October 7, 2004
by Claudia Rosett
"America addressed the earth: Do you love me as I love you?"
--W.H. Auden, "In Time of War"
Auden wrote those lines in 1938, on the eve of World War II, and in them he summed up one of the basic traits of the American character. More than most, we want to be liked. Maybe that's because we are naive, or absurdly romantic. More likely it's because we are a country of immigrants, a democracy in which mobility and markets reward richly those who find ways to get along. And just possibly it's because life in America, with all its human failings, is still good enough that we dwell less on hate than on friendlier sentiments.
Whatever the cause, a lifetime after Auden wrote the lines above, America is again peering into the shadows of war, and wondering how to put the zing back into its geopolitical love life. John Kerry is campaigning on the promise that if elected president he will go to the world, or at least the United Nations, to ask: Could you (please) love us as we love you?
The answer, of course, is no. Not right now. Apart from rare spells of relative world peace, or joyous interludes in the immediate aftermath of American troops liberating nations such as France, or more recently Afghanistan, the answer from various quarters over the years has often been no. The worst friction tends to come at precisely those times when America stands up for its own principles, looking less to win love than to defend liberty. Today, no American president can safely avoid taking that stand, and making that choice--at least not for long.
Traveling abroad over the past few months has reminded me of two things. One is just how frequently America has been reviled before. The other is just how well it has often turned out in the end. Democracy, not despotism, has for years been the broad trend around the globe. And Western Europe, in particular, despite its current dismay and existential sufferings over a unipolar world, has never been so fat and sassy.
Having most recently had the pleasure of visiting London, I'd suggest that to some extent the world--love us or hate us--takes its cue from Americans themselves, or at least a select band of the most loquacious Americans. In making the rounds of London's richly stocked bookstores, it was hard to miss the big stacks of anti-American books that were almost everywhere on display. On closer inspection, it turned out most of these books were written by Americans.
In upending various old orders to fight the current war, President Bush has outraged many of those here at home who made and implemented the policies that failed to protect us. They all seem to have written at least a book apiece--or at any rate, enough to cover many tables. And while some of these books are simply anti-Bush, others oppose the America that had the audacity to elect him. The overall effect is of an America everyone loves to hate. (By contrast, there is no showcased profusion of books in which, say, Syrians tear into Bashar Assad; or Palestinians deplore Yasser Arafat).
But the British seem willing to forgive almost anything, even an outright defense of the U.S., if it's funny enough. In that spirit, crammed into almost every display were copies of P.J. O'Rourke's latest book, "Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism."
That set me to musing on some of Mr. O'Rourke's earlier writing, including a highly pertinent piece included in one of his 1980s collections, "Holidays in Hell." Titled "Among the Euro-Weenies," and first published in 1986, the story ended with one of the all-time classic retorts to an America-disparaging Brit. To pluck a few samples from among the artfully cadenced expletives, here's Mr. O'Rourke explaining to the British gent the basic nature of your average American: "WE BE BAD. . . . We're three-quarters grizzly bear and two-thirds car-wreck and descended from a stock-market crash on our mother's side. You take your Germany, France and Spain, roll them all together, and it wouldn't give us room to park our cars. We're the big boys, Jack, the original giant economy-sized new and improved butt-kickers of all time."
I quote this not just for the pleasure of Mr. O'Rourke's play on American folklore, but because the entire passage--worth looking up--was hardly unprovoked. Mr. O'Rourke made that particular trip to Europe shortly after President Reagan in 1986 responded to Moammar Gadhafi's terrorism by bombing Tripoli. There were huge anti-American demonstrations in Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain. As if America weren't unloved enough, Reagan souped up the arms race against the Soviets, denounced their "evil empire," stuck to his guns-- and proved Mr. O'Rourke right. In 1991, quite possibly to the relief even of some in Western Europe, not to mention many of the U.S.S.R.'s own citizens, the Soviet regime collapsed.
Then, in the 1990s, while today's Islamo-fascist peril grew unchecked, America took no mighty stands. That may have spared us some street demonstrations in Europe. It did not save us from the series of bombings that finally brought the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001--the declaration we could no longer ignore of a global war America did not seek, but which had already begun.
As for the rest of the globe, anti-Americanism has come and gone for all sorts of reasons. We have been capitalist running dogs in Mao Tse-tung's China; we have been the Great Satan in Khomeini's Iran. But China today is, at least for the moment, more focused on selling us underwear than on trying to destroy our way of life. Iran's mullahs in this generation have been struggling to keep a lid on the pro-American demonstrations of Iran's own people. And, to name a less obvious example, in India in 1991 I found myself surrounded by America-hating mobs, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Though Gandhi had been murdered by a Tamil suicide bomber, one of the theories on the streets of Delhi at the time, in an India imbued for decades with anti-American policies of Cold War "nonalignment," was that the assassination could only have been a CIA plot. Today India is on the same side in the war on terror.
Threaded through all this are the predicaments of hundreds of millions of people world-wide who have no freedom to speak out about anything they might really believe, or desire. Many of these people live in the Middle East, the focus right now of much of the American love-hate debate. Our best bet is to stop tallying the passions of all and sundry, hour by hour, and concentrate instead on defending the principles that are in truth America's best shot at that elusive global romance--or at least a better, safer world.
This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal Europe on October 6, 2004.
Claudia Rosett was formerly an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute.
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