploys U.S. power with some consideration for how the U.S. is perceived will gradually make legitimate U.S. military action more acceptable abroad.
Personalities do matter. And not just the president’s. The global initiatives of private American citizens—Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Gordon Moore, Angelina Jolie, Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg—carry the kind of message that government-sponsored public diplomacy can’t match.
And symbols matter too. We should close Guantanamo.
Recovering our global standing will come not only from how we fight or prevent the next war, or manage an increasingly chaotic world. Domestic policy must change as well. Steering the body politic out of its insular mood, reducing social and economic inequalities, and decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels will help improve our moral standing and our security.
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