Mad At America

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It was a cozy, intimate dinner party for some of Brussels' leading lights, held at the home of one of the city's premier architects. Leonard Schrank, the American chief executive of the financial services firm Swift and president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Belgium, took a seat next to an elegant woman he recognized as one of Belgium's richest people. During the pre-dinner chitchat in a room full of museum-quality contemporary art, she ventured offhandedly that it was "good that the Americans got hit on Sept. 11. Maybe it taught them a lesson."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Schrank responded. "More than 3,000 people died!" The woman wilted under his assault, but for Schrank the moral of the story was clear. "She was just repeating what she had heard," he says. "The real point is that 90% of the people she talks to every day would agree with her."

Welcome to the strange world of the transatlantic relationship, which lately seems to be borrowing less from traditional manuals of diplomacy than from pop psychology books about dysfunctional families. The Brussels woman may belong to Europe's upper crust, but these days it seems that every social stratum on the Continent is seized by fear and loathing of the U.S. Hundreds of thousands march through the capitals of Europe to denounce the looming American-led war against Iraq, hanging George W. Bush in effigy and burning Old Glory as they go. But fierce opposition to the prospect of war is merely the latest catalyst for anti-U.S. feeling; ask a European about America and you're likely to get an earful about American cultural and economic domination, American arrogance, American insularity, American blindness to global warming, world poverty and the plight of the Palestinians.

Hating the States is a growth industry across Europe, with best-selling books like L'Effroyable Imposture (The Horrifying Fraud) in France and Why Do People Hate America? in Britain. The anti-American movement even has an American mascot: social critic Michael Moore, whose latest movie (Bowling for Columbine), book (Stupid White Men) and one-man stage show all toss poison-tipped darts at the red-white-and-blue target — and are all doing brisk business in Europe. "Anti-Americanism in Europe," says a senior U.S. diplomat, "is creeping apace." As the military buildup continues against Iraq — without any obvious casus belli found by the weapons inspectors — "people are getting especially twitchy," says a British official.

The shared horror after Sept. 11 that led Le Monde to declare "We are all Americans" has vanished. In its place: European scorn for an American military response to terrorism that hasn't done much to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. A poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project shows regard for the U.S. dropping in almost all European countries since 2000 — down 17 percentage points in Germany, eight in Britain, six in Italy. Senior American diplomats in Europe talk darkly about a "tectonic shift" in values that, with the glue of a common Soviet enemy removed, is pulling apart the most successful alliance in history.

American conservative intellectuals think the shift is already past the point of no return: they see a Europe devoted to lowest-common-denominator consensus, allergic to conflict, pathetically trying to restrain with vapid legalisms the only country with the strength and guts to do the dirty work of a Hobbesian world. In the cauldron of the White House, that viewpoint is boiled down to a brutal shorthand: "Eurowimp."

 


And the bad feelings are mutual. A former cabinet minister in the British Conservative Party, which is officially even more pro-American than Bush's First Friend Tony Blair, recently leaned over at lunch and described Bush as "terrifying," "ignorant," "a prisoner of the religious right who believes God tells him what to do," and "like a child running around with a grenade with the pin pulled out."

As American and British forces deployed to the Middle East last week, European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana warned that "without proof" that Saddam harbors banned weapons, "it would be very difficult" for Europe to support the war. And Europe's three most powerful leaders are showing the strain of being pulled in opposite directions by powerful forces: their own antiwar publics, and the hyperpower in Washington preparing for regime change in Baghdad.

With opposition to an Iraq war consistently running between 70% and 80% in Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is sticking to the pledge that got him re-elected and made Bush despise him: to keep German forces out of it. But Berlin watchers consider it unthinkable that Germany, which wants a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, will cast a lonely vote against authorizing force if the weapons inspectors find a violation.

French President Jacques Chirac must straddle a similar razor. According to a poll published in Le Parisien last week, only 15% of French voters support the use of their military against Iraq — even if the Security Council endorses war. So far Chirac's rhetoric has played to the majority, but that may not last. "He and those around him are convinced that if we want a role in the Middle East afterward, we have to be on board with the Americans," says Philippe Moreau Defarges, an analyst at the French Institute of International Relations. If Chirac does fall into line behind Bush for reasons of state, his constituency will feel betrayed — and blame the American "bully" as much as they blame their own leader.

