Hostile liberal members of the American media have been repeating for years that the Bush presidency caused the prestige of the US in the world to decline sharply. In addition, they whine endlessly that the US is disliked pretty much more than it ever has been. I think tender-hearted liberal commentators are confusing several issues, some of which have nothing to do with Pres. G.W. Bush or with any of his policies.
As a person with a very good knowledge of another society and culture (France) and a pretty good understanding of several others (most of Latin America plus Spain), I may be able to help disentangle the impressions they are giving the general American public concerning their country’s popularity in the world. I also have better than average access to Germany and to Russia thanks to several long-term friendships.
I wish to begin by stating that I believe popularity is considerably overstated as a geopolitical resource. Governments do what they do largely on the basis of their calculated self-interest. Love of another country probably plays little role in the tactical alliances they form. (I must say that I could be talked into believing that there exists a sort of solidarity of kinship linking Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia with this country. This solidarity may contribute to making the public opinion of those democratic countries more tolerant of policies they don’t especially like than they would be absent the felt kinship.)
At any one time, there are several components to the impression of unpopularity of the US. Some components are nearly permanent; some are products of specific policies. I take them in order. Here is the baseline.
Europeans, specifically, tend to be systematically misinformed about the real America. They are misinformed in the particular stubborn way of those who possess information that was once correct but has not been correct for along time. Two examples:
My French friends are almost all convinced that there are no social welfare measures or programs at all in the US. When I tell them that I am presently receiving a monthly check from the Federal Government sufficient to pay for housing almost anywhere in the country, first they stare with disbelief. Then, they try to make me admit that receiving such payments makes me a member of some mysteriously defined privileged minority. It takes all my credit to convince some of them that Social Security retirements are a universal benefit.
This misapprehension is so widespread that the French philosopher and journalist Bernard-Henry Levy expressed significant surprise when he discovered any social programs at all on the occasion of his 2005/6 voyage of discovery of America (“American Vertigo.”) I thought that was remarkable because Levy is often well informed; he is not afraid to slay sacred cows, and he is notoriously not anti-American. (I am using the word “notorious” intendedly.)
Given that we do not, as I write, have a national health system, otherwise intelligent people in Western Europe often believe that the very sick who are uninsured routinely die on American sidewalks unattended. When an unfortunate actually dies unattended, as happened sometimes in the Fall of 2008, much of the European press treats the singular, deplorable event as a mere instance of a very broad class of such events.
From the standpoint of many thinking people in Europe, we are thus an impossibly cruel and heartless society. Given this general, diffuse, unexamined impression, it’s a good bet that many Europeans will be pre-disposed to see cruelty in our national policies where none is intended and none dished out.
So, when the United States acts in a seemingly generous manner in any part of the world, some European intellectuals strive to find hidden motives. When it’s impossible to find one, they fall back on silly general propositions that cannot, in principle, be disproved. The military intervention on behalf of the Kosovars in 1999 (under cover of NATO) was a case in point: Kosovo was an insignificant part of the world inhabited by a people with whom Americans had no historical links. Kosovo had no petroleum, in reality or prospectively.
“What do you think the American military is doing above and around Kosovo,” I would ask, “trying to steal the Kosovars’ skinny cows?
“Perhaps not, the US is just attempting to gain influence in the Balkans by establishing a beachhead in Kosovo.”
Who the hell wants anything to do with the Balkans – except the Russians, and they, for absurd sentimental reasons?
Another item of grotesque ignorance among Europeans is the American racial situation. With the characteristic social pessimism of those who live in societies where the government plays a major role in day-to-day life, they missed the changes of the past thirty years, perhaps of the past fifty years. Some university graduates really believe that the KKK remains a major American political force, although, possibly an occult one. Much of their vision seems to be fed by old American movies made a long time ago, to combat racial oppression precisely.
Not many years ago, I was hosting the left-wing mayor of a medium-sized French city. Throughout dinner at a restaurant, the man kept trying to look through me, or around me, at another table. Finally, at coffee time, I turned my head to try and figure the object of his intense interest. I saw nothing interesting. So, I asked him, “What are you looking at so intently, Mr Mayor?” “That black man, sitting at second table behind you; do you see him?” “Yes, I saw him, what about him, is a star or a famous athlete you recognize from television?” “No, it’s just that I did not know Negroes were allowed in restaurants.” I am not making this up! Incidentally, this episode took place in San Francisco, a newish Northern city which was never segregated, of course.
As they see it, the civil rights movement never took place, not successfully, at least. Federal Civil Rights legislation does not exist or it’s a sham. If there are African-American mayors of big cities, it’s because the electorate of those cities is black. There cannot be, by definition, a Mayor Bradley of Los Angeles repeatedly re-elected in a major city with few black voters. Those people’s curiosity never goes far enough to discover that just as is the case in Europe, people of African descent emigrate to the US in large numbers, even at the risk of finding themselves in the disabling illegal status of undocumented immigrants. (I read an estimate a couple of months ago, from a source that seemed reasonable to me at the time, that there are now more black Americans who are descendants of free immigrants than of slaves. Colin Powell is an example of course. Unfortunately, I cannot identify the source right now. So, treat the statement cautiously.)
One of the reasons Barak Obama’s election was greeted with such overwhelming enthusiasm is that nearly all Europeans – with a few Brit exceptions – harbor a simplistic view of America’s continuing racial problems. They believe that many Americans are just stupidly repulsed by the physical appearance of a black person -as I believe many Europeans are. The contradictory fact that many top American stars – whose looks should matter to their occupation – are black does not command their attention.
They have no information about and no patience for the current complex, socially poisonous inheritance of slavery and of past segregation, including poor family formation, disdain for formal education, and a genuinely high criminal propensity. I mean by the latter that once you make reasonable allowances for racially biased police attention, for possibly racially biased arrests, for racially loaded rates of charging, for convictions guided in part by racial prejudice, African-Americans still seem to commit many more crimes than other segments of the population. That is, in proportion to their numerical representation in the total population, naturally. And, of course, it should be obvious that most African-Americans commit no crimes at all except for the occasional all-American driving violations and tax evasion.
My sense is that there is a fair degree of obduracy in this collective ignorance. It seems to me it’s not all innocent ignorance, like not knowing what’s on the other face of the Moon. It’s also true that I only have anecdotes to go by. Here is one.
About six years ago, a young woman from France stayed at my house in California for a couple of weeks. Periodically, she disappeared to hide and work on finishing what seemed to be more or less her senior thesis. That was the final requirement for her graduation from one of the very top, most prestigious schools in France. The thesis was something on “racial minorities in the US.” I offered to take her to the next town, down the road that had a Mexican-American mayor, a city council predominantly of the same origin, and a Mexican-American police chief.
She insisted she did not have time for that half-day excursion although she had enough time for all the usual tourist sights. I could not help suspecting that she did not want to be confused by facts.
In my (pretty well-informed) opinion, the Unites States is today an exceptionally racially integrated society. I have not been everywhere in the world but, I can’t think of any country that surpasses it in this respect.
Yet, if I had to give a lecture on this theme to any audience of European university graduates, I don’t know where I could possibly begin.
More next time on anti-Americanism.
[Editor's note: this essay first appeared on Dr. Delacroix's blog, Bay Watch, on November 25th 2008]