Why There Is So Much Anti-American Sentiment Abroad And How to End It.
While most Americans have not been aware of it until fairly recently, there has been much anti-American sentiment around the world since the end of World War II, mainly in Western Europe and in the Muslim countries. Most of it is not deserved, but it exists nevertheless and its effects are very negative. It is imperative that the U.S. carefully examine anti-American sentiment in order to understand it, identify its roots, and find the way to eradicate it. Doing so would dramatically enhance our foreign policy, our security at home and abroad, and even contribute significantly to our economic and social prosperity. Therefore, one of our absolute priorities must be to gain worldwide respect and goodwill. That will take some real work on our part. A superficial public relations job will not do.
We should ask ourselves how it is possible that the U.S., which genuinely means well and has done so much good for the world during the past century as the prime defender of freedom and democracy (notwithstanding our Cold War support for certain right-wing regimes), has generated so much antipathy abroad, even amongst citizens of other democratic nations (including those liberated by the U.S.), not just amongst citizens of dictatorships who may be largely brainwashed and uneducated. And how is it possible that our motives are questioned, that we are viewed with such cynicism?
How can it be that the U.S. is accused (even by many of its own citizens) of invading Iraq for its oil, whereas it should be clear that our purpose was 1) to uphold the United Nation’s authority and credibility after Saddam repeatedly flouted the U.N. and even expelled its arms inspectors, 2) to get rid of a dangerous, criminal tyrant responsible for two wars, the use of chemical weapons, the oppression of his own people, and innumerous deaths, whether or not he still had weapons of mass destruction, and 3) to spread democracy and human rights? How can it be that the U.S. has so little credibility and so little moral authority after a century of never going to war in order to confiscate other nations’ wealth?
How is it that continental Europe -responsible in the past century for major colonization, for two world wars, for the worst dictatorial systems of all time, fascism and communism, and for virulent anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust- can be so critical of the United States? How is it possible that many people in Muslim countries call the U.S. “the Great Satan”? How is it possible that the expression “the ugly American” came about and has persisted abroad for half a century?
The shocking fact that President Chirac of France and Chancellor Schroeder of Germany -whose own countries owe their freedom and democracy to the sacrifices of Americans and cannot be oblivious to the fact that without the U.S. continental Europe would still be half fascist and half communist- could be so angrily and adamantly against the U.S.’ decision to get rid of Saddam and offer the Iraqi people human rights and democracy, reveals not just their own selfishness, lack of idealism, and questionable rationality, but especially the ineptitude of the U.S. when it comes to foreign relations. We have a serious, deep foreign relations problem which cannot be solved by superficial public relations campaigns, which seem to be the extent of the Bush Administration’s policy (v. the brief, ineffective campaign targeting Muslim countries, and the current, apparently inconsequential effort being led by Karen Hughes.) The solution will, instead, require deep introspection on our part, and major changes in domestic and international policy.
The fact that anti-U.S. sentiment in Western Europe is baffling for most Americans, including those in the White House and the State Department, is in itself a tip-off about one main cause: Americans are mostly ignorant about Europe and Europeans, the percentage of well-educated Americans fluent in at least one foreign language and culture being far below 1%. It seems that even our diplomatic and foreign intelligence corps are not sufficiently knowledgeable of the language and culture of the countries they are assigned to. Quite incredibly, back in the mid 1960’s, at the height of U.S. economic/military might, much of collegiate academia decided to eliminate the foreign language requirement, believing only English mattered and that Americans had little need to learn about other peoples and cultures. The thinking was, foreigners would learn English and learn about us. They needed us, we didn’t need them. We were much more advanced militarily and economically. We dominated in autos, TV’s, HiFi’s, steel, computers, electronics, aviation, appliances, even oil. That domination would surely never come to an end.
When a nation is collectively ignorant about the rest of the world, inevitably it doesn’t understand the way the rest of the world thinks, and its foreign policy and diplomacy suffer from miscalculations. Additionally, its international economic competitiveness diminishes since knowledge of foreign markets is essential for commercial success. Worse, a nation ignorant of the rest of the world will actually tend to lose respect, confidence, goodwill, and diplomatic cooperation abroad, particularly if that nation is an economic and military superpower. The reason is that such ignorance -being clearly the result of a refusal or lack of desire to study other languages and cultures despite having ample means to do so- suggests either collective arrogance or stupidity, if not both! Such a collective lack of interest in other nations is typically found to be insulting abroad. In fact, many Europeans feel resentment towards the U.S. because of our disinterest in their rich culture, which they are rightly proud of and which they feel is in many respects equal or superior to ours, and because they have made much more of an effort to be familiar with our language and culture. Such a lack of reciprocity disturbs and offends them, often making them hypercritical, even to the point of irrationality, and resistant to diplomatic cooperation. Now that we have lost our commercial dominance, they feel vindicated and respect us even less. Furthermore, given the U.S.’ enormous military superiority, Europeans feel powerless and insecure, being dependent on the U.S. making the right moves in foreign policy, which they feel has become a rarity. That increases their resentment, although they should realize they have only themselves to blame for their predicament, having skimped on defense spending and having failed to coalesce diplomatically and militarily.