Even Blair is taking so much heat in his own Labour Party for backing Bush on Iraq that last week he warned that U.N. inspectors should be given all the time they need to finish their job, and devoted big chunks of a major speech to the perils of anti-Americanism, calling it "a foolish indulgence." He even included some blunt advice for Washington. "People listen to the U.S. on issues and may well agree with them," he said. "But they want the U.S. to listen back."

Those with long memories might be tempted to say: Stop bellyaching, we've been here before. Europe and Washington have stared at each other in fury and incomprehension many times in the past, from the French-British- Israeli campaign to reclaim the Suez Canal that Dwight Eisenhower gutted in 1956 to the deployment of Pershing nuclear missiles in Europe under Ronald Reagan, who once prompted the same sort of "ignorant cowboy" epithets now heard about Bush. Each time commentators anguished about wounds that would never heal. They were wrong. (Reagan's reputation improved after the fall of the Berlin Wall. If Bush manages to win the war against terrorism, his will too.) In some ways, Europe and America are more alike than ever. The level of commercial interpenetration, the number of young people choosing to study and work across the Atlantic, and the spread of a common mass culture from Disney and The Sopranos to reality TV and Penelope Cruz (two European exports to the U.S.) has never been greater. This cultural exchange is tricky: though it moves in both directions, it is often viewed as an American phenomenon — Hollywood imperialism that's resented even as it is enjoyed. (No matter how good U.S. pop culture can be, its ubiquity can make it an affront.) But overall, in many places in Europe, America is admired as much as it is reviled, technicolor warts and all.

For Europeans, the relationship starts to break down when the U.S. goes into "You're either with us or against us" mode. "Despite disagreements about certain strategic and diplomatic details, the bottom line is, we still very much share the same interests and objectives," says Jacques Bille, 58, managing director of France's Association of Advertising Agencies. By and large, Europeans accept America as the undisputed leader of the world. What's at issue, Bille thinks, aren't the fundamentals, but concerns over style and sensitivities. "There seems to be a real inability for the U.S. to accept that other approaches are both legitimate and acceptable," he says. "What's difficult to accept is the utter lack of reciprocity. We often start off as being 'wrong' in American eyes by not being like Americans in the first place."

 


So, while the current model isn't your father's anti-Americanism, it is in some ways more volatile, especially because there seem to be more and more ways in which Europeans and Americans are not alike. Differences over Iraq have been bolted onto a bridge that has been creaking under many other strains since Bush came to power: U.S. failure to back the Kyoto accords on global warming, the Biological Weapons Convention, the Landmine Convention, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or the International Criminal Court; his decision to back steel tariffs and $52 billion in farm subsidies despite preaching free trade (a charge of which the E.U. is equally guilty); and, above all, abandoning Bill Clinton's intense engagement in the Middle East peace process.

Blair has found Bush's apathy toward the Middle East so frustrating that he finally sought to convene an all-party conference of his own in London, and then settled for a smaller meeting on Palestinian self-government, only to have Israel block the participation of Palestinian delegates in retaliation for another terror bombing. Washington made no serious public complaint. Last week Britain stuck to its guns by announcing that the summit would go ahead anyway — with the Palestinians taking part by phone.

Like other European leaders, Blair is passionately convinced that failure to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian dispute lends credence to the claim of fundamentalist Muslims that the war on terror and the war on Iraq are really a war against Islam. "Unless there is real energy put into crafting a process that can lead to lasting peace ... the future of the innocent is held hostage by the terrorists," Blair said last week, implicitly rebuking Bush's passivity. "They will recruit new volunteers as fast or faster as we imprison or destroy the old ones, unless we are helping those within the faith of Islam who are speaking out in favor of moderation, tolerance and sense."

Bush's other major policy slip in European eyes was to forge Iran, Iraq and North Korea into an "axis of evil." Whatever its moral justification, the phrase lumped together disparate opponents instead of trying to divide them, and in North Korea's case, created an embarrassing hostage to fortune. Bush's bedrock argument for attacking Saddam Hussein is that he is uniquely bad, due to his record of abusing human rights, using chemical weapons, aggression against his neighbors and long-term lust to acquire nukes.

Kim Jong Il may not have used chemical weapons, but he has starved and oppressed his own people, blown up South Korean officials, kidnapped Japanese teenagers to use as language teachers for spies, proliferated missiles and placed 10,000 artillery pieces within 20 km of Seoul. Oh yeah, and he's likely built his own nukes, is now seeking more, and last week renounced his treaty obligations not to build them and threatened that any sanctions against his country would be tantamount to "a declaration of war." Bush says diplomacy, not war, is the appropriate route with Pyongyang — in which case, many Europeans ask, why not with Baghdad too?

