Global Anti-Americanism, Considered

For one of my book clubs, I recently read The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. It’s the tale of a Princeton-educated Pakistani who both falls in love with an American woman (who is emotionally wounded, and thereby doomed), and comes to detest if not America per se, our nation’s global footprint. For reasons that will be obvious from this post, the novel was far closer to home for me than most.

Apart from that gut reaction on my part, the question of general interest that arose from my reading of Hamid’s book is whether the acid conclusion by the novel’s narrator that America has a consistently baleful role in the world is correct. That he arrives at such a conclusion came as no surprise – it’s well known that deep misgivings about America are widespread throughout the world, and particularly so in Muslim lands.

This is how the narrator summarizes some of our nation’s alleged sins:

“I reflected that I had always resented the manner in which America conducted itself in the world; your constant interference in the affairs of others was insufferable. Vietnam, Korea, the straits of Taiwan, the Middle East and now Afghanistan: in each of the major conflicts and standoffs that ringed my mother continent of Asia, America played a central role…”. – p. 156

In addition to this brief litany of supposed misdeeds, the book (naturally) dwells at much greater length on the more personal experiences of the narrator. These experiences include a scene portrayed as a beginning-of-wisdom moment in which he learns from a publisher about the Marxist and anti-American perspective on capitalism of the late Pablo Neruda, a Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet who was probably killed by Pinochet in the CIA-backed coup against Allende; in the second, he reflects on the evil of a seemingly pending India-Pakistan war in which he sees the United States as more supportive of India than of Pakistan.

Let’s first examine the supposed sins in the narrator’s litany. In all of the cases he mentions, we had either or both of legitimate, self-defense reason to be involved (e.g., striking back against the Taliban’s sheltering of Al Qaida) and knowledge that other Great Powers were involved on the other side (e.g., the Chinese military’s invasion of South Korea and its threats against Taiwan); these circumstances don’t mean that our involvements were always wise or successful, but they do place them in much fairer contexts than Hamid’s scathing narrative.

As to the first of the narrator’s more personal experiences, he might have considered that Neruda, though he is widely acknowledged to have been a great poet, was at the time of his likely murder serving Allende who, while he was legitimately elected, once in office immediately began acting extra-consitutionally and with Soviet-block support to implement his (and Neruda’s) socialist hopes. More to the point, Neruda’s Marxism, like Allende’s, pointed the way later followed by Hugo Chavez – and Venezuela under Chavismo is a tragedy while Neruda’s native Chile, which, at the point of a gun, adopted capitalist policies of the sort that Neruda abhorred, evolved into a prosperous and democratic – and highly capitalist – nation.

Was the US’s behavior in Allende’s overthrow proper? No. Did we have any right to do it? Also no. But Neruda’s perspective about the evils of American capitalism, as related by the narrator, if implemented as policy would likely have led to Marxist tyranny and the impoverishment of his country, much as Chavismo did to Venezuela.

Even the Pakistan-India conflict that causes the narrator’s most personal anger about America’s behavior on the global stage arose out of an attack on India’s parliament by terrorists based in Pakistan – hardly a situation in which India (and, by extension in the novel, the US) – had no legitimate beef with the narrator’s country.

So no, I don’t buy the idea that the narrator’s consistent resentment of America’s various roles in the world is a fair perspective. I have an alternative theory for our nation’s nearly global unpopularity:

My hypothesis is that in addition to our nation’s occasional, spectacular foreign policy blunders, there are at least three reasons for the rest of the world’s all-too-general dislike of America. (As a matter of interest, that such unpopularity is not universal is nowhere better illustrated at present than in Hong Kong, where many protesters are carrying American flags as symbols of liberty).

The first pertains to the rich countries – mostly in Europe – that are our nominal allies; my view about them is that they are dependents (on America’s military spending for defense of both their lands and the global systems on which they rely) and have the usual resentment of long-term dependents for their benefactors, as well as a natural desire to differentiate themselves from us in the eyes of the world as being somehow morally superior to us. Ingrates.

The second reason is a more general human tendency toward jealousy against those who are better off in economic terms. Our relative wealth engenders widespread feelings of inadequacy and the suspicion that somehow the way we have become the richer society is by taking from poorer ones. Examined closely, this latter concept is utter nonsense: the poorer areas of the world have become immensely richer than they were, if not than us, through trade with the West. As amply illustrated by the book Factfulness to which I have referred in several posts, the statistics bear me out in this: humanity’s health and wealth have been improving with astonishing speed during the Pax Americana, especially in what used to be called the Third World.

The third reason is both more subtle and – in my view – far more fundamental than the first two. Much of the world resents America’s wealth and the personal freedoms that our culture has done so much to promote because they represent powerful challenges to those countries’ pre-existing leaders and systems. Modernity, as we understand it, was always going to have great attractions to people in lands, often ancient and proud, that had historically offered few of the same material benefits or personal freedoms. It was always going to be a challenge to both the previously ruling-class families (like that of the narrator) and the certainties of their faiths.

To Iran’s theocratic despots, for example, America is the Great Satan not primarily because the CIA installed Mossadegh nearly seventy years ago, or because we support Israel, but because they fear the attraction of America’s culture and goods to their own youth. In a sense, we can’t blame them – or at least their leaders – for hating us: by our very existence we (and the capitalist West more broadly) threaten the previously settled patterns of their lives.

Shifts in economic and cultural paradigms always call forth nostalgia for the old ways and resentment of the new. Most art and literature about the industrial revolution, for example, depicted its changes in a starkly negative fashion. Artists, writers, and the old upper classes had nothing but hatred for the shifts in life patterns and culture that were, in the aggregate, dramatically improving mankind’s lot, even while causing undoubted transitional pains for many – on which those who opposed such changes could lavish their attentions.

Similarly, the yearning for former certainties, patterns and senses of identity is an entirely predictable – indeed, inevitable – effect of the accelerating pace of global change. Our nation just happens to embody the freewheeling, uncontrolled aspects of the changes now sweeping the world in the eyes of those who are most threatened by them.

M.H. Johnston

One comment to Global Anti-Americanism, Considered

  • John Primm, MPM  says:

    Spot on. Prolific of late, and I am glad to see these. Keep the faith Mark.

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