The American Enterprise
October/December 2005
By Alan W. Dowd 

Thanks in part to the news media’s short memory—and the American public’s short attention span—the last 30 months have left a distinct impression that the wave of anti-American attitudes that seems to be washing over the earth is something new.  

Some say it’s a byproduct of the U.S.-led war on terror; others that it’s the natural consequence of George W. Bush’s “unilateral” foreign policy. Still others blame it on style rather than substance, somehow claiming that if only Bush didn’t speak with a southern drawl all would be right in the world. 

The reality is that anti-Americanism is as old as America itself. It didn’t begin on Bush’s watch, and it won’t end upon his departure.  

An Old World
Barry Rubin of the Foreign Policy Research Institute argues that “the first clear statement of anti-Americanism” can be traced back to a most predictable source: France. According to Rubin, a French lawyer named Simon Linguet warned in the 1780s that “The dregs of Europe…would build a dreadful society in America, create a strong army, take over Europe and destroy civilization.”[1]  

However, there were hints of anti-Americanism, or at least qualms about America, on the other side of the Channel as well. We hear them in Adam Smith’s worrisome assessment of Britain’s breakaway North American colonies: Americans, he wrote in 1776, are “employed in contriving a new form of government for an extensive empire which will become one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was in the world.”[2]

In his contribution to Paul Hollander’s Understanding Anti-Americanism, Austrian journalist Michael Freund explains how European elites soon took the opposite view, that America was inherently deficient and hopelessly inferior vis-à-vis Europe. “Various continental and British scientists,” he writes, “warned of the degenerative effects of the New World on plants, animals and human beings.”[3] 

Noting that this line of criticism actually predates America’s founding, James Ceaser of the University of Virginia calls this the “prehistory of anti-Americanism.” According to Ceaser, by the mid-18th century it was widely accepted that “due chiefly to atmospheric conditions, in particular excessive humidity, all living things in the Americas were not only inferior to those found in Europe but also in a condition of decline.”[4]

For his part, Freund intuits that such pseudo-science was little more than Europe’s way of rationalizing what Smith would say plainly in 1776—that the political and economic system taking root in North America would ultimately overtake and overwhelm Europe’s established order.[5]

Early anti-Americanism was expressed in far more than pseudo-science and political broadsides, however. It pays to recall that France held the nascent American republic in such low regard that it demanded bribes from American diplomats seeking to negotiate with Paris. Likewise, a quarter-century after Americans drafted and ratified their constitution, Britain was still flouting American sovereignty by seizing U.S. ships and forcibly pressing their crews into service on British vessels.

Of course, this transatlantic antipathy flowed both ways. After all, our ancestors dismissed Europe as “the Old World”—old as in decaying and dying, broken and backward. President George Washington may have been oblique in his comments about the Old World, but his contempt for Europe and its ways bled through at the close of his presidency: “Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation,” he explained during his farewell in 1796. “Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course.”[6]

Some of his successors would not be so polite—President Dwight Eisenhower once dismissed the French as “a hopeless, helpless mass of protoplasm”[7]—but let’s leave anti-Europeanism for another essay. 

Insanity in America
Whether or not Linguet was the first exponent of anti-Americanism, he wouldn’t be the last.

Consider the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, who is certainly America’s favorite Frenchman and arguably the most quoted Frenchman in the United States. Tocqueville was anything but anti-American, of course, yet some of his assessments could certainly have fueled or at least confirmed anti-American feeling among his European readers.

For instance, one of the chapters in Democracy in America is titled, blandly, “Some Reflections on American Manners.” Despite the innocuous heading, Tocqueville concludes, “the effect of democracy is not exactly to give men any particular manners, but to prevent them from having manners at all.”[8]

Foreshadowing the sentiments of his 21st-century countrymen, Tocqueville wrote with some concern about religious fervor in America as well. “In the midst of American society, you meet with men full of a fanatical and almost wild spiritualism, which hardly exists in Europe,” he observes. “Religious insanity is very common in the United States.”[9]  (Recall that these backhands about American manners and religiosity come from a book that Americans exalt as a treatise on their political, civic and cultural virtues.)

