Why Don't They Like Us?

t wasn't its innocence that the United States lost on September 11, 2001.
It was its naïveté. Americans have tended to believe that in the eyes
of others the United States has lived up to the boastful clichés
propagated during the Cold War (especially under Ronald Reagan) and during the
Clinton administration. We were seen, we thought, as the champions of freedom
against fascism and communism, as the advocates of decolonization, economic
development, and social progress, as the technical innovators whose mastery of
technology, science, and advanced education was going to unify the world.

Some officials and academics explained that U.S. hegemony was the best
thing for a troubled world and unlike past hegemonies would last--not only
because there were no challengers strong enough to steal the crown but, above
all, because we were benign rulers who threatened no one.

But we have avoided looking at the hegemon's clay feet, at what might
neutralize our vaunted soft power and undermine our hard power. Like swarming
insects exposed when a fallen tree is lifted, millions who dislike or distrust
the hegemon have suddenly appeared after September 11, much to our horror and
disbelief. America became a great power after World War II, when we faced a rival
that seemed to stand for everything we had been fighting against--tyranny, terror,
brainwashing--and we thought that our international reputation would benefit from
our standing for liberty and stability (as it still does in much of Eastern
Europe). We were not sufficiently marinated in history to know that, through the
ages, nobody--or almost nobody--has ever loved a hegemon.

Past hegemons, from Rome to Great Britain, tended to be quite realistic about
this. They wanted to be obeyed or, as in the case of France, admired. They rarely
wanted to be loved. But as a combination of high-noon sheriff and proselytizing
missionary, the United States expects gratitude and affection. It was bound to be
disappointed; gratitude is not an emotion that one associates with the behavior
of states.

The New World Disorder

This is an old story. Two sets of factors make the current twist a new
one. First, the so-called Westphalian world has collapsed. The world of sovereign
states, the universe of Hans Morgenthau's and Henry Kissinger's Realism, is no
longer. The unpopularity of the hegemonic power has been heightened to
incandescence by two aspects of this collapse. One is the irruption of the
public, the masses, in international affairs. Foreign policy is no longer, as
Raymond Aron had written in Peace and War, the closed domain of the soldier
and the diplomat. Domestic publics--along with their interest groups, religious
organizations, and ideological chapels--either dictate or constrain the
imperatives and preferences that the governments fight for. This puts the hegemon
in a difficult position: It often must work with governments that represent but a
small percentage of a country's people--but if it fishes for public support
abroad, it risks alienating leaders whose cooperation it needs. The United States
paid heavily for not having had enough contacts with the opposition to the shah
of Iran in the 1970s. It discovers today that there is an abyss in Pakistan,
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Indonesia between our official allies and the populace in
these countries. Diplomacy in a world where the masses, so to speak, stayed
indoors, was a much easier game.

The collapse of the barrier between domestic and foreign affairs in the state
system is now accompanied by a disease that attacks the state system itself. Many
of the "states" that are members of the United Nations are pseudo-states with
shaky or shabby institutions, no basic consensus on values or on procedures among
their heterogeneous components, and no sense of national identity. Thus the
hegemon--in addition to suffering the hostility of the government in certain
countries (like Cuba, Iraq, and North Korea) and of the public in others (like,
in varying degrees, Pakistan, Egypt, and even France)--can now easily become both
the target of factions fighting one another in disintegrating countries and the
pawn in their quarrels (which range over such increasingly borderless issues as
drug trafficking, arms trading, money laundering, and other criminal enterprises).
In addition, today's hegemon suffers from the volatility and turbulence of a
global system in which ethnic, religious, and ideological sympathies have become
transnational and in which groups and individuals uncontrolled by states can act
on their own. The world of the nineteenth century, when hegemons could impose
their order, their institutions, has been supplanted by the world of the
twenty-first century: Where once there was order, there is now often a vacuum.

What makes the American Empire especially vulnerable is its historically
unique combination of assets and liabilities. One has to go back to the Roman
Empire to find a comparable set of resources. Britain, France, and Spain had to
operate in multipolar systems; the United States is the only superpower.