The U.S. academic leaders’ decision to de-emphasize the study of foreign languages and culture in the mid 1960’s derived from a mistaken assessment of the reasons for U.S. economic superiority in the 1950’s and 1960’s, specifically a false impression of intrinsic American superiority. It was perhaps easy to fall into such a fallacy trap, given the fact that in the 50’s and 60’s the U.S. dominated in every commercial and industrial field. But the reason for the American economic superiority was not intrinsic: it was mainly the result of the aftermath of WW I and WW II, the destruction of much of Western Europe and Japan’s infrastructure, coupled with the economic shackling of Eastern Europe and China by communism. Without WW I, WW II, communism, and the pre-European Union trade barriers, there never would have been the temporary economic and technological domination by the U.S. (We have been and are, however, by far the leaders in idealism, which the world desperately needs, and we can be very proud of that.)
Today, the U.S. finds itself a laggard in autos, for example, without even one American manufacturer of TV’s or HiFi’s, and dominant in very few sectors. If the current educational trend in the U.S. continues spiraling downward for the lower and middle classes, our country will decline into overall economic mediocrity if not worse, due to an internationally uncompetitive workforce. We cannot afford to become a country with only an educated elite, the majority of the country being relatively uneducated, or seriously undereducated. Jay Leno’s “Jay Walk” street interviews are a comical but disconcerting warning. To compete in the global economy, we need not just a very well educated population overall, we need a population well-informed about the rest of the world, fluent in foreign languages and culture.
It follows that the U.S. needs to emphasize foreign languages and culture, and require fluency in at least one foreign language and culture for every high school graduate, and two for every college graduate. College “junior-year-abroad”
should be encouraged, even subsidized. Our own culture will become richer and our society more vibrant and creative. Improvement in our foreign policy and diplomacy will be dramatic in one generation, extraordinary in two generations. Similar improvement will take place in our economy. Part of the long-term solution is realizing that “know your customer” applies just as much to foreign policy, diplomacy, and international business, as to business within our own borders.
Meanwhile, in the short-term, the President should become a much better advocate abroad for U.S. foreign policy and communicate directly with foreign citizens on their own television and radio (with simultaneous translation/subtitles), especially when there are disagreements or misunderstandings. For example, President Bush should prepare himself to go on French, German, Italian, and Spanish political talk shows, to be interviewed and even debate with European political leaders and journalists. The president of the U.S. cannot afford to be perceived as aloof or unconcerned with foreign public opinion. He must show that he cares, and wants to make U.S. positions and rationales clear. He must do his utmost to be totally sincere and direct, and not be defensive or condescending. Just making the effort is as important as being persuasive. The gesture, the sincere concern, the effort to communicate directly will be greatly appreciated, and result in much increased goodwill abroad. Differences of opinion -such as on Kyoto/global warming, the International Court of Justice, and even Iraq- are not nearly as important as having a direct, sincere, personal dialogue. President Bush should also take some cultural trips through Europe, showing genuine interest and appreciation. He must realize that his domestic constituency is no longer his only constituency. In the age of global mass communications and the primacy of public opinion, the whole world has become his constituency.
As for the Muslim world, anti-American sentiment is based on two issues:
l) the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and 2) Islam’s aggressive intolerance. The U.S. is viewed as the reason Israel exists and as Israel’s unjust ally in the violation of Palestinian rights. Furthermore, the U.S. is viewed as an “infidel” nation, while the Koran exhorts Muslims to kill and maim “infidels” wherever they can be found, asserting that Allah wants only Islam and rejects all other religions. (Contrary to the West’s conventional wisdom, Islam is not moderate, it is radical, as any reading of the Koran clearly reveals. There are moderate and passive Muslims, but there is no moderate Koran, and therefore no moderate Islam. That explains Islamic terrorism, which will only be eradicated after Islam itself is reformed through the repudiation of various segments of the Koran.) These two issues must be faced squarely, frontally, not with head-in-the-sand wishful thinking and denial of the existence of real, profound differences, not with the attitude that the solution requires nothing more than sugarcoated public relations while avoiding frank discussions on sensitive matters.
The President should try to personally engage with the Muslim world on its own television and radio stations, seeking permission to grant interviews and participate in debates with leading Muslim politicians, religious authorities, and journalists. He should show his deep concern and determination to find a just, fair solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also -however sensitive the issue- his rejection of Islam’s misguided intolerance and discriminations by asserting his belief (and it must be his belief, no matter that he is of the Christian faith!) 1) that God -if God exists- has no favorites, i.e., no favorite religion, and no favorite people, and that any religion which asserts the contrary must be gravely mistaken, 2) that the term “infidel” must be forever banned, 3) that God must love all men and women equally, regardless of their religious belief or lack of belief, and 4) that God only wants man to do good on Earth and avoid strife, particularly religious strife. He should insist that Muslims give women equal rights and that forcing women to cover is a violation of their human rights, their equal rights, not a symbol of religiosity but only of women’s submission to men and oppression by men, a primitive and unacceptable tradition. And he should also explain how Muslim society’s economic and social prosperity depends on women’s equal rights and on separation of church and state, just as in the West. Muslims have not reformed Islam for 700 years. They need to be pushed to do so without further delay.
