Anti-Americanisms

By Katzenstein, Peter J.; Keohane, Robert O. | Policy Review, October-November 2006 | Go to article overview

Anti-Americanisms


Katzenstein, Peter J., Keohane, Robert O., Policy Review


ARAB REACTIONS TO American support for Israel in its recent conflict with Hezbollah have put anti-Americanism in the headlines once again. Around the world, not just in the Middle East, when bad things happen there is a widespread tendency to blame America for its sins, either of commission or omission. When its Belgrade embassy is bombed, Chinese people believe it was a deliberate act of the United States government; terror plots by native British subjects are viewed as reflecting British support for American policy; when AIDS devastates much of Africa, the United States is faulted for not doing enough to stop it.

These outbursts of anti-Americanism can be seen simply as a way of protesting American foreign policy. Is "anti-Americanism" really just a common phrase for such opposition, or does it go deeper? If anti-American expressions were simply ways to protest policies of the hegemonic power, only the label would be new. Before World War I Americans reacted to British hegemony by opposing "John Bull." Yet there is a widespread feeling that anti-Americanism is more than simply opposition to what the United States does, but extends to opposition to what the United States is--what it stands for. Critiques of the United States often extend far beyond its foreign policy: to its social and economic practices, including the public role of women; to its social policies, including the death penalty; and to its popular culture, including the flaunting of sex. Globalization is often seen as Americanization and resented as such. Furthermore, in France, which has had long-standing relations with the United States, anti-Americanism extends to the decades before the founding of the American republic.

With several colleagues we recently completed a book, Anti-Americanisms in World Politics, (1) exploring these issues, and in this short article we discuss four of its themes. First, we distinguish between anti-Americanisms that are rooted in opinion or bias. Second, as our book's title suggests, there are many varieties of anti-Americanism. The beginning of wisdom is to recognize that what is called anti-Americanism varies, depending on who is reacting to America. In our book, we describe several different types of anti-Americanism and indicate where each type is concentrated. The variety of anti-Americanism helps us to see, third, the futility of grand explanations for anti-Americanism. It is accounted for better as the result of particular sets of forces. Finally, the persistence of anti-Americanism, as well as the great variety of forms that it takes, reflects what we call the polyvalence of a complex and kaleidoscopic American society in which observers can find whatever they don't like--from Protestantism to porn. The complexity of anti-Americanism reflects the polyvalence of America itself.

Opinion and bias

BASIC TO OUR argument is a distinction between opinion and bias. Some expressions of unfavorable attitudes merely reflect opinion: unfavorable judgments about the United States or its policies. Others, however, reflect bias: a predisposition to believe negative reports about the United States and to discount positive ones. Bias implies a distortion of information processing, while adverse opinion is consistent with maintaining openness to new information that will change one's views. The long-term consequences of bias for American foreign policy are much greater than the consequences of opinion.

The distinction between opinion and bias has implications for policy, and particularly for the debate between left and right on its significance. Indeed, our findings suggest that the positions on anti-Americanism of both left and right are internally inconsistent. Broadly speaking, the American left focuses on opinion rather than bias--opposition, in the left's view largely justified, to American foreign policy. The left also frequently suggests that anti-Americanism poses a serious long-term problem for U. …

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