Monday, April 02, 2007


This is a lecture I should really probably attend. It's called "Anti-Americanisms in World Politics," and will be given by Peter J. Katzenstein through the Indiana University Institute for Advanced Study - based on his recently published book of the same name.

I assume the lecture content will be more or less the same as that in this Hoover Institute article from about a year ago.

If so, the basic argument goes like this: there are many different kinds of anti-Americanism, and it's important to recognize what the differences are. The most relevant distinguishing factor is whether anti-Americanism is based on "opinion" or "bias." If it's based on "opinion," then it's more or less legitimate - and its intensity changes with the policies of the United States. If it's based on "bias," then it's more a rejection of what America is than any particular policy-of-the-moment.

If you recognized the two ends of the axis as roughly the opinions of the Democrats and the Republicans on what anti-Americanism is in general, you got it in one. Katzenstein argues, essentially, that the two parties are talking about completely different things when they talk about anti-Americanism, but that they interestingly propose as solutions things that are more properly solutions to the anti-Americanism problem of the other guy's view. So, for example, Democrats tend to see anti-Americanism as a legitimate response to American foreign policy, and yet at the same time argue that it will have long-reaching consequences for American diplomacy. Clearly, though, if the anti-Americanism of today is rooted in mere opinion, it will change when foreign policy changes, and is sort of by definition NOT something that will have long-term effects on diplomacy, etc. By the same token, Republicans tend to see all anti-Americanism as outright prejudice - i.e. the kind of thing that's likely to have to be taken into account for diplomacy - and yet they advocate simply ignoring it.

At each end of this opinion/bias axis, Katzenstein sees two subgroups. On the opinion end:

  1. Liberal - Most European anti-Americanism is meant to be this kind. Basically - it's a deep disappointment that the US doesn't live up to its own ideals.

  2. Social - Most of the rest of European anti-Americanism is this. People who support Social Democracy see the existence of the US as a giant setback to their program since the US is an effective promoter of lasseiz-faire policies in the world.

On the bias end:

  1. Sovereigntist - People who are concerned that American culture is destroying their native culture, or that US political strength renders their own nation impotent. From my own experience, I would say South Korean anti-Americanism fits neatly in this category.

  2. Radical - What the militant Islamists are. America itself is evil, for whatever reason, and must be either destroyed or radically changed.

One comment here: in principle, I agree very much with what Katzenstein is trying to do. One of the unfortunate consequences of the existence of anti-Americanism is that it allows politicians an easy out in the sense that they often feel they don't have to address foreign objections to American policies on the assumption that such objections are based on mere prejudice. In lots of cases, of course, this stance is legitimate. I can't recall, for example, ever hearing a good argument from France why it didn't like whatever we were doing that it was complaining about at the particular time. All the same, lots of legitimate foreign objections to our policies do get swept under the rug by opportunistic American politicians (usually on the conservative end) who write off any criticism of what we do as mere prejudice. So in principle, I think Katzenstein is right to make a distinction between "opinion" and "bias" in his definition. The kind of anti-Americanism we should be concerned about, he says, is

..a psychological tendency to hold negative views of the United States and of American society in general.

He goes on to say that this will often take the form of prefering to ignore positive information about the US and preferentially remembering negative information - a kind of "information filter" (of the same kind that makes the Germans continue to believe in the face of massive evidence to the contrary that their trains run on time, for example...).

And that seems to me as good a definition as any of what we can legitimately call "anti-Americanism." Mere differences of opinion obviously shouldn't count - since anyone who can offer a rational basis for their dislike of the United States is, by definition, not prejudiced or unfair. We add to this the caveat that a mere rational argument is not enough if the facts are selectively chosen. Fine.

My bone to pick here is that I'm not as sanguine as Katzenstein about the causes of European anti-Americanism. What I saw when I lived in Germany goes, I think, a bit beyond mere policy debate. True, it's not as virulent as what exists in South Korea. It's certainly more rational (but then, probably every nationality is more rational than the Koreans...). But that's still a far cry from saying it's completely rational. From what I can tell, a lot of European anti-Americanism falls partly under the "sovereigntist" category as well. Not because Europe's sovereignty is actually threatened by the US. Quite the contrary - European culture is safely distinct from American culture. What's got a bee in Europe's bonnet is that they're no longer top dog, and they feel they ought to be. Now, it's true that if the US were to stop being "top dog" and share power with Europe a little better, this attitude would largely vanish - and so in that sense I guess it's fair for Katzenstein to lump Europe in with his "opinion" category. It's just that - well, this is a biased opinion, so I question the labels of his two categories. It's an "opinion" in the sense that it's subject to change - not a disagreement over fundamentals, I guess. But it's not what you'd call a "fair" opinion.