As for the Israeli-Palestinian question, the President should set the historical record straight regarding the reason Israel exists -i.e., the Holocaust, which had nothing to do with the U.S.- and explain that our support for Israel is based on the fact that the Jews have been unjustly persecuted for centuries and that they deserve to live in peace in their own country, Israel, where they lawfully settled under the British Protectorate of Palestine after WW II. He must point out that the Koran unjustly singles out Jews for reprobation and punishment simply because they do not embrace Islam, and that there would be no occupation of the West Bank and Gaza had the Arabs not gone to war with Israel in 1967 and 1973. Reason must be made to prevail. At the same time, the President must loudly insist that Israel cannot fairly make biblical claims to the West Bank in order to justify its settlements. That is an open invitation to religious discrimination and conflict. The President needs to be scrupulously fair, and not forget that good diplomacy cannot consist of appeasement and denial, that problems must be faced squarely and resolved, not swept under the rug where they will fester.
On another front, the U.S. needs to realize that it is perceived by many abroad as a violent, selfish, inhumane, materialistic, uncultured society, shocking as that may sound to many Americans. People around the world see that we have a lot of shootings, even by adolescents, a lot of crime, a lot of drug addiction, a lot of poverty, the death penalty, and all too many Americans with little or no education, and little knowledge of foreign languages and culture. The world needs the U.S. to be a leader for democracy and human rights, but to be an effective, credible leader we must become truly admired and even liked. A prerequisite is solving our own problems and shortcomings.
Most of our crime and poverty derives from bad parenting and academic failure due to a mediocre public education system which does not compensate for inadequate parental guidance and discipline. The main problem with the public schools is not insufficient funding, too few teachers, or too few classrooms, as the conventional wisdom goes. The main problem is the lack of student effort and discipline. Too many students do not pay attention in class or do their homework. Schools must enforce strict discipline and oblige failing students to attend study hall after normal school hours, even on Saturdays and during the summer, when necessary. For chronically failing students, reform school must be the prescription. Practically no one is saying this, and it may be politically incorrect to blame the students and their parents for academic failure, but enforcing strict discipline together with high expectations is the solution to “failing schools”, the only solution. It is to be ignorant of the real situation in the so-called “failing schools” or to be in denial when one blames academic failure on insufficient funds, inadequate facilities, insufficient teachers, or insufficient testing, instead of on grossly insufficient student effort and discipline. Apart from strict discipline and high expectations, what is needed is a secondary school core curriculum which includes multi-year courses on ethics, personal and family psychology, economics/finance, 20th Century world history in great detail, history of art and architecture, history of music, comparative religion and philosophy, and of course, foreign languages and culture. We should adopt an attitude whereby academic failure is inadmissible, and whereby a high level of life-enriching education is mandatory for every young American.
As for the death penalty, it must be abolished. It is a primitive and immoral punishment, and it goes against our Judeo-Christian ethos. One of the Ten Commandments states “Thou Shalt Not Murder”, and the message of Jesus Christ is certainly not vengeance for the worst of crimes through execution. Rather than execution, we have the alternative of life imprisonment, which, by the way, should always be accompanied by spiritual rehabilitation and intellectual development programs. That would conform to the Christian ethos of forgiveness and redemption, execution does not. The Europeans see us as hypocritical, vicious, and primitive to maintain the death penalty, and they make the point that we are in bad company. The death penalty, in fact, has been abolished by practically every democratic nation except ours, whereas it is common in most nations which are undemocratic and systemic violators of human rights. Furthermore, capital punishment is undeniably “cruel and unusual” punishment, and we should finally have it declared unconstitutional, in violation of the 8th Amendment. Abolishing the death penalty and proclaiming the sanctity of life would raise our standing with the Europeans, and it would send a powerful message to the Muslim world which is so prone to killing civilian, non-combatant “infidels” in the name of Islam. It would also have a positive subliminal effect in our own country, where shootings are an astonishingly frequent occurrence, evidence of a harsh, alienating society (strangely in contradiction with our strong sense of patriotism and of mission for bringing about good in the world).
Finally, we should make 2 years of military or civil service mandatory for all young Americans, to be performed after college. It is imperative to have a mindset of solidarity, and for all young Americans -regardless of their socio-economic background- to contribute significantly to a national cause before embarking on their own careers. Public service could be performed domestically, such as teaching in public schools or working in hospitals, old-age homes, and day-care centers, or abroad in the Peace Corps, wherever young Americans would be truly welcomed and not risk being harmed. A well-organized Peace Corps can do much to increase international goodwill for the U.S., helping underdeveloped countries emerge from their backwardness.
We must deal with anti-American sentiment intelligently, comprehensively, and without delay. It’s been going on for far too long, and it’s been very costly, even in terms of lives lost or irreparably damaged. If we succeed in eradicating it, the benefits will be extraordinary, far beyond what most Americans can imagine.
April 20, 2005
© Edward Sonnino 2005