America the Feeble

By Eric Frey

Published June 09, 2006, issue of June 09, 2006.
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When President Bush arrives in Vienna on June 22 for the annual summit between the European Union and the United States, he will meet smiling politicians in the conference rooms and see angry-looking citizens on the streets.

On the political level, European-American relations are perhaps the best they’ve been since Bush entered the White House: The joint initiative on Iran is just another example of the new tone in American foreign policy set by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. For the first time in years, there are no serious strategic or economic policy issues dividing the trans-Atlantic partners.

This state of affairs may give some comfort to American policy-makers, but if they decide to look outside the confines of the summit meetings, they will have cause for concern.

In Austria, just like everywhere else in Europe, America’s image is perhaps worse than ever before. Academics, journalists and other members of Europe’s educated elite view Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, CIA torture flights, NSA snooping and, most recently, the reports on the alleged massacre by Marines in Haditha as indelible stains on America’s reputation. They tend to disregard Condi Rice’s smiles and see George Bush’s America as just another human rights violator, a notch above China and perhaps a bit better than Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And anti-Americanism is not limited to the elites. Europe’s voracious appetite for Big Macs and Hollywood movies notwithstanding, America is not any more popular with the general public.

A series of international opinion polls by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project shows that anti-American sentiments rose sharply in 2002 and 2003 and have remained at these high levels. As Pew’s Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes argue in their new book, “America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked,” “Anti-Americanism runs deeper and is qualitatively different than in the past.” They explain that a growing number of people all over the world dislike the American people and not only their government. The United States, they observe, is criticized for its ideals as well as its policies, “and possibly most troubling, this newfound anti-Americanism was proving itself to be quite robust and long-lived.”

Kohut and Stokes believe that America’s unrivaled power fuels hostile attitudes. But their analysis misses a crucial point: In the eyes of the rest of the world, the United States looks increasingly weak. The world’s biggest military power is losing the war against the insurgency in Iraq. It cannot find the right recipe to stop Iran from pursuing its nuclear weapons programs. And even in Afghanistan, the Taliban seem to be back. Bush may talk about winning the war on terror, but from Europe’s point of view, the terrorist threat has not abated anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, in Latin America, Hugo Chavez is winning over the crowds with vicious attacks on America. The American economy is still strong, but most European economists are focused less on growth figures than on the huge financial imbalances caused by record trade deficits. It’s not only President Bush who, in the face of record-low approval ratings, looks helpless; it is the United States itself.

A feeble giant does not make many friends. Back in 2002 and 2003, when the world was talking about the American hyper-power that can win any war it chooses to fight, the prevailing attitude toward Washington was one of resentment mixed with respect. Today, it is just resentment and contempt.

The decline in American power is fueling anti-Americanism. But while many of America’s critics are angry and frustrated at American fumbling, they do not necessarily take pleasure in seeing it fail. Indeed, it is one of the paradoxes of the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world that many of those who turn against America when it appears weak ultimately want to see it strong. Particularly in Western Europe, they want American power to take care of all the chores that are well beyond the capabilities of their own governments — keep aggressive dictators in check, prevent genocide, defend human rights, stop Islamic fundamentalism and, yes, guarantee a secure supply of oil. But they do not want Americans to brag about their military and moral superiority and go around telling everyone else what to do without ever listening to their views. And just like most Americans, they want the superpower to get the job done quickly and to go home. They like American presidents who combine quiet strength and modesty, not weakness and arrogance.

Despite all the heated debates about military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, Bill Clinton was wildly popular in Europe in the 1990s. And even today, many Europeans would probably grudgingly accept Bush’s religiosity and his simplistic worldview if his administration had really succeeded in creating a stable and democratic postwar Iraq and thus helped to contain radical Islam. Against a background of success, Europeans would also show far more tolerance toward American breaches of human and civil rights. Let’s not forget, there are plenty of terrorist suspects sitting in European jails based on highly questionable legal procedures.

Deep down, many of those protesting on the streets of Europe really just want the same thing as the majority of Americans who feel that their country is not on the right track. They want America to live up to its own democratic and human-right ideals; they want it to solve global international conflicts and not to exacerbate them. And most of all, they want America to succeed. True, Europeans often apply excessively high and even double standards in judging American policies. But the sentiments underlying their criticisms are not necessarily as hostile as they sometimes seem.

Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.

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