And this gets me in to my second complaint. I think the entire "Social" category is a bit of a softball. Again, using Europe as an example - it's certainly true that a lot of Europe's resentment of the US stems from the fact that the US is an effective promoter of lasseiz-faire (erm, such as that is in this country) - because most Europeans are Social Democrats at heart. But again, I think it's stretching it a bit to say that for this reason the "opinion" in question is rational or fair. It isn't just that the US is frustrating their efforts to blanket the world with crappy welfare states - it's the way the US goes about frustrating their efforts. Namely - by being better. By having a stronger economy, a higher standard of living, and STILL being able to maintain the world's most effective military on top of it all. It's because the US is a hard, real demonstration that Social Democracy is a second-rate system, not just because it manages to get free-trade treaties signed. The frustration that Social Democrats feel, I think, stems from the fact that most of them are willing to accept a second-rate economy in the name of what they see as "Social Justice." So this is actually a conscious, and legitimate, policy choice. And if that's all it were - a difference of opinion over systems - then presumably they could leave well alone. After all, one of the most loudly-professed values of "Social Democracy" (ironically never as loudly expressed as when decrying American policies of one kind or another) is respect for national sovereignty and the allowance that different cultures have different ways. Only one culture in the world, it seems, is not allowed to have a different way - and that is the US culture. The double standard becomes all the more apparent when you look at the fact that most Americans are quite content to let Europe keep on keepin' on, as it were. No one marches in front of the Swedish Embassy demanding they free the market or respect gun rights! Not even the NRA!!! So, in short, it can't be just about the fact that the US embraces a different system. It's more that the US's choice to embrace this system forces them to confront the weaknesses in their own systems. It is exactly the kind of kicking and stomping you find the weaker kids doing on the playground when the big kids wanna play tackle rather than touch football. The little kids know they can't compete - and so they run screaming to the local Moral Authority (the teacher) to enforce the rules of "fair play." The key point here is that this is an envy argument dressed up as a moral argument. If the terms of the debate were really about the relative "justice" of the two systems, that would be one thing - but it is not. It is really about an unwillingness to improve and compete. And let me just say again that unwillingness to improve and compete is a legitimate choice in the name of a professed higher value ("social justice," in this case). The point that I'm making is that I doubt, based on European behavior, that that's the whole story - because if it were the whole story then we would expect European opinions about America to be roughly as harmless as American opinions about Europe - and it just ain't so. Anyone who has been to Europe knows that they spend a lot more time and effort making fun of us than we do of them, and that there is more on the line for them than for us. We are, for the most part, willing to exchange a light-hearted chuckle about our respective stereotypes - even to the point of making fun of ourselves to show we mean no harm. You rarely find a European willing to just leave things at that.

The rest of the article is essentially a discussion of why anti-Americanism is so sustained. That is, for someone who predicts that the majority of anti-Americanism we're concerned about should come and go with the relative popularity of our foreign policy at any given moment, Katzenstein really does need to answer why anti-Americanism is always around, even in the places where he predicts it should not be. He does a pretty good job with this, explaining some other factors (roughly translated: historical snobbery) that are behind European attitudes, especially in France. His main point, though, is just that America - like presumably every other country in the world - has its contradictions. It manages, for example, to be both sexually open and deeply religious. Go figure. The major difference with America is that America as a whole is more open - and so these contradictions are exposed in spectacular fashion for the world to see - the long and short of it being that there is always reason for some form of anti-Americanism at any given moment, if maybe not in the same individuals over the long haul.

There are a couple of other good points made:

Anti- and pro-Americanism have as much to do with the conceptual lenses through which individuals living in very different societies view America as with America itself. In our volume, Iain Johnston and Dani Stockmann report that when residents of Beijing in 1999 were asked simply to compare on an identity-difference scale their perceptions of Americans with their views of Chinese, they placed them very far apart. But when, in the following year, Japanese, the antithesis of the Chinese, were added to the comparison, respondents reduced the perceived identity difference between Americans and Chinese.

So, in other words, it's all relative anyway. This has always been the most frustrating part of anti-Americanism for me: that people are so good at pretending they don't suffer from it when they need the Americans around. A lot of my total lack of respect for the rest of the world stems from this, actually. The only country I know that seems to be consistent in its views on the US across contexts is Japan. Other than that, it really does have a lot to do with how safe the people are feeling at a given moment. When North Korea is rattling its sabre, the South Koreans suddenly love us, for example. Once the crisis has abated, they go back to insisting that we're the sole reason Korea isn't a superpower (as if...).

And the other good point:

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about anti-Americanism is that we Americans seem to care so much about it. Americans want to know about anti-Americanism: to understand ourselves better and, perhaps above all, to be reassured

I think this is exactly right, and I'm not sure why. I don't honestly know why I care so much about the rest of the world's opinion, but I do - and I think most Americans (at least those who have spent time abroad) do too. We want to be loved. Right after 9/11, in fact, when I was still living in Korea, US citizens formed a pretty tight-knit group. I remember one of my American friends showing me an email that he said "made him feel better" about it all. It was from a Russian friend (the guy in question had been in Russia for two years in the Peace Corps) telling him that Americans were childish because they wanted everyone to like them. If it had happened in Russia - the Russians would have given two shits about world opinion, knowing they are "better." He described it as "Russian chauvinism."

In fact, for all the criticsm we get for being nationalistic, Americans are curiously lacking in this kind of chauvinism. We are, when all is said and done, the absolute least arrogant power the world has ever known.

Which brings me to my final point. I don't like Katzenstein's analysis of the way the two political parties in this country react to anti-Americanism. Between the two - the Republicans are right, and this is the reason. Anti-Americanism IS something that we should learn to pay less attention to. As I said earlier - we shouldn't use it as an excuse to ignore legitimate criticisms, as many Republican politicians are all-too-willing to do. But neither should we worry about world opinion nearly as much as we do. The Republicans are right, I think, that worrying about world opinion only invites more irrationality from the rest of the world. We should negotiate with people when and if they are rational with us - but there is no point trying to sit down at table and convince France, or Iran, or China to like us better. Insofar as their reasons for not liking us aren't rational, then the best policy available is to recognize that and act accordingly - which is to say, do what needs to be done without cedeing undue amounts of our moral and political authority to people who don't know what to do with it.

So I guess the short version of this is that while I agree with what I understand of Katzenstein's analysis as such, I don't really buy his conclusions.

Anyway - I unfortunately won't be able to make his talk today. Probably I should read his book.


Post a Comment

<< Home