Perhaps Tocqueville’s comments about America’s “religious insanity,” written as they were 170 years ago, will silence those on both sides of the Atlantic who argue that the current president’s expressions of faith are somehow an aberration in American history or a cause of the cultural unease that secular Europe feels toward the United States. At the very least, Tocqueville’s words should remind us that this religious divide, which seems as wide as the Atlantic itself, is not new.

Nor is this divide going to narrow anytime soon. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found in 2004 that almost 70 percent of Americans believe their president should have strong religious beliefs.[10] (Hence, John Kerry talks about memories of being an altar boy, George W. Bush about how Jesus changed his heart.)

Not only do the roots of anti-Americanism reach deep into history, they are visible in every chapter of American history. In other words, anti-Americanism wasn’t dormant and simply reawakened in the 21st century, with the arrival of Bush from his Texas ranch.

Recall how French statesman Georges Clemenceau echoed Linguet’s slur in the early 20th century by sneering, "America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization." After two world wars that began in Europe and ended with at least 65 million people dead, Clemenceau’s swipe would have been better directed at his side of the Atlantic. Still, it serves as a reminder that both Smith and Linguet were at least partly right: America’s army did sail across the Atlantic to take over the continent, saving Europeans and their civilization (twice). And almost 230 years after Smith penned his prophecy, the United States is indeed the most formidable empire the world has ever known.

Smug Superpower
From Linguet to Tocqueville, and from Clemenceau to today, it would be easy to conclude that anti-Americanism is an exclusively French enterprise. But that conclusion would be wrong (although in this, and perhaps in this alone, Paris is the undisputed world leader). For instance, Ceaser reminds us that 19th-century German poet Heinrich Hein called America “that pig-pen of freedom, inhabited by boors living in equality.” Other German poets, like Nikolas Lenau, mocked America as a land bereft of ideas and meaning.[11]

Americans did little to help their image at times. Indeed, Bush isn’t the first president to raise temperatures on the other side of the Atlantic: President Woodrow Wilson’s messianic self-perception tainted how he was received in Britain. “If I didn’t believe I was a personal instrument of God,” Wilson intoned, “I couldn’t carry on.” (Imagine the howls in America and beyond if Bush ever uttered such a phrase.) After spending weeks between the self-canonized Wilson and the hyper-nationalist Clemenceau, British Prime Minister Lloyd George defended his efforts at Versailles by concluding, “I think I did as well as might be expected, seated as I was between Jesus Christ and Napoleon Bonaparte.”[12]

Toward the end of World War I, as Paul Johnson writes in Intellectuals, British philosopher Bertrand Russell slandered the U.S. Army by comparing it to the machinery of a police state.[13] This is the same army that would rescue a battered Anglo-French force from the trenches.

Nor were the Great War’s vanquished pleased with America or its president. “In defeated Germany and Austria,” Freund explains, “President Woodrow Wilson was widely viewed as responsible for all the postwar misery.” According to Freund, Wilson’s Fourteen Points “stood for hypocrisy, forced payments [and] the humiliation of the proud Reich,” sparking “a new wave of anti-Americanism” in Germany.[14]

During World War II, as British writer Anthony Daniels reminds us, FDR treated self-styled French leader-in-exile Charles de Gaulle “with the same disdain that Stalin displayed toward the pope when he asked how many divisions he had.” According to Daniels, “This was a slight de Gaulle never forgot or forgave, and he communicated it very clearly to his countrymen.”[15]

By the 1950s, with the Cold War underway, anti-Americanism was reaching new heights (or depths). Some of it was bankrolled and fomented by Moscow; some of it came voluntarily and freely: It was in this decade that writer Henry de Montherlant would use his characters to “accuse the United States of being in a permanent state of crime against humankind,” as Ceaser’s research reveals.[16]

Washington’s hardball response to the Anglo-French adventure in Egypt and then to Moscow’s reckless gambit in Cuba triggered yet another wave of anti-American feeling in Europe. Shaken by the notion that, in historian Walter LeFeber’s clever phrase, Washington had dragged them “uncomfortably close to annihilation without representation,” European leaders like de Gaulle grew ever more indignant and independent.[17]

