Review by Benjamin Fordham
Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes, America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked. (New York: Times Books, 2006, pp. xix, 259, charts, notes, index. $25 cloth).
For a brief period after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States received widespread sympathy and support from around the world. The French daily Le Monde declared that “[i]n this tragic moment…we are all Americans.” This pro-American interlude did not last. By the time the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, both American foreign policy and the American people were increasingly unpopular, even in longtime European allies. This shift in international public opinion is critically important for the future of American foreign policy. If it is a short-term phenomenon driven by opposition to the war in Iraq, the burdens it imposes on the conduct of American foreign policy might be temporary. On the other hand, if recent anti-Americanism is driven by more persistent trends or deeper differences between the United States and the rest of the world, it would represent a much more serious problem.
The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has been among the leading chroniclers of the recent rise in anti-American sentiment, conducting a series of ambitious, cross-national surveys tapping public attitudes toward international affairs. In America Against the World, the center’s director, Andrew Kohut, and Bruce Stokes, an international economics columnist for the National Journal, use this impressive body of evidence to compare patterns in American public opinion to those in other parts of the world in an effort to identify the sources of anti-Americanism. They find evidence of “American exceptionalism” in some public attitudes on important political and social issues. They argue that some of these differences, coupled with the enormous international power and presence of the United States, may fuel anti-American sentiment.
Kohut and Stokes write that some instances of American exceptionalism, while real enough, only create anti-Americanism because they are misunderstood. For example, while surveys indicate that religion is indeed more important to Americans than to most Europeans, it does not shape Americans’ foreign policy attitudes to the extent that some European observers have claimed. Similarly, while Americans tend to be more patriotic than citizens of most other wealthy nations, they express little interest in actively spreading their way of life. Kohut and Stokes point out that American religiosity and nationalism are not really unique. These attitudes distinguish Americans from most Europeans, but are not so different from those found in the non-European world, including the Middle East.
The authors link the recent rise in anti-American sentiment to the Iraq War. Anti-American sentiment rose sharply in the months preceding the March 2003 invasion, and has receded only slightly since then. The failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that were the principal justification for the war has undermined American credibility around the world. Substantial majorities in many countries believe that the Bush administration lied about these weapons in order to conceal ulterior motives ranging from the control of oil resources to the protection of Israel. This credibility problem extends beyond the war in Iraq to the war on terrorism, which commanded bare majority support at best by 2005, even in such staunch U.S. allies as Britain. The Iraq War is a major source of anti-Americanism but it will not last forever. There is reason to hope that the hostility it has produced will recede once the war and the Bush presidency come to an end.
The authors do not claim that anti-American sentiment is entirely the result of foreign misunderstanding of American attitudes or current policy differences, however. Some “problematic” features of American public opinion feed abiding resentment among populations with a different outlook. For example, Americans are more likely to support the use of force in a broader range of circumstances than is the public in most other countries, and place a lower priority on obtaining support from the United Nations for American military action. The authors trace the unilateralist impulses in American public opinion to Americans’ indifference to international affairs except under threatening circumstances. Compared to the public in other countries, Americans have relatively little exposure to the world beyond their borders, know little about it, and tend to demand action from their own government, rather than the international community, when things go wrong. These differences, as well as others concerning the desirability of the spread of American culture around the world, may be the source of continuing anti-Americanism.
Reflecting the prodigious research effort that produced it, America Against the World is full of useful information about international public opinion. Even so, it has its limitations. Perhaps because of the relative ease of conducting public opinion surveys in the democratic states of Europe, the book focuses primarily on the sources of European anti-Americanism. Declining support in these American allies is important, but does not pose the same threat as the pervasive anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world. Moreover, these two brands of anti-Americanism are so different that it is probably misleading to use the same label for both of them. Kohut and Stokes note that many less developed countries, including some in the Middle East, share American religiosity, nationalism, and other attitudes. While they comment that Europe, not the United States, is isolated in these respects, they have little to say about the reasons these apparent similarities have not translated into greater sympathy for the United States. Readers seeking a more extensive treatment of anti-Americanism outside Europe will have to look elsewhere.
The penultimate chapter of Kohut and Stokes’ book, which stresses the existence of a relatively unified set of American opinions, is also less than completely convincing. The authors succeed in showing that the differences between Democrats and Republicans are smaller than the differences between either party and Europeans on several important issues, including attitudes toward homosexuality and individual responsibility. However, their evidence is far less persuasive when it comes to the national security issues that are the primary focus on the book. The authors find enormous gaps between Democrats and Republicans in support for the war on terrorism—twice as large as the gap between Democrats and Europeans—but seek to balance this with evidence of smaller partisan gaps on other foreign policy issues. Curiously, they do not discuss the partisan gap on the Iraq War, which Gary Jacobsen’s recent book on the subject shows to be as much as 60 percentage points. Kohut and Stokes’ conclusion that there is in some sense “one America” is reassuring, but may not be entirely correct.
In spite of its shortcomings, America Against the World is an important book. Regardless of one’s views about American foreign policy, anti-Americanism is a problem that cannot be overlooked. Kohut and Stokes’ evidence concerning the extent and origins of this phenomenon, especially in Europe, is among the best available. Their analysis is careful, balanced, and accessible. Their book is not likely to be the last word on this important issue, but it is a worthy starting point.