But if America's means are vast, the limits of its power are also
considerable. The United States, unlike Rome, cannot simply impose its will by
force or through satellite states. Small "rogue" states can defy the hegemon
(remember Vietnam?). And chaos can easily result from the large new role of
nonstate actors. Meanwhile, the reluctance of Americans to take on the Herculean
tasks of policing, "nation building," democratizing autocracies, and providing
environmental protection and economic growth for billions of human beings stokes
both resentment and hostility, especially among those who discover that one can
count on American presence and leadership only when America's material interests
are gravely threatened. (It is not surprising that the "defense of the national
interest" approach of Realism was developed for a multipolar world. In an empire,
as well as in a bipolar system, almost anything can be described as a vital
interest, since even peripheral disorder can unravel the superpower's eminence.)
Moreover, the complexities of America's process for making foreign-policy
decisions can produce disappointments abroad when policies that the international
community counted on--such as the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal
Court--are thwarted. Also, the fickleness of U.S. foreign-policy making in arenas
like the Balkans has convinced many American enemies that this country is
basically incapable of pursuing long-term policies consistently.

None of this means, of course, that the United States has no
friends in the world. Europeans have not forgotten the liberating role played by
Americans in the war against Hitler and in the Cold War. Israel remembers how
President Harry Truman sided with the founders of the Zionist state; nor has it
forgotten all the help the United States has given it since then. The
democratizations of postwar Germany and Japan were huge successes. The Marshall
Plan and the Point Four Program were revolutionary initiatives. The decisions to
resist aggression in Korea and in Kuwait demonstrated a commendable

But Americans have a tendency to overlook the dark sides of their
course (except on the protesting left, which is thus constantly accused of being
un-American), perhaps because they perceive international affairs in terms of
crusades between good and evil, endeavors that entail formidable pressures for
unanimity. It is not surprising that the decade following the Gulf War was marked
both by nostalgia for the clear days of the Cold War and by a lot of floundering
and hesitating in a world without an overwhelming foe.

Strains of Anti-Americanism

The main criticisms of American behavior have mostly been around for a
long time. When we look at anti-Americanism today, we must first distinguish
between those who attack the United States for what it does, or fails to do, and
those who attack it for what it is. (Some, like the Islamic fundamentalists and
terrorists, attack it for both reasons.) Perhaps the principal criticism is of
the contrast between our ideology of universal liberalism and policies that have
all too often consisted of supporting and sometimes installing singularly
authoritarian and repressive regimes. (One reason why these policies often
elicited more reproaches than Soviet control over satellites was that, as time
went by, Stalinism became more and more cynical and thus the gap between words
and deeds became far less wide than in the United States. One no longer expected
much from Moscow.) The list of places where America failed at times to live up to
its proclaimed ideals is long: Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador, Chile, Santo
Domingo in 1965, the Greece of the colonels, Pakistan, the Philippines of
Ferdinand Marcos, Indonesia after 1965, the shah's Iran, Saudi Arabia, Zaire,
and, of course, South Vietnam. Enemies of these regimes were shocked by U.S.
support for them--and even those whom we supported were disappointed, or worse,
when America's cost-benefit analysis changed and we dropped our erstwhile allies.
This Machiavellian scheming behind a Wilsonian facade has alienated many clients,
as well as potential friends, and bred strains of anti-Americanism around the

A second grievance concerns America's frequent unilateralism and the difficult
relationship between the United States and the United Nations. For many
countries, the United Nations is, for all its flaws, the essential agency of
cooperation and the protector of its members' sovereignty. The way U.S. diplomacy
has "insulted" the UN system--sometimes by ignoring it and sometimes by rudely
imposing its views and policies on it--has been costly in terms of foreign

Third, the United States' sorry record in international development has
recently become a source of dissatisfaction abroad. Not only have America's
financial contributions for narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor
declined since the end of the Cold War, but American-dominated institutions such
as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have often dictated
financial policies that turned out to be disastrous for developing countries--most
notably, before and during the Asian economic crisis of the mid-1990s.

Finally, there is the issue of American support of Israel. Much of the
world--and not only the Arab world--considers America's Israel policy to be
biased. Despite occasional American attempts at evenhandedness, the world sees
that the Palestinians remain under occupation, Israeli settlements continue to
expand, and individual acts of Arab terrorism--acts that Yasir Arafat can't
completely control--are condemned more harshly than the killings of Palestinians
by the Israeli army or by Israeli-sanctioned assassination squads. It is
interesting to note that Israel, the smaller and dependent power, has been more
successful in circumscribing the United States' freedom to maneuver
diplomatically in the region than the United States has been at getting Israel to
enforce the UN resolutions adopted after the 1967 war (which called for the
withdrawal of Israeli forces from then-occupied territories, solving the refugee
crisis, and establishing inviolate territorial zones for all states in the
region). Many in the Arab world, and some outside, use this state of affairs to
stoke paranoia of the "Jewish lobby" in the United States.

