A review of America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked, by Julia E. Sweig

A Google search in 2005 for the term "anti-Americanism" reportedly turned up 280,000 hits. When I tried the same thing recently, Google came back with 2,790,000 hits. Growing almost tenfold in a year, the anti-American industry flourishes, on and off the web. Americans now routinely acknowledge—only occasionally in pride—that their country is the object of scorn around the world. 

Two new books seek to explain the phenomenon, and they arrive at basically the same answers. To Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes in America Against the World, and to Julia Sweig in Friendly Fire, anti-Americanism is a relatively straightforward issue, born of American misbehavior and power, and with a straightforward solution: change U.S. policies. In fact, however, it turns out that it's simply not clear what anti-Americanism means, what causes it, or even how much it matters.

We know the basic storyline. After 9/11, Americans had the world's sympathy. But as the Bush Administration began to pursue a more unilateralist policy the world reacted with dismay and frustration and, after the U.S. invaded Iraq, with fear and loathing. The Pew Global Attitudes Project, which interviewed more than 91,000 people in over four dozen countries between 2002 and 2005, tracked the world's change in views. Kohut, the head of the Pew Research Center, and his co-author Stokes (aNational Journal columnist and consultant to Pew) have compiled the results into a book that tries to explain "why we are disliked." The authors are motivated by the fact that the "gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us has become a chasm," which they would like to bridge.

Kohut and Stokes offer interesting survey results on many subjects, including the image Americans have of themselves and of others, as well as the world's image of the United States. But their book turns on the question of what is causing anti-Americanism. They are open to the notion that some perceptions of America are exaggerations or even outright misperceptions. But their consistent claim is that anti-Americanism is a reaction to American power and policies. "Much of the discontent that we have documented can be attributed to criticisms of U.S. policies, especially the war in Iraq," they write. "In addition, there is strong resentment and suspicion of America's unrivaled power in the post-Cold War world," including the influence of U.S. popular culture and nominally "American" business practices that are reshaping workplaces and labor forces worldwide. Muslims especially resent U.S. support for Israel. And "people around the world—particularly in Western Europe and the Middle East—are anxious about the consequences of America's exercise of its unrivaled military might."

Julia Sweig makes the case even more emphatically that anti-Americanism is a relatively straightforward reaction to "the cumulative legacy of past policy failures" of the United States. Sweig is director of Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. On the book's dust jacket she reminds us that in Latin America, "we sponsored dictatorships, turned a blind eye to killing squads, and tolerated the subversion of democracy." She argues that in Latin America the United States test-drove and perfected its hegemonic, unilateralist, and militaristic policies before taking them global after the end of the Cold War. So in her view we shouldn't be surprised that anti-Americanism went global too, spreading from Latin America to Europe to the Middle East and beyond. Sweig doubts that image-mongering will make us popular, since it's difficult to see how "government-sponsored public diplomacy can ever come to substitute for policies that are perceived as fair and lawful." Her culminating simile is that the U.S. is like the greedy, friendless, Dickensian villain, for whom improvement must come from within.

This line of argument has clear policy implications. If current anti-Americanism is a reaction to U.S. behavior, then global public opinion might improve if we trimmed some of America's sails, possibly in economic and trade as well as political and military matters. And even if anti-Americanism derives merely from U.S. power, Americans would still be wise to assume a much lower profile. In either case, if anti-Americanism is fundamentally reactive, then the problem is over here, not over there.

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But there are good reasons to question such simplistic cause-and-effect analysis. First, if anti-Americanism is a response to U.S. behavior, and if anti-Americanism is pervasive today, then the recent U.S. record must be bad, indeed. Reading Sweig, you'd think so. Her treatment of U.S. behavior during the Cold War lists familiar transgressions: the Guatemalan coup, Salvador Allende, Ferdinand Marcos, Vietnam. But she doesn't take into account the full array of U.S. policies. For example, she does not describe the hundreds of billions of dollars that Americans have spent on foreign aid, individually and through their government. In fact, her book's index doesn't even have an entry for the Agency for International Development or for U.S. development assistance in any other form. She also neglects the fact that U.S. universities have enrolled hundreds of thousands if not millions of students from the developing world, many on scholarships.

Nor does she discuss America's aggressive promotion of democracy in Latin America in the 1980s and '90s; so it's perhaps no surprise that her index doesn't include an entry for the National Endowment for Democracy, either. Even more amazing for a scholar of Latin America, Sweig doesn't linger on the fact that the United States has allowed tens of millions of immigrants to enter its labor market, legally and illegally, immigrants who send billions of dollars back home in remittances. In many developing countries, these remittances are not just indispensable household income but one of the largest sources of foreign exchange. But remittances, too, don't merit an entry in Sweig's index, and she mentions them in the text only when Washington is rumored to have threatened them.

Massive foreign aid, large-scale educational assistance, two decades of strong democratic support, one of the largest human migrations in history, and the financial backflow from that migration-these are pretty sizable things to leave out of a study of U.S. policy toward the developing world. Especially for a book whose index does have entries for Cindy Sheehan, Valerie Plame, Enron, and Hurricane Katrina.