They think they know the answer: oil. According to the Pew poll, 76% of Russians, 75% of French, 54% of Germans and 44% of British believe the desire to control Iraq's oil lies behind Bush's bellicosity — another deep rift with the U.S., where only 22% hold this view. Americans, even those who oppose the war, are more likely to believe that Bush is trying to make the world a safer place. Europeans don't buy it. "Iraq hasn't invaded anyone, as it had Kuwait the last time," says Clemens Ronnefeldt, a leading member of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization with roots in the U.S. peace churches. "It is cooperating with international inspectors. This war is about economic interests, oil interests." Ronnefeldt and others are planning civil disobedience actions to block U.S. military operations in Germany in the event of war, and they are helping organize demonstrations in all major European capitals on Feb. 15.

In Italy, Father Jean-Marie Benjamin, a French-born musician and priest now living in Assisi, is fighting an audiovisual battle against the Bush Administration. He has launched a second edition of his book Obiettivo Iraq (Target Iraq) after the first edition of 10,000 copies sold out in three months. The book, documenting the effects of the U.N. embargo and Benjamin's efforts to smuggle humanitarian aid into Iraq, also contains a video of his catchy pop single Mr. President, which is getting lots of play on Italian radio. "Hey! Mr President, we've understood it all," Father Benjamin warbles, "That we are slaves of Wall Street, lobbies and multinationals/ The taxes of the British people and of the good American people/ To exterminate a whole population/ To colonize Iraq and the Kurds!" You won't catch that one on mTV.

 


Scratch a European complaint about the U.S. and it almost always reveals the person of George W. Bush — the "toxic Texan," as one American diplomat ruefully puts it. The President's domestic record embodies things many Europeans find strange, if not repellent, about the U.S.: pro-gun, pro-death penalty, pro-Christian, antiabortion, strongly patriotic. A worldwide survey by the University of Michigan confirms that Americans have basic values that are notably more traditional than Europeans, closer in this respect to those of Indians and Turks than to Germans or Swedes. Particularly offensive to Europeans are Bush's swagger, tough talk and invocations of God and right and wrong, part of his born-again tradition that is attuned to the U.S. mood after Sept. 11. "We don't see the common guy from Chicago," says Gerald Duchaussoy, a 28-year-old office worker in Paris. "We see Bush. And politicians here don't speak with his language."

"It's nonsense to say, 'We're the force of good,'" says Pierre Hassner, an expert on transatlantic relations at the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris. "After all, the religious tradition also includes humility. Identifying your enemy with evil and yourself with good isn't religious; it's part of a certain strand of Protestantism. We're living through the battle of the born-agains: Bush the born-again Christian, bin Laden the born-again Muslim." Reinhard Hildebrandt, a professor of political science at Berlin's Free University, says that when politicians invoke morality, "Europeans assume such language conceals power interests. We don't like to mix up power interests with good and evil." Karsten Voigt, coordinator of German-American relations at the Foreign Ministry, says simply: "Self-doubt is stronger here than in America."

So is a nagging sense of inadequacy compared to the American behemoth, with a defense budget that's bigger than the next 25 countries' combined — and the confidence to use it. In the two biggest recent challenges to European security, Bosnia and Kosovo, it still took American intervention (after many missteps) to finally put things right. Blair last week chided his fellow Europeans for giving in to the "reverse unilateralism" of "leaving the U.S. to face the tricky issues alone." "Europeans resent, though they wouldn't put it this way, the power, reach, cultural and economic success of the U.S.," says a senior British official. "There's always been this chip on the shoulder, a complex about the big brother." A senior Czech diplomat says Bush's strutting only reflects reality: "It's hard not to have a heavy hand when you are very heavy."

Historically, France has been the European country where America's hand has weighed heaviest. Despite the antipathy, though, the two countries are remarkably similar: both believe their nations have unique missions in the world; both are intensely patriotic; and both believe their way of life is best. "We're a place with pretensions of universalism," says Stephane Rozès, director of CSA, the polling institute that conducted the Le Parisien survey. "France sees itself as carrying universal values into the international sphere, just as America does. But in this case, the French see the Americans harnessing their superpower status not to the greater interest of the world, but to its own national interests" — something, of course, that other countries think France does very well itself.

