Sweig: Reversing Anti-American Sentiment Requires New U.S. Engagement on Global Problems

Julia Sweig, Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow for Latin American Studies, is author of a new book on what she calls "the Anti-American Century." She says there are many ways the United States can begin to turn around the strong anti-American sentiment sweeping the world. Forcing high-level officials like Secretary of Defense Donald M. Rumsfeld to resign because of detainee abuses is one of them. Reviving Cold War-era cultural diplomacy programs is another.

March 27, 2006

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Julia Sweig, CFR’s Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies, and the author of a new book, Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century, says there are many ways the United States can begin to turn around the anti-American sentiment sweeping the world. She offers a range of prescriptions such as improving cultural diplomacy programs and holding high-level officials—such as Secretary of Defense Donald M. Rumsfeld—accountable for detainee abuse scandals.

"I think we need to signal in many different ways, in many different forums, that the United States takes seriously the way other countries define their interests and doesn’t necessarily assume that how we define our interest is automatically going to be adopted by other states," Sweig says.

The United States can accomplish this by not lecturing so much at international forums, Sweig says, and "having a bit more humility about the kinds of sort of big-ticket items like democracy and regime change that we have incorporated as sort of front and center on our policy agenda." She says in terms of substantive policies, the United States "needs to be seen as putting serious alternatives forward to the kinds of issues that many in the international community take very, very seriously" from global warming to trade.

In your new book, you talk a about the phenomenon of "anti-America" throughout the world. At the same time, thousands of people keep trying to get into the United States. Is there a paradox here? Why do people keep coming to the United States if the United States is so unpopular?

I think we have to look at what [the] conditions in their own countries are that are driving them to leave. Probably the push of failing societies that aren’t creating jobs which generate sufficient wages is the predominant reason why people need to leave and want to leave. This goes along with the fact that we do have jobs that need to be filled here. So that’s the kind of classic push-pull dynamic in immigration that we’ve seen not only now but for centuries. It’s been exacerbated, perhaps, in the recent period. People by and large will, I think, put aside their rancor toward the United States as a global power for the immediate need of filling their kids’ bellies and making their way in the world. So, that’s the quick answer.

People weren’t lining up to get into the Soviet Union as I recall.

No, of course not. And I do think the United States is an incredibly appealing society still, but I think that that appeal is diminishing. When [international] polls ask people who are leading middle class professional lives, or about to embark on them, how does the United States rank by comparison to Germany, the Scandinavian countries, China, France, and other more developed and developed countries as a model that you would recommend a young person starting off in life to start their life in, the United States ranks fourth or fifth or sixth.

It’s interesting how the polls have been so negative about the United States’ image around the world. And it even precedes the Iraq war, right?

Absolutely. I think that the polls began to turn in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11. They began to turn with the invasion of Afghanistan [in October 2001], but I think had we stopped in Afghanistan, they wouldn’t have plummeted further. They begin to plummet in 2002 before the Iraq invasion when it became clear that the United States was going to go to war in Iraq. And it’s not only over Iraq that they begin to drop. They begin to turn downward over the withdrawal from the Kyoto Agreement, over the perception that the United States is thumbing its nose at the international community’s major global issues, whether over the [U.S. rejection of the] ICC [International Criminal Court], the [U.S. withdrawal from the] ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, that sort of thing. Then along comes Iraq and that really sends the numbers dropping downward further.

Let’s say American troops are substantially out of Iraq by this time next year. Would that have much effect on the perception of the United States?

I’m skeptical that a withdrawal from Iraq, however it happens, over whatever timeline, will substantially enhance our image—at least in the short term—because I think we’re going to get criticized whether we leave abruptly, whether we leave slowly, largely because of the shape that Iraq itself is in and also because the legacy of the diplomacy around the war, the unilateralism of it and the chaos and failures in its operational aspects have really hit us hard. I think what will happen, though, as an indirect spillover effect is that if our departure from Iraq allows us to pay better attention to other major global issues, that may in fact enhance our standing, but not the departure from Iraq per se.

Let’s face it. Certain presidents of the United States create very bad images abroad. When I was a young correspondent in Washington, Lyndon Johnson, who was quite popular in the United States, was depicted as a sort of wild Texan packing side arms. Part of this was, of course, due to the Vietnam War. And President Bush is also from Texas and he seems immensely unpopular with a lot of people around the world. Would a new president change [perceptions]?

I think that the personality of this or that president, and in this case President George W. Bush, does make a difference, but all presidents of this country, because of our power and what I call American ubiquity, are targets of caricature and ridicule. To some extent, even Bill Clinton was taken over the international coals. So I think a different style of diplomacy emanating from the White House will make a difference. But I think this is a problem that is much deeper than the personality of George W. Bush and I would contrast this anti-America moment with the kind of anti-American episodes of the Cold War. Because the Cold War is over and there is no sort of negative alternative out there [like the Soviet Union], we remain the single superpower and so all eyes are on us and so what we do and what we don’t do really matters and there’s no sort of negative contrast out there. But also, it’s not just Bush, it’s not just Iraq.

We will have a new president in 2008. What should he or she do? If the new president called you into the office and said, "Ms. Sweig, give me some advice. First of all, should we improve our image and how do we do it?"