Antiglobalism and Anti-Americanism

Those who attack specific American policies are often more ambivalent
than hostile. They often envy the qualities and institutions that have helped
the United States grow rich, powerful, and influential.

The real United States haters are those whose anti-Americanism is provoked by
dislike of America's values, institutions, and society--and their enormous impact
abroad. Many who despise America see us as representing the vanguard of
globalization--even as they themselves use globalization to promote their hatred.
The Islamic fundamentalists of al-Qaeda--like Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini 20 years
ago--make excellent use of the communication technologies that are so essential
to the spread of global trade and economic influence.

We must be careful here, for there are distinctions among the antiglobalist
strains that fuel anti-Americanism. To some of our detractors, the most eloquent
spokesman is bin Laden, for whom America and the globalization it promotes
relentlessly through free trade and institutions under its control represent
evil. To them, American-fueled globalism symbolizes the domination of the
Christian-Jewish infidels or the triumph of pure secularism: They look at the
United States and see a society of materialism, moral laxity, corruption in all
its forms, fierce selfishness, and so on. (The charges are familiar to us because
we know them as an exacerbated form of right-wing anti-Americanism in nineteenth-
and twentieth-century Europe.) But there are also those who, while accepting the
inevitability of globalization and seem eager to benefit from it, are incensed by
the contrast between America's promises and the realities of American life.
Looking at the United States and the countries we support, they see insufficient
social protection, vast pockets of poverty amidst plenty, racial discrimination,
the large role of money in politics, the domination of the elites--and they call
us hypocrites. (And these charges, too, are familiar, because they are an
exacerbated version of the left-wing anti-Americanism still powerful in Western

On the one hand, those who see themselves as underdogs of the world condemn
the United States for being an evil force because its dynamism makes it naturally
and endlessly imperialistic--a behemoth that imposes its culture (often seen as
debased), its democracy (often seen as flawed), and its conception of individual
human rights (often seen as a threat to more communitarian and more socially
concerned approaches) on other societies. The United States is perceived as a
bully ready to use all means, including overwhelming force, against those who
resist it: Hence, Hiroshima, the horrors of Vietnam, the rage against Iraq, the
war on Afghanistan.

On the other hand, the underdogs draw hope from their conviction that the
giant has a heel like Achilles'. They view America as a society that cannot
tolerate high casualties and prolonged sacrifices and discomforts, one whose
impatience with protracted and undecisive conflicts should encourage its victims
to be patient and relentless in their challenges and assaults. They look at
American foreign policy as one that is often incapable of overcoming obstacles
and of sticking to a course that is fraught with high risks--as with the conflict
with Iraq's Saddam Hussein at the end of the Gulf War; as in the flight from
Lebanon after the terrorist attacks of 1982; as in Somalia in 1993; as in the
attempts to strike back at bin Laden in the Clinton years.

Thus America stands condemned not because our enemies necessarily hate our
freedoms but because they resent what they fear are our Darwinian aspects, and
often because they deplore what they see as the softness at our core. Those who,
on our side, note and celebrate America's power of attraction, its openness to
immigrants and refugees, the uniqueness of a society based on common principles
rather than on ethnicity or on an old culture, are not wrong. But many of the
foreign students, for instance, who fall in love with the gifts of American
education return home, where the attraction often fades. Those who stay sometimes
feel that the price they have to pay in order to assimilate and be accepted is
too high.

What Bred bin Laden

This long catalog of grievances obviously needs to be picked apart. The
complaints vary in intensity; different cultures, countries, and parties
emphasize different flaws, and the criticism is often wildly excessive and unfair.
But we are not dealing here with purely rational arguments; we are dealing with
emotional responses to the omnipresence of a hegemon, to the sense that many
people outside this country have that the United States dominates their lives.

Complaints are often contradictory: Consider "America has neglected us,
or dropped us" versus "America's attentions corrupt our culture." The result can
be a gestalt of resentment that strikes Americans as absurd: We are damned, for
instance, both for failing to intervene to protect Muslims in the Balkans and for
using force to do so.