Despite resentment of the Bush Administration's bad-cop strut, it has achieved results: getting Russia to accept Bush's missile defenses and encouraging Vladimir Putin to cast his lot with the West, and squeezing the Security Council into its 15-0 vote on Iraq. Though Bush's decision to go through the U.N. had plenty to do with domestic public opinion — a survey by the German Marshall Fund and Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, on which he was briefed, showed that 65% of Americans wanted U.N. blessing for any war — the move nevertheless took considerable diplomatic skill and patience, reflected concern for other countries' opinions and confounds the easy European caricature of Bush. Besides the Iraq vote, Bush also assembled a big coalition for Afghanistan. The most deafening European complaint about Washington these days is insularity: that no one but Colin Powell picks up the phone and that Bush pays no mind to leading opinion beyond his own shores. The U.S. "is astonishingly ignorant about other cultures," says Dominique Chagnollaud, a professor of constitutional studies at the Sorbonne — and at the same time "we have the impression that it is always telling everyone else what to do." Bille goes even further. "The trouble arises when we feel we're not only not being listened to," he says, "but when the Americans make no pretense of even wanting to hear what we have to say."

Archbishop Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican, which opposes war in Iraq as it opposed the Gulf War, uses religious language to describe American self-absorption. "Power is a temptation," he says. "It's like there's one bottle of a drink and you are alone in the room. You are tempted to drink from it now and again, and eventually you get inebriated. And you forget to take care of those others who maybe just want a sip."

 


Last week, Blair's speech tried once more to fill the gap left by Bush's America-first ideology, setting out a broad vision for tackling world poverty, reaching out to Muslims and attracting international support for "the values we stand for: freedom, human rights, the rule of law, democracy. Given a chance, the world over, people want them." But they "can only be achieved if pursued with a sense of fairness, of equality, of partnership ... [Otherwise] the order we want is seen by much of the world as 'their' order not 'ours.'" The obvious subtext: George, why aren't you saying these things from your much bigger bully pulpit?

Despite the strains, there is a lot of resilience built into the Atlantic alliance. European regard for America may be declining, but it's still high: 61% approval in Germany, 63% in France, 70% in Italy, 75% in Britain, actually up 24 points in Russia to 61%. Even among those who would oppose a war that came with a U.N. seal of approval — such as the half-million who marched at the huge anti-U.S. rally in Florence last November — there is affection and respect for the U.S. "I'm in love with America," confesses Caterina Donati, 33, who marched with her 20-month-old son in her arms in Florence. Donati, a lecturer/researcher at the University of Urbino, feels that "Americans possess a capacity to reason, to smash the dogma and vices that Europeans have always just accepted. Europeans don't have that capacity to analyze and criticize." But Donati had no qualms about wagging her finger at American policy.

Eric Platel, 34, computer systems manager for a French insurance company, says "most people in Europe under the age of 60 look to the U.S. as a leader and catalyzer in almost every way. It's a given." An Italian calendar for 2003 shows that even Bush's opponents have moved beyond the "Ugly American" stereotype. Entitled "No War," it uses Robert Capa photos of noble World War II G.I.s to stand in mute contrast to the supposedly unjust war to come.

Heavyweights on both sides of the Atlantic recognize the mounting dangers and are working hard to counter them. Michael Howard, the British Conservative Party's shadow Chancellor, has been expanding a group called Atlantic Partnership, which recruits senior figures in Europe and the U.S. "We want to create a climate of opinion where decision makers on both sides try to manage their differences in a way that minimizes the dangers to the relationship as a whole, which is of great importance, not just to Europe and America but the world," he says.

And Washington is making fewer gaffes. "You haven't seen any more photos of guys in orange jumpsuits from Guantánamo," says an American diplomat. Despite all the demonization and caricatures, Bush himself has impressed his counterparts at European gatherings, particularly the November NATO summit in Prague, where his speeches were thoughtful and well-delivered. A senior British official even suggests he embark on something like Henry Kissinger's 1973 "Year of Europe" campaign to repair the alliance: "He's in a position where he could make a go of being perceived in Europe in a new way."

First he must get through Iraq, a crucial test in European eyes of whether he intends to lead the international system or go around it. In the long run, further strains will be placed on the alliance as mass immigration to the U.S. from non-European countries and a shift of its economic center of gravity south and west dull the instinct to look toward Europe, just as Europe is shifting its own gaze eastward to accommodate new members. But alliances, like families, can be permitted a little squabbling as they grow. Sometimes family feuds can get nasty and downright weird; sometimes the old fights are more comfortable than recognizing how much you have in common. But as any therapist will tell you, the only way to keep a family together is to keep talking.