Well, the answer is yes, we should improve our image, but not just because we want to be liked. Nothing that needs attention today can be done alone. So the reasons for a course correction don’t have to do with just image for image’s sake. That’s number one. Number two, I think we need to signal in many different ways, in many different forums, that the United States takes seriously the way other countries define their interests and doesn’t necessarily assume that how we define our interests is automatically going to be adopted and digested and reflected by our global constituents.

And we can signal that in lots of different ways. In our participation in the international forums we can come off as not lecturing so much, having a bit more humility about the kinds of sort of big-ticket items like democracy and regime change that we have incorporated as sort of front and center on our policy agenda. On the substantive policy front, I think that we need to be seen as putting serious alternatives forward to the kinds of issues that many in the international community take very, very seriously, like climate change, like the prosecution of human rights violators on the international scale -- and here I’m talking about how we handle the issues raised by the International Criminal Court, like the prosecution of the war on terrorism and proliferation [of weapons of mass destruction]. And also I would mention international trade. On almost all of those issues we have been seen as hypocritical. We need to correct that appearance by putting substantive policy proposals forward and not just thumbing our nose, which remains the perception.

The United States has created a public diplomacy office, which in effect has replaced the former U.S. Information Agency. What do you think about public diplomacy?

I think public diplomacy can only be effective if it’s part of and complements substantive policies that are seen as legitimate. We did not get ourselves into the mess we are now in because of a failure of communications. And so a communications strategy alone, explaining ourselves better, can’t possibly fix the problem. But I do think that some of the critical public diplomacy programs that we had during the Cold War need to be revived and revived quickly. I mean all of the exchange programs and libraries and the cultural diplomacy that were richly funded during the Cold War are now anemically funded and that really makes a difference, not only in terms of how others see us, but how our own public see themselves in the world. I think that both of those, both the foreign public and our own domestic public, could use some sort of reeducation, if you will.

I want to insert something back into what should we do about it. We talked a little bit about Iraq. But I also think that the failure to hold accountable senior government officials over this issue of torture and the detainee scandals really is a problem. It will take us a very long time to recover what we’ve lost as a result of what transpired in Abu Ghraib, and Bagram [prison in Afghanistan], and Guantanamo, and I think if we are seen as definitively embracing the Geneva Conventions and punishing those responsible—not just at the level of enlisted men and women—for endorsing the policies that resulted in torture, that would also help our ability to recover the trust that we’ve lost.

Do you think Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld should have been asked to resign?

Absolutely. I think that would have sent a very big signal. Now, apparently he has offered to resign several times and the president has not accepted that offer.

What areas of the world do you think the United States should move on first? How’s Latin America doing?

Well, I think Latin America is absolutely ripe for improvement. As you know, my book sort of takes off on the experience of Latin America with American power over the last century and a half and makes the case that with America’s power gone global, beyond the hemisphere, that the rest of the world has now experienced the difficult side of dealing with American power that the Latin Americans have long been accustomed to.

Paradoxically, Latin America is also, because of proximity, I think most favorably disposed to the United States, even despite all of the Cold War dark spots, for example, and even this recent period when the Latin Americans have felt really disillusioned and betrayed. I think [we can start by] reaching out and signaling to the Latin Americans that we recognize a whole set of policy issues beyond the war on terror and free trade that are important to Latin Americans, how are they going to deal with inequality and with poverty and with personal insecurity and with the very kind of issues that have the effect ultimately of making people need to come here for jobs.

We need to recognize that that’s what Latin Americans are dealing with and, in fact, with the recent trip of Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes to Latin America, they have begun to make that gesture, and they’ve also indicated that we as a country can deal with the Left. And that is also important. The Latin Americans in many countries are electing center and left-of-center governments and the initial hallway chatter in Washington was not just chatter, it was hysteria. But the signals that the United States has been sending lately is that, other than Hugo Chavez [the president of Venezuela], the United States really is disposed to work with democratically elected heads of state on the left and that’s very important. So that might help.

But we might eventually hurt ourselves on this immigration front with Latin America if the onerous law-and-order laws are what this Congress turns over to the president. If what we’re going to do is just spend twenty billion dollars more, as we have in the last ten years on building walls and beefing up law enforcement rather than finding a way for people who are now here to come out of the shadows and for people to come and want to work here, to come here and do so legally, then I think we’ll undermine our efforts to improve things on the Latin American front.

I think in Western Europe there’s been some improvement in the second Bush term with the United States joining in with more multilateral diplomacy on Iran and other issues. Do you agree?

Yes, I think that’s true.

The change in government in Germany, I think contributed to that.

I think things are turning around slightly on proliferation and dealing with Iran. Condoleezza Rice is spending a lot of time trying to, well, make up for lost time, spending three days in Australia and traveling around the world a great deal. I’m not sure that we’ll ever recover what we’ve lost, which is what I called in the book the benefit of the doubt, which is a gut reflex. That is now lost and the United States is now no longer regarded as special and promising as it once was in the 20th century, which was the American century by comparison to this, what I call the anti-American century, because I think we have lost this capacity to get things done with the benefit of the doubt that helped us so much during the Cold War and in the 20th century.