Blind spots like these call into question the core argument of both of these books. If attitudes toward the United States are a relatively straightforward reaction to U.S. policies, then given our record of "good" deeds alongside "bad" ones, shouldn't the world's view of America be similarly mixed, rather than relentlessly negative? Also, anti-Americanism seems to have been growing since the 1990s, the very years when U.S. support for dictatorships was declining, when U.S. official development assistance and private charitable aid flows were growing, when the U.S. market was more open than ever to the developing-world's exports, and when more students than ever were being educated in U.S. schools. This strongly suggests that something must be influencing how U.S. policies are interpreted by foreign observers, and neither Sweig nor Kohut and Stokes shed any light on that. Of course, this also suggests that a mere change in U.S. policies will not automatically result in less anti-Americanism.

The cause-and-effect hypothesis of these two books can be tested from another angle as well. If anti-Americanism is essentially a response to U.S. policies, and if anti-Americanism is more pervasive than the animus directed against any other country, then U.S. policies must be much worse than those of other states. Is that really true? Anti-Americanism last peaked in the 1980s. At that time, the Soviet Union was supporting astonishingly brutal Communist regimes in almost every region of the world, ones that crushed Polish workers and starved Ethiopian peasants to death. In the same years and in some of the same cases, dictators in the developing world were brutalizing their own countrymen, often without any U.S. support at all. Syria's regime alone killed perhaps 20,000 civilians in 1982. More recently, the North Korean regime has starved its population, Islamist radicals have inflicted terrible violence on fellow Muslims, and political factions in the former Zaire are responsible for the deaths of over four million innocents. If you recall large-scale protests against any of these countries and regimes—and I don't mean a handful of picketers in front of an embassy—you have a better memory than I do.

One might ask, too, how other Western countries fit into the cause-and-effect story. Presumably Kohut and Stokes, and Sweig, would not say that the jihadis' pervasive anti-Westernism is attributable to the Netherlands' aggressive unilateralism, France's advocacy of free trade, or Spain's unrivaled post-Cold War power. At least in the case of jihadi animosity, something other than reacting-to-America is clearly going on.

We can see that "something" operating in Sweig's own pages. For example, she mentions Abu Ghraib only as a place where U.S. forces abused prisoners, not as one where Saddam massacred them in vastly larger numbers. Sweig's chapter on Latin America criticizes political repression and economic exploitation in the region, including Cuba before 1959. But she is uninterested in domestic Cuban events after 1959, when repression and exploitation were Soviet-backed and opposed by the U.S. Presumably this isn't because Sweig thinks Castro's Cuba is democratic or healthy economically. It's because one-sidedness is intellectually acceptable in these debates. The question is why it's acceptable.

One possibility is ideology or mental "frames." (Just because Berkeley professor George Lakoff says frames are important doesn't mean they're not.) A particular frame or belief may lead people to dismiss America's benevolent actions, exaggerate her bad ones while minimizing the sins of others, interpret benevolent U.S. actions as sins, or even view U.S.inaction as a crime. But it's crucial to realize that if it's ideology that is mediating people's perceptions of American behavior, then changing U.S. behavior may have little or no effect on the world supply of anti-Americanism.

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There's one final point to be considered. The two books under review take anti-American rhetoric at face value and treat it as sincere, while ignoring the fact that many of the people who decry America in speech don't do so in deed. In short, a lot of anti-Americanism may be just cheap talk. Kohut and Stokes provide an example. They report that "three in five Europeans surveyed in 2004 agreed that ‘Europe must acquire more military power to be able to protect its interests separately from the United States.'" But then: "Even though most Europeans balked at increasing defense spending to become more powerful militarily." This is the very definition of cheap talk.

In the same way, many Europeans regularly tell pollsters that they perceive the United States as a major threat to world peace—fully comparable to Iran, say. But in their defense planning, Europeans worry infinitely less about America's sizable, existing nuclear arsenal than they do about Iran's gathering one or al-Qaeda's hypothetical one. It's almost as if theyknow that, despite their hyperbole, Washington has no aggressive designs on them. Or consider that the residents of Belgrade in 1999, and those of Baghdad in 2003, walked the streets during NATO and Coalition bombing campaigns. It's almost as if, despite heated rhetoric about indiscriminate violence and genocide, they knew full well that Western governments go to extraordinary lengths to protect civilians. Sunni Arabs who decry U.S. perfidy and abusiveness simultaneously fear that American troops will leave Iraq precipitously, exposing them to the tender mercies of their Shia and Kurdish countrymen. It's almost as if they detect in American troops a civilized restraint. The U.S. now hosts well over 34 million foreign-born residents and the waiting-lists for entry are long. It's almost as if, despite all the complaints of discrimination, people around the world detect opportunity and hospitality here.

Sometimes actions speak louder than words—or at least they should. Anti-Americanism is one such instance. If we observe how the world actually behaves toward the United States, rather than what they say about us, it would appear that people see America for what it really is—not a perfect society, to be sure, but most certainly a humane and decent one. Americans continue to have the sense that their country is unusual among the nations of the world. There is extensive evidence that others, too, perceive it as exceptional and act accordingly.