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U.S.: Sympathy, Solidarity With U.S. After 11 September Turning To Resentment, Anger

  • Jeremy Bransten

Following the 11 September attacks against the United States, America met with an outpouring of sympathy and solidarity from much of the rest of the world. But a year later, the situation has changed, and anti-Americanism appears again to be on the rise, even in Europe, a continent filled with countries Washington counts as its friends. What happened? RFE/RL interviews two European political analysts on the reasons behind this phenomenon.

Prague, 10 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States bears at least some responsibility for the terrorist attacks it suffered last 11 September -- agree or disagree?

That was the question put by pollsters to a representative sample of citizens in a country considered to be among the United States' closest strategic allies. The result? Sixty-nine percent of respondents agreed that the United States partly brought on the attacks itself, as a consequence of its policies. A shocking result to most Americans. Even more shocking was that the poll was conducted not in Saudi Arabia, not in Indonesia, but in Canada, by "The Globe and Mail" newspaper and Canadian television.

In Europe, too, newspaper editorial pages are full of opposition to U.S. policies on everything from the environment to the war on terrorism.

Riches and power often breed envy and resentment, especially when they are flaunted. The United States has both, and so it should come as little surprise that some in the world perceive the country with a measure of hostility. But what has taken Americans aback recently has been the degree of resentment coming from those Americans count as their friends and allies, namely Europeans.

Dario Fo, the Italian playwright who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997 -- expressing a more extreme point of view -- wrote soon after 11 September that violence against the United States is "the legitimate daughter of the culture of violence, hunger and human exploitation," which he alleges Washington helps to foster around the world.

Why have U.S.-European ties been worsening lately, and what accounts for the continuing expressions of anti-Americanism on the continent and elsewhere, where the United States claims allies?

To this end, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush even convoked a closed-door, international conference in Washington last week devoted to the issue of anti-Americanism.

Petr Drulak, a political scientist at the Prague-based Czech Institute of International Relations, told RFE/RL that some resentment of the United States is natural and even unavoidable. "I would say that anti-Americanism, to a certain degree, is unavoidable. It has to do with the fact that the United States is close to becoming what is usually defined in international relations as a hegemonist [a state expanding its influence over other states]. It is the strongest country, which guarantees the stability of the international system, and this hegemonist often does not have a natural partner because all the others are significantly weaker. So the hegemonist often acts as it wishes, frequently without regard for the interests of others. In this way, it's almost unavoidable that the hegemonist is going to elicit some negative reactions. I think the United States cannot get around this," Drulak said.

But Drulak said the tendency by U.S. leaders to explain their policies using universalist language -- to couch what is often a national interest in internationalist language -- is what especially irks foreign countries. "American universalism represents a certain trap because, of course, American foreign policy has a tendency to justify its aims, its interests, through universalist principles. From the European -- Western European -- point of view, or indeed the point of view of other parts of the world, people are sensitive to what is a specific American interest and what is truly a universal principle. And they often see these universalist proclamations about the good of mankind, about world democracy, about global prosperity, only as a pretext to serve the American national interest," Drulak said.

There are and have always been deep philosophical differences on specific issues dividing Europe and the United States, among them gun control, capital punishment, global warming, Mideast policy, and national missile defense.

But the perception in much of the world, including Europe, is that Washington is not interested in bridging those differences.

Jacques Beltram, an analyst at the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), told RFE/RL that the Bush administration's opposition to international treaties and institutions, such as the Kyoto protocol and the International Criminal Court, has reinforced this view and led to a renewed wave of anti-Americanism. "The difference between the [former President Bill] Clinton and the [current President George W.] Bush administration is that with this administration, unilateralism is basically a policy," Beltram said.

Even before the terrorist attacks against the United States, this unilateralist attitude was a topic of frequent discussion and concern among many editorial writers in America.

