Anti-Americanism abroad is by no means a new phenomenon. Indeed, as early as 1869, James Russell Lowell complained that Europeans invariably saw the United States “in caricature.” Nineteenth-century European aristocrats despised America as a symbol of progress, innovation, and (above all) equality, ridiculing it as a mongrel land of immigrant groups simmering in the melting pot. It was a short step from this stereotype to today’s European-establishment view of Americans as materialistic simpletons.
Some contemporary societies are rife with anti-Americanism because they reject the peculiar combination of respect for individual liberty, reliance on personal responsibility, and distrust of government that is characteristic of the United States. People in those societies therefore react negatively to America’s political institutions and its social and political arrangements. They favor deeper state involvement in social programs than is politically feasible or socially acceptable in the United States.
Anti-Americanism also tends to appear where people see their country as a potential great power on the world stage, and hold the U.S. responsible for halting their climb up the hierarchy of nations. Concerns about “respect” and “saving face” in international politics can make anti-Americanism especially virulent in such places.
Another, more radical, strain of anti-Americanism is built around the belief that American values and customs are intrinsically evil and abhorrent, and that they – along with the people who embrace them – should thus be destroyed.
An "elitist" form of anti-Americanism arises in countries where the social or intellectual elite has a long history of looking with condescension upon American culture. In France, for example, discussions of anti-Americanism date back to the eighteenth century, when some European writers held that all things in the New World -- the climate, the animals, the people – were degenerate. In France and much of Western Europe, the tradition of disparaging America has continued ever since. People in these places often see Americans as uncultured materialists seeking individual personal advancement without concern for the arts and high culture. They also tend to perceive Americans as being excessively religious and therefore insufficiently rational.
Then there is the phenomenon of "legacy" anti-Americanism, which stems from resentment over past wrongs committed by the United States against another society. For example, the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the subsequent hostage crisis were fueled by memories of American intervention in Iranian politics in the 1950s. Similarly, Iranian hostility toward the United States today derives from the grievances that emerged during the revolution and the hostage crisis.
Central to a great deal of foreign anti-Americanism is a powerful scapegoating impulse rooted in envy and insecurity. Because of America's "last remaining superpower" status, it has become a target upon which a wide range of grievances and resentments can be projected. Moreover, its ability and willingness to intervene in conflicts abroad (e.g., in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Iraq) has lent more plausibility to the image of the United States as a reckless, irresponsible, militarist superpower throwing its weight around. The late French philosopher Jean-François Revel noted in 2004 that Europeans commonly depicted America as a nation where there was severe poverty, extreme inequality, “no unemployment benefits,” “no assistance for the destitute,” and medical care and university education only for the rich. “Europeans firmly believe this caricature,” Revel wrote, “because it is repeated every day by the elites.”
Stian Bromark and Dag Herbjørnsrud’s book Fear of America casts light on the extent of anti-Americanism in various places around the world. The authors begin by examining the geographical distribution of the phenomenon, which -- while relatively uncommon in Asia, South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Eastern Europe -- is widespread in the Islamic world and Western Europe, and is highest of all in France. They report that:
- 53% of Frenchmen “take a negative view of American democratic ideas,” while 64% of Czechs, 67% of Venezuelans, and 87% of Kenyans take a positive view;
- though fewer than 14% of Frenchmen have visited America, “most have strong views” about it;
- “Europeans who have not been in the [United States] ... have the strongest opinions” about it; and
- malice toward America is inversely proportional to the amount of time individuals have actually spent there.
Arab and Muslim hatred of the United States is not merely, or even mainly, a response to actual U.S. policies -- policies that, if anything, have been remarkably pro-Arab and pro-Muslim over the years. For years, Arab/Muslim anti-Americanism has served as a means of last resort by which failed political systems and movements in the Middle East try to improve their standing. The United States is blamed for much that is bad in the Arab world, such as the region's political and social oppression and economic stagnation. By assigning responsibility for their own shortcomings to Washington, Arab leaders distract their subjects' attention from the internal weaknesses that are their real problems. And thus, rather than pushing for greater privatization, equality for women, democracy, civil society, freedom of speech, due process of law, or other similar developments that are sorely needed in the Arab world, the public focuses instead on hating the United States. The broad dissemination of Arab and Muslim anti-Americanism is facilitated by the fact that the state-sponsored media of the Middle East tightly controls the flow of information to the masses, and it feeds the public a steady stream of rhetoric critical of the United States.
Adapted from: "Varieties of Anti-Americanism," by Peter J. Katzenstein and Robert O. Keohane (November 10, 2006); "The Politics of Envy," by Paul Hollander (November 2002); "The Real Roots of Arab Anti-Americanism," by Barry Rubin (October 29, 2002); and "Hating America," by Bruce Bawer (Spring 2004).