The Vietnam War swelled that anti-American wave into a tsunami. For instance, after a lifetime of anti-American rants and stunts, Russell set up a faux war crimes tribunal to condemn America for its role in Vietnam. He slouched to his nadir, as Johnson recalls, by concluding that Americans in Vietnam were “as bad as the Nazis.”[18]

But the sentiment wasn’t quarantined within the weird world of intelligentsia. On the international stage, it was expressed in such petty episodes as Western Europe’s near-unanimous decision to deny air-space access to American planes trying to re-supply democratic Israel in 1973.

President Reagan’s determination not just to end the Cold War, but to win it, would fuel anti-American sentiment throughout the 1980s.

Even in those halcyon and heady days of the 1990s, when President Clinton presided over a mythical multilateral utopia, the world was less than pleased with the United States. As historian David Halberstam writes in War in a Time of Peace, after the departure of the first Bush administration, with its presbyopic focus on foreign policy, some world leaders saw “Clinton as the embodiment of something they disliked greatly about America—the smug, remote superpower whose attitude on most things was ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you, and by the way, we’ll make all the important decisions.’”[19]

After all, Clinton unilaterally broke the UN arms embargo in the former Yugoslavia and secretly sent weaponry to the outgunned Bosnian Muslims over Europe’s objections. He refused to sign the Landmine Treaty, balked at the International Criminal Court (until the eleventh hour of his presidency), and in his final five years in office attacked no fewer than five countries (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Serbia and Sudan).

Plus, it pays to recall that it was Madeleine Albright—Clinton’s secretary of state, not Bush’s—who called America “the indispensable nation.” Foreign leaders bristled when she defended American unilateralism by claiming that the United States “stands taller and therefore can see further” than other nations.

It’s no wonder that the French coined the term “hyperpower” during the Clinton presidency. As Johns Hopkins professor Fouad Ajami recalls, it was during the Clinton presidency that “anti-Americanism became the uncontested ideology of French public life.”[20]

Indeed, Hollander traces the recent revival of anti-Americanism to the early 1990s, as something of a backlash to the unipolar world that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This, of course, was not Bill Clinton’s fault. With only one superpower remaining, Hollander explains, Washington was bound to get blamed for all the problems on earth rather than only half of them. According to Hollander, the end of the Cold War is one of five factors that have revived anti-Americanism. The other factors, in his view, include the upturn in U.S. military intervention; globalization and the consequent spread of modernity; the rise of Islamic fundamentalism; and even the personality of George W. Bush, “permeated as it is with a macho, cowboy image.”[21]

Of course, perhaps the most vicious and violent expression of anti-Americanism in history—the attack of September 11—was conceived years before anyone ever caught a glimpse of Bush’s cowboy bravado. Like Clinton and Reagan and Wilson and others before him, Bush may have stoked the fire. However, as Ajami observes, it was during the 1990s, long before the Bush presidency, that “the Islamist children of Egypt took to the road, to Hamburg and Kandahar, to hatch a horrific conspiracy against the United States.”[22]

In fact, it was during the 1990s that Osama bin Laden issued his fatwa, which condemned America for occupying “the land of the two Holy Places,” called on Muslims “to initiate a guerilla warfare” against the United States, and rallied the faithful to “jihad against the kuffar (or unbelievers) in every part of the world.”[23] But never mind the facts, and I mean this literally. Anti-Americanism is not concerned about facts. If it were, it would be more consistent.

Consider that one of the primary drivers of anti-Americanism in Europe is U.S. unilateralism, while bin Laden condemns America for working “under the cover of the iniquitous United Nations.”[24]

Consider how America’s religious fanaticism—or “religious insanity,” as Tocqueville labeled it—fans the anti-American flames in Europe, while America’s decadence and godlessness spur anti-Americanism in much of the Muslim world. In Ajami’s cogent analysis, America is somehow “Religious to the secularists, faithless to the devout.”[25]

Or consider how America’s critics in both the Middle East and Europe charge that the United States is at war with Islam. Yet it was the United States—not the EU or the Arab League—that defended Muslim Saudi Arabia from Muslim Iraq, liberated Muslim Kuwait, rescued Muslim Kurdistan, fed Muslim Somalia, ended the vivisection of Muslim Bosnia, spared Muslim Kosovo from a similar fate and liberated Muslim Afghanistan and Muslim Iraq.

