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Americans: Distinct but Often Disliked


Several recently released books argue America’s image in the world is declining. A decline fueled by the war in Iraq and the unease in large parts of the world over the way the U.S. is trying to transform its unrivaled power into sustainable influence.

The word anti-Americanism does not have an equivalent in anti-Japanism or anti-Germanism. That may be because Americanism is not based on U.S. identity, not on a common history or heritage, but on a set of key ideas; liberty, equality, individualism and limited government.

When U.S. leaders promise to promote the spread of freedom globally, they have in mind Americanism and everyone is a potential American, says Clyde Prestowitz, author of the book: The Rogue Nation - - American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions.

He says, “Americanism is the notion of people having rights and a system based on the rule of law, that the government is elected, that the objective of the government is to serve the people. It is the concept that everyone should have the opportunity to exercise their right to achieve whatever their skills and desires drive them to. It is also a notion of a global system that reflects a democratic intent and, therefore, a peaceful global system.”

Frustration With U.S. Policies

America’s unpopularity in many parts of the world rests not on American values, argues Prestowitz, but on frustration with current U.S. policies.

The resentment against the United States is familiar and began with what many view as a new unilateral U.S. foreign policy since September 11, 2001.

In the months prior to the terrorist attacks, the United States had already walked away from several international agreements, including the Kyoto climate accord and a treaty to eliminate land mines. And after September 11th, the United States continued to shun treaties deemed detrimental to its freedom of action as the world’s sole superpower and main source of global security.

The United States declined NATO’s offer to assist in the invasion of Afghanistan, unilaterally terminated the Anti-Ballistic Missile agreement with Russia and opposed the creation of an International Criminal Court. Then came the war in Iraq.

But as Clyde Prestowitz of the Economic Strategy Institute observes, unilateralism has deep American roots. “I think it is very important to emphasize that many of the things that foreign observers are objecting to about the U.S. are not necessarily Bush administration policies. The Clinton administration did not ratify the Kyoto agreement, either. The Clinton administration did not sign on to the I.C.C. [i.e., International Criminal Court] or the agreement to ban the use of landmines or to control trade in small arms. These are rejections by the U.S. of international treaties that stretch far back to the Carter administration,” says Prestowitz.

An Emerging Multipolar World?

Some observers contend that the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world has deeply changed since the run up to the Iraq war.

According to Andrew Bacevich, Professor of International Relations at Boston University and author of the book, American Empire, Americans have often defined their national security interest in terms the rest of the world embraces, which means taking action sanctioned by strong multilateral institutions and alliances.

Now, he says, Americans are often seen as preoccupied with their immediate security and favoring coercion over diplomacy. Bacevich adds, “If the United States could extricate itself from Iraq and if, upon leaving Iraq, there would be some semblance of order, then perhaps, we could begin to put Iraq behind us. And the United States could then have a greater opportunity to find trust on the part of partners as we try to deal with any number of other issues. But as long as Iraq is there it is really going to pose an obstacle to international cooperation.”

Meanwhile, says Professor Bacevich, U.S. involvement in a global war on terrorism could go on for years and may further fray international relationships.

But he doubts that alliances will be formed to act as a counterweight to the United States. “The future world is going to be a multipolar world, in which there is going to be different centers of power. One would be China, another India, then Europe, one would be the United States and another perhaps Russia. And I think the relations between those centers of power will be fairly complicated and perhaps fluid, but I don't think that they have to lead to rivalry,” says Bacevich.

Key Global Security Provider

Other political scientists point out that the U.S. cannot undo the fact it is the world's only superpower and has accompanying responsibilities.

The world would be a much more unfriendly place without the United States as global leader and crucial organizer of action for the collective good, says Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

He says, “The grave danger is not that the U.S. will exercise too much power in the years ahead, but that as a result of feeling very isolated, it will pull back from the international scene. If you think about what keeps stability on the Korean peninsula, in the Taiwan Strait, the Caucasus or even places like Africa, a retreat by the United States from the world scene could have immense consequences that other powers and institutions like the U.N. just cannot fill.”

Analyst Schmitt adds most Americans support their country’s unfettered freedom of action. But many observers also note that Americans do not see their country as an empire and believe in exercising their unprecedented power in pursuing liberal core values that are in the long-term best interest of the United States as well as the world at large.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.