Anti-Americanism and Its Discontents: Charles J. Swindells Criticises Those Who Find Fault with the United States at Every Turn

By Swindells, Charles J. | New Zealand International Review, January-February 2005 | Go to article overview

Anti-Americanism and Its Discontents: Charles J. Swindells Criticises Those Who Find Fault with the United States at Every Turn


Swindells, Charles J., New Zealand International Review


In this article I shall address a phenomenon that has actually been around for a while, but one that has in recent years come to be called 'anti-Americanism'. I am referring to empty, inaccurate criticism of US ideals or actions that offers no constructive alternatives and gives no credit where credit is due. It is criticism that rejects policies because they came from America or look 'too American', criticism that is at heart an attack on those who seek basic human freedoms.

In my travels around New Zealand, I have not found such anti-Americanism to be widespread among New Zealanders. But anti-Americanism is an important subject that is being discussed widely in diplomatic circles and by US officials around the world. I believe its influence on international relations and public discussion of foreign policy deserves attention. And I hope that my comments might help New Zealanders see anti-Americanism for what it really is.

I am not alone in that hope. Young New Zealanders like Lara Markstein, who wrote an excellent essay on the subject for The College Herald, have also raised the dangers of anti-Americanism in dealing with foreign policy issues. And I am sure that many of you have also been wrestling with the problems posed by anti-Americanism in international affairs.

Now that I have defined what anti-Americanism is, let me make very clear what it is not. I do not believe that factual, well-reasoned criticism of a US government policy or some aspect of American society is anti-American. Far from it.

Of course, none of us like to be criticised. And we may not agree with specific arguments, even if they are well reasoned. But if they have caused us to examine ourselves and re-examine the facts, if they have forced us to avoid complacency, they will have contributed to making the United States a better nation and Americans a better people.

Open approach

We are a nation that has been as open to constructive criticism and new ways of doing things as any in history. Our political institutions are designed to encourage a diversity of views and competition among ideas. They have built-in means of limiting the power of the few to force their views on the many. Within the executive branch of the government, for which I work, the inter-agency policy process rarely rubber-stamps the ideas of any particular individual, including those of the President. As Ambassador, I have had a front-row seat to witness some of these inter-agency debates, and I can assure you that they are not for the faint-hearted. And even if we do not get a given policy right the first time, we can be sure that the Congress and the courts will let us know.

We have this attitude because the founders of our nation understood that the world is ever changing. Yesterday's momentary perfection will no longer meet the standards of a new day.

So, having distinguished the difference between legitimate criticism and anti-Americanism, and having invited legitimate criticism, let me provide a brief history of anti-Americanism. Then I will touch on a few identifying anti-American themes. Finally, some thoughts on who is most affected by anti-Americanism will be offered.

Positive influence

One can make a good case that the foundations of anti-Americanism were laid long before the United States ever existed. Europe's settlement of the Western Hemisphere challenged the thinking of its philosophers of the time. For some, this was a positive influence. Objections by some Spaniards to mistreatment of the Aztecs began a dialogue on human rights that continues to this day. Others reacted more negatively. Some objected to the settlers' 'naive' optimism that enduring hardship in the present would lead to a better future. Increased information about the actual state of the 'noble savages' bothered others.

Many responded by developing a widely held, totally unexamined and completely inaccurate view of the backwardness of the New World.

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