Martin Kettle, in a commentary published last year in "The Washington Post" -- months before the 11 September attacks -- perhaps put his finger on the root cause when he wrote: "A lot of Europeans simply believe that Americans are too self-absorbed to either know what is happening or to care how the rest of the world sees them. Underlying this refusal seems to be an American belief that human rights abuses are committed only by other nationals, not by Americans and not by the uncriticizable American military. There is surely a disjunction here. Universal modern American values supposedly reign supreme alongside American entrepreneurial dynamism. Yet while the rest of the world is struggling to make itself answerable to global legal standards, America is increasingly determined to stand aloof. It's a message that says the United States is happy with double standards."

Beltram said that the end of the Cold War has highlighted some of the frustration Western Europeans feel toward U.S. policy and has freed them to speak their minds more openly. "During the Cold War, being anti-American was maybe dangerous for the coalition in the face of communism. Today, the absence of the Soviet threat allows for more free speech in Europe and even from countries that you would not expect it to come from, for example, Germany. Germany's opposition today to intervention in Iraq -- total opposition, not only the question of whether an intervention should be made at the UN Security Council level. Germans have said: 'No, we don't want to intervene. We don't think it's necessary.' This kind of reaction from the Germans is something new because they now have a certain margin of maneuver to express their intentions," Beltram said.

Some Americans counter that European opposition to American policies is simply repressed jealousy and resentment at Europe's own inability to punch above its weight in international relations. Beltram said Europeans have to admit there is some truth to this diagnosis, but this should not allow the United States to ignore Europe completely. "This inability of Europeans to face a certain number of threats in the world is maybe a factor, yes, definitely, that creates some envy. Having said that, I think most European political leaders know that we don't have the same ambitions, we don't have the same strategic interests as the United States, but this does not mean that we don't have something to say about other strategic interests, like relations between India and Pakistan, like relations between China and Taiwan. And today, for example, Iraq is a shared common strategic interest. Europeans certainly do not have the military capability to act alone, but this does not mean that they don't have anything to say on the diplomatic front," Beltram said.

In Prague, Drulak noted that Czechs and their postcommunist neighbors, ironically, remain more pro-American than many of their fellow Western Europeans. "I would say that the [postcommunist] Central European countries are more Atlantically oriented than Western Europe. This comes from historical experience because during the period of totalitarianism, America -- above all, America -- represented an alternative to the totalitarian system. There is significant symbolism here, and it was clear to everyone at the time that Western Europe was a U.S. ally in the fight against totalitarianism. But it was equally clear that the main actor was the United States. And I would say that this is why warm feelings towards the United States have been carried over from this era," Drulak said.

But Drulak predicted that this dynamic may change, as Central and Eastern European countries join the European Union. "The situation in our region is clear because the main power center which we are headed toward is the European Union. So if the countries in the region find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, between the United States and the European Union, they will follow the European Union," Drulak said.

A certain divergence of interests and views is unavoidable between the United States and some of its closest allies, especially in Europe. But how to ensure that this gap does not grow into a chasm? Beltram said both Europe and the United States could smooth over some of the rough edges through better dialogue. "Things could be done by both Americans and Europeans to try [to] resolve this kind of crisis that we have today. On both sides, it's an issue basically of communication -- how you present things. Both Americans and Europeans know that we have increasingly diverging strategic interests and that we're going to have to deal with this issue. But in the way we discuss these issues together, there's something that can be done. On the American side, when dealing with a crisis like Afghanistan, the way in which the U.S. administration rejected the offer by NATO to provide military capabilities to help in the war in Afghanistan was, in my opinion, a stupid reaction because NATO could have been, at least on paper, associated with the war in Afghanistan, without it hampering efforts to hunt Al-Qaeda," Beltram said.

Beltram said Europeans, in turn, also have their work cut out for them. "On the European side, I think the worst way to confront American unilateralism is to say that Americans are crazy with their war on terrorism, that they are exaggerating the threat, etc....because this basically makes Americans feel that they're alone in this world to deal with these threats. So on the contrary, I think Europeans should stress the importance of these threats and probably offer alternatives, other ways to deal with this terrorist threat than military force," Beltram said.

In other words, the United States should solicit its allies' advice, and America's allies should be prepared to take U.S. concerns to heart. Simple advice, but is anyone in a mood to listen?