America simply cannot be both Islam’s enemy and its lone defender, both pagan and pious, both the UN’s partner and its nemesis.

Dreams and Nightmares
This is not to dismiss anti-American sentiment as irrelevant or beneath America’s concern, nor is it to absolve the United States from any role in the spread of anti-American attitudes. Abu Ghraib is a grim reminder that the United States has done its share to lose the global PR battle.   

However, anti-Americanism is not only Washington’s problem. It is also Europe’s, which spawned this beast and still feeds it. As James Ceaser warns, anti-Americanism, if left unchecked, “pulls the various pieces of the West apart and sets them at war with one another.”[26]

Before scoffing at this, consider the diplomatic debacle leading up to the Iraq war, during which the French ambushed their erstwhile Western allies and divided the transatlantic alliance in order to check American power. Or consider a much more obvious brand of anti-Americanism, the sordid comments of French intellectual Jean Baudrillard. “How we have dreamt of this event,” he howled just weeks after Manhattan’s maiming. “For no one can avoid dreaming of the destruction of a power that has become hegemonic.”[27]

Written long before the Taliban’s fall, long before Guantanamo Bay was converted into a penal colony, long before the march to Baghdad, Baudrillard’s words underscore that this latest outbreak of anti-Americanism wasn’t a byproduct of the war on terror. Instead, the war on terror may actually be a byproduct of anti-Americanism. After all, Baudrillard wasn’t the only one dreaming about America’s destruction—so was bin Laden.

[1] Barry Rubin, “Understanding anti-Americanism,” FPRI E-Notes, Aug. 20, 2004, www.fpri.org.

[2] Quoted by John Lewis Gaddis, “Surprise, Security and the American Experience, (Cambridge: Harvard Press, 2004), p.111; Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, (New York: Modern Library, 2000), p.672.

[3] Michael Freund, “Affinity and resentment: A historical sketch of German attitudes,” Understanding Anti-Americanism, Paul Hollander, ed., (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 2004), p.107.

[4] James Ceaser, “A genealogy of anti-Americanism,” Public Interest, Summer 2003.

[5] Freund, p.107.

[6] George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796, www.usinfo.state.gov.

[7] See Walter LeFeber, The American Age, (New York: Norton and Co.), p.549.

[8] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, (New York: Modern Library), p.506.

[9] Alexis de Tocqueville, p.428

[10] See Gallup International, as cited by Niall Ferguson in Colussus, 2004, p.236; The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “The American Religious Landscape and Politics, 2004,” http://pewforum.org. 

[11]James Ceasar, in Hollander, “The philosophical origins of anti-Americanism in Europe,” p.51.

[12] See Walter LeFeber, The American Age, (Bew York: Norton & Co., 1989), p.316

[13] Paul Johnson, Intellectuals, (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), pp.200-212.

[14] Freund, pp.110-111. 

[15] Anthony Daniels, in Hollander, “Sense of superiority and inferiority in French anti-Americanism,” p.75.

[16]See Ceaser, in Hollander, p.48.

[17] LeFeber, pp.602-603..

[18] Johnson, pp.200-212.

[19] David Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace, (New York: Scribner, 2001), p.193 and p. 329.

[20] Faoud Ajami, “The falseness of anti-Americanism,” Foreign Policy, Sept./Oct. 2003.

[21] Hollander, in Hollander, “The new virulence and popularity,” pp.14, 17-19.

[22] Faoud Ajami, “The falseness of anti-Americanism,” Foreign Policy, Sept/Oct. 2003.

[23] As published by Online NewsHour, www.pbs.org.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ajami.

[26] Ceaser, in Hollander, p.62.

[27] Quoted by Ceaser, in Hollander, p.47.