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U.S.: Two Years After 9/11, 'Two Wests' Emerging With Fundamental Differences

  • Ron Synovitz

International sympathy for the U.S. following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 appears to have been replaced by anger and fear about American foreign policy. But as RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports, some European political analysts think deeper, subtler shifts are occurring in Washington's relations with the rest of the world, especially with its trans-Atlantic allies.

Prague, 10 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When British pop singer David Bowie released the song "I'm Afraid of Americans" in 1997 it was one of his poorest-selling recordings in years.

But two years after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, political analysts say the lyrics in Bowie's refrain have come to reflect the way much of the world now feels about the United States. Bowie sings: "I'm afraid of Americans. I'm afraid of the world. I'm afraid I can't help it. I'm afraid of Americans."

The expressions of sympathy for Americans that were heard around the world after some 3,000 people were killed in the 11 September attacks have largely dissipated. Two years later -- after U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- opinion of U.S. President George W. Bush's administration has soured in parts of Europe, Asia, and the Arab world.

Many political analysts outside of the United States blame both Bush's brusque personal style, as well as the foreign policies of his administration.

Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the Paris-based French Institute for International Relations, says those factors have contributed to negative perceptions about the United States. But he thinks something more significant also is happening.

"What we are witnessing is the emergence of two Wests -- an American West and a European West -- with different sensitivities and different emotions. And what we have to maintain is a sense of common goals and common responsibilities. That is going to be the challenge ahead for Americans and Europeans."

Like most European analysts, Moisi sees the U.S. decision to go to war against Iraq without a specific UN mandate -- and against the urging of countries such as France, Germany, and Russia -- as a key factor in the changing trans-Atlantic relationship.

"Clearly, two years after 9/11, America is perceived with a greater sense of distance by its traditional allies. Anti-Americanism has risen in a country like Germany to a level that used to be that of France. And clearly, the war in Iraq has played a very negative role in the image of America in Europe."

But Moisi says he doesn't think the situation would change dramatically even if a member of the Democratic Party -- Bush's political opposition -- was elected tomorrow to the U.S. presidency.

"The Bush style played a very negative role in this perception of the United States. But I think it goes beyond Bush. It goes really beyond personalities and politics. To some extent, it is the respective essence of America and Europe. They are going apart."

Moisi notes that divisions between Americans and Europeans are becoming entrenched in the language of public discourse on both sides of the Atlantic.

"We look at each other and no longer say 'we,' but we say 'they.' And when the Americans say 'they' about Europeans, it is with a certain degree of either benign neglect, irritation, or even disdain. When the Europeans say 'they,' speaking about the Americans, it is with a certain degree of anger and sometimes fear. This is a new situation. To a large extent, the Americans are telling the Europeans that the world has become a dangerous place. And the Europeans are replying to the Americans, 'Yes, but the world [also] is a complex place.' We don't agree with each other."

Moisi says negative perceptions about American power are even more pronounced across the Arab world.

"I think in the Arab world, the schizophrenia is even more acute. You have deep anti-Americanism, which manifested during the war in Iraq. Initially, Arabs were pleased by the Iraqi resistance. Then they felt humiliated when Baghdad fell nearly without any resistance. At the same time, the dream of America [is still there]. They still want to come to America to find a working place. America as a power is rejected by the Arabs [while] America as a place -- as a symbol of work and freedom -- is seen by the Arabs as a dream."

Frank Umbach is a senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. He tells RFE/RL that it is misleading to equate support for U.S. policy by some European governments as a sign that the majority of people in those countries also support the U.S. position on Iraq and the war on terror.

"The European views have become, certainly, more critical [of the U.S. administration] -- at least in the wider public opinion. Even in those states that officially supported the United States [and its position on war against Iraq], the public opinion has been rather critical -- even in the East European countries, such as Poland and others [which Washington counts among its supporters]."

Umbach notes the Bush administration was criticized in Europe for taking a unilateral approach on environmental and trade issues even before the attacks of 11 September. He said unilateralism contributes to Europeans' negative perceptions about the Bush administration. But he said Washington is not the only side guilty of unilateralism.

"There are certainly unilateral tendencies on the side of the Bush administration -- specifically [for] hard-liners in the Pentagon. I think it is true that the United States did not consult the allies in advance when it decided to go to war in Iraq. But the Europeans, including Germany, also have unilateral tendencies on their side which have, in the past, also strengthened the unilateral tendencies on the U.S. side."

Umbach says he disagrees with those who say unilateralism on the part of Washington is to blame for the changing relationship between Europe and the United States.

"It seems that the hard-liners [in Washington] seeking unilateralist foreign policies have certainly strengthened this kind of image existing in Europe -- that the United States is no longer restrained from anything, that it can push anybody around on whatever it would like to do. I don't agree with this analysis. It is much more complicated and certainly also overlooks the psychological effects of September 11th on the United States, on the entire foreign security and defense policies, and the changes which have been made since September 11th."

Umbach explains that there is a fundamental difference in the way Americans and Europeans view the attacks of 11 September, as well as the threat posed by international terrorism today.

"I remember vividly when the U.S. president shortly after [the 11 September attacks] announced to the U.S. nation that the United States is in a war. If you had asked at that time people on the streets here in Europe, or even today here in Europe, whether they feel that we, too, are in a kind of war against international terrorism, I think you would hardly find anybody who would agree with that kind of a description because nobody feels we are in a real war against international terrorism."

Umbach says these differing perspectives ultimately reflect different experiences on each side of the Atlantic during the past century -- including the experience of World War II.

"There is not the same psychological feeling [in Europe] that many people in the United States [have]. Also, given the fact that before [11 September] the United States was always safe. Even in World War II, [the continental United States] was never really attacked. So this was the very first time in America's [recent] history that people felt directly threatened, that an attack on the territory of the United States had been conducted by international terrorists coming from outside. That created a huge psychological effect on the United States, also leading to new foreign, security and defense policies. And that also strengthened these kind of images already existing in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world of a U.S. empire, as some people called it, [that is] stronger than anybody else [and does whatever it feels like doing]."

Indeed, Umbach says America is now seen by many Europeans as a country willing to use military force to resolve any foreign-policy issue.

"There's a certain tendency to see that the United States is focusing too much on the military means as an instrument of foreign policy while neglecting the 'soft power' and the diplomatic instruments."

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