Brian Birdnow

Early this past week the Associated Press previewed Secretary of State John Kerry’s Latin American trip by predicting that the Secretary would face a “Frosty” reception in Brazil and Colombia as he seeks to “deepen relations” with the two south American powers. Brazilian leaders are upset over the likelihood that the American NSA eavesdropping program may have targeted U.S. allies as well as foes, and that confidential Brazilian communications may have been compromised. The Colombians also expressed displeasure over the American intelligence gathering and charge that it overstepped the two countries joint intelligence operations against drug trafficking and terrorist activities. Secretary Kerry, for his own part, believes that the trip is vitally important in terms of shoring up our national image in the face of growing and increasingly vocal anti-Americanism in the southern hemisphere.

When one considers growing anti-Americanism in Latin America and adds it to the latent anti-Americanism in other parts of the world it is clearly unsettling. We see rising anti-Americanism in Egypt, continued jihadist sentiment in much of the Middle East and Central Asia, blatant provocations emanating from Russia, and the Chinese treating this Administration with a measure of disdain bordering on contempt. This clearly portends trouble ahead in the future.

Wasn’t this all supposed to end? We were told, and many Americans believed, that the election of Barack Obama, the candidate of hope and change, would restore America’s good name, and usher in a new epoch of international trust, co-operation, and goodwill. It wasn’t clear if this would happen before the sea levels dropped, or after everyone could pay their mortgages and buy new cars, but we were assured that it was coming. After all, the big problem in the world was the unnecessary American muscle flexing of 2001-2008 and the embarrassing bluster and swaggering of that damned fool Texan in the White House. Yes, George W. Bush had really made a mess of things, as we were told regularly by late night television jokesters, and most probably by a rodeo clown or two, at various state fairs.

When the new regime came into office in January 2009 they pledged that they would undo the damage caused by Bush and his Republican yahoos. Then –Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that she would hit the “reset” button in relations with Russia, and so what if she garbled the translation. President Obama began his widely derided “Apology Tour”, wherein he begged pardon for America’s past misdeeds and bowed to foreign leaders. This was supposed to change everything.

Now, five-and –one-half years into the Obama Era, we confront rising anti-Americanism around the world and ponder: What went wrong? Perhaps the rest of the world has now found Secretary Kerry as dislikable as the American people found him in 2004. This proposition is obviously open to debate, but clearly anti-Americanism is not going to disappear anytime soon. While America has been a beacon and a symbol of hope to millions throughout our national history, the flip side of this optimistic representation has been a latent anti-Americanism that has taken different forms, but has existed since 1789.

In the early 1790s this impulse expressed itself as condescension for the real weakness of the United States of America. Gouverneur Morris, chief American diplomat abroad during this period recalled attending diplomatic receptions in various European capitals. When asked what nation he represented he said that his fellow diplomats and their families could barely contain their laughter and derision when he responded that he represented the USA. This early anti-Americanism was based on the supposition that America was a ridiculous country, constantly verging on anarchy at home, and commanding no respect abroad. Morris reflected on the fact that anti-Americanism existed then not as hatred, but more along the lines of mockery and pity.

As America grew stronger and more established the world developed a new anti-American stereotype, that of the illiterate and unsophisticated rube. The classic image of the American, circa 1830-1890 was that of a gangly hillbilly, usually barefooted and blithely unaware of his uncouth nature. This image was, in fact, a subtheme of the stage play “Our American Cousin” which President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln and their guests attended at Ford’s Theater on the fateful evening of April 14, 1865. In any event, this anti-Americanism was also a comical commentary on the supposed ill manners and buffoonery of the average American citizen.

This characterization changed once again as American strength waxed toward the end of the nineteenth century. While astute observers such as King Edward VII of Britain and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany spoke of their unease at the breathtaking development of American strength and power at the turn of the twentieth century the popular image of the American was that of the Nouveau Riche plutocrat intent on buying up the world. The anti-American popular press in Europe delighted in characterizing the American moneyed classes as simple parvenu rich men who eagerly married off their beautiful daughters to penniless Dukes, Counts, and lesser worthies, hoping to buy their way into respectability and social position. This brand of anti-Americanism was also based on ridicule, but was combined with the uneasy realization that America was strong and rich and growing more so every day.

Finally, after 1919, the anti-American impulse reached full flower. America was now the strongest and most powerful nation in the world. As such, we had earned the natural resentment that historically has followed the big kid on the block. We were the Romans of the twentieth century and all of the barbarians resented our wealth and power. Nothing could change this simple fact, as the British had found in the nineteenth century. Great power and strength bring resentment and envy, as Rudyard Kipling presciently noted in 1899.

Today the anti-American imperative is more complex. The jihadists hate us for our supposed paganism, although that is much more a question of which God we choose to worship. Much of the non-Muslim anti-Americanism is based on the idea that Americans are insular and unsophisticated, that we are rotted by luxury, and that our wealth and dedication to easy living is paired with an appalling lack of social conscience and concern for the welfare of the less fortunate. In short, anti-Americanism today dovetails nicely with the thinking of much of the American Left.

So, we can see that anti-Americanism is not a problem that developed out of a reckless cowboy in the White House. It has existed, in various incarnations, for over two centuries. No one should scoff at President Obama’s stated hope that he and his State Department might improve America’s image around the world. It is a laudable goal. It will, however, be a tall order, and one that cannot be accomplished by mere good intentions and grandiose, pompous fantasies.


Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.