But the extraordinary array of roles that America plays in the world--along
with its boastful attitude and, especially recently, its cavalier
unilateralism--ensures that many wrongs caused by local regimes and societies
will be blamed on the United States. We even end up being seen as responsible not
only for anything bad that our "protectorates" do--it is no coincidence that many
of the September 11 terrorists came from America's protégés, Saudi
Arabia and Egypt--but for what our allies do, as when Arabs incensed by racism
and joblessness in France take up bin Laden's cause, or when Muslims talk about
American violence against the Palestinians. Bin Laden's extraordinary appeal and
prestige in the Muslim world do not mean that his apocalyptic nihilism (to use
Michael Ignatieff's term) is fully endorsed by all those who chant his name. Yet
to many, he plays the role of a bloody Robin Hood, inflicting pain and
humiliation on the superpower that they believe torments them.

Bin Laden fills the need for people who, rightly or not, feel collectively
humiliated and individually in despair to attach themselves to a savior. They
may in fact avert their eyes from the most unsavory of his deeds. This need on
the part of the poor and dispossessed to connect their own feeble lot to a
charismatic and single-minded leader was at the core of fascism and of communism.
After the failure of pan-Arabism, the fiasco of nationalism, the dashed hopes of
democratization, and the fall of Soviet communism, many young people in the
Muslim world who might have once turned to these visions for succor turned
instead to Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.

One almost always finds the same psychological dynamics at work in such
behavior: the search for simple explanations--and what is simpler and more
inflammatory than the machinations of the Jews and the evils of America--and a
highly selective approach to history. Islamic fundamentalists remember the
promises made by the British to the Arabs in World War I and the imposition of
British and French imperialism after 1918 rather than the support the United
States gave to anticolonialists in French North Africa in the late 1940s and in
the 1950s. They remember British opposition to and American reluctance toward
intervention in Bosnia before Srebrenica, but they forget about NATO's actions to
save Bosnian Muslims in 1995, to help Albanians in Kosovo in 1999, and to
preserve and improve Albanians' rights in Macedonia in 2001. Such distortions are
manufactured and maintained by the controlled media and schools of totalitarian
regimes, and through the religious schools, conspiracy mills, and propaganda of

What Can Be Done?

Americans can do very little about the most extreme and
violent forms of anti-American hatred--but they can try to limit its spread by
addressing grievances that are justified. There are a number of ways to do this:

  • First--and most difficult--drastically reorient U.S.
    policy in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

  • Second, replace the ideologically market-based trickle-down
    economics that permeate American-led development institutions today with a kind
    of social safety net. (Even New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, that
    ur-celebrator of the global market, believes that such a safety net is

  • Third, prod our allies and protégés to democratize
    their regimes, and stop condoning violations of essential rights (an approach
    that can only, in the long run, breed more terrorists and anti-Americans).

  • Fourth, return to internationalist policies, pay greater
    attention to the representatives of the developing world, and make fairness
    prevail over arrogance.

  • Finally, focus more sharply on the needs and frustrations of the
    people suffering in undemocratic societies than on the authoritarian regimes that
    govern them.

    America's self-image today is derived more from what Reinhold Niebuhr would
    have called pride than from reality, and this exacerbates the clash between how
    we see ourselves and foreign perceptions and misperceptions of the United States.
    If we want to affect those external perceptions (and that will be very difficult
    to do in extreme cases), we need to readjust our self-image. This means
    reinvigorating our curiosity about the outside world, even though our media have
    tended to downgrade foreign coverage since the Cold War. And it means listening
    carefully to views that we may find outrageous, both for the kernel of truth that
    may be present in them and for the stark realities (of fear, poverty, hunger, and
    social hopelessness) that may account for the excesses of these views.

    Terrorism aimed at the innocent is, of course, intolerable. Safety precautions
    and the difficult task of eradicating the threat are not enough. If we want to
    limit terrorism's appeal, we must keep our eyes and ears open to conditions
    abroad, revise our perceptions of ourselves, and alter our world image through
    our actions. There is nothing un-American about this. We should not meet the
    Manichaeanism of our foes with a Manichaeanism of self-righteousness. Indeed,
    self-examination and self-criticism have been the not-so-secret weapons of
    America's historical success. Those who demand that we close ranks not only
    against murderers but also against shocking opinions and emotions, against
    dissenters at home and critics abroad, do a disservice to America.