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Thursday, 6 November 2008

The world won't stop hating America

Two months ago I brought out a book called In Defence of America. A short book, perhaps I should say. I did not want or try to defend George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, or his creation of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, which stand as an offence against intelligence, humanity and the rule of law. But I did take issue with the antiAmericanism that I felt had blossomed in Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union, had taken root during the Bush years and seemed likely to outlast him.

Democracy anyone?

Does Barack Obama’s victory make that case redundant? When crowds are celebrating across Europe, when columnists are heralding the rebirth of America, is there no need any more for that argument? Unfortunately not. Mr Obama’s triumph makes the case easier to argue; it does not get rid of the reasons for making it.

I would agree entirely with Mr Obama’s champions that his success is momentous. The image of Barack, Michelle and their daughters, waving high, over the caption “President-elect”, changed the role of the US in the world. It showed that the US can confront the worst shadow over its claim to be united by ideals of equality and freedom: the rifts and prejudices which are the legacy of slavery and institutional racism. Americans’ overwhelming vote for the son of a Muslim confounded the charge that the US is on a crusade against that religion. After years in which, critics say, the US was hypocritical (and unsuccessful) in promoting democracy, the election showed that it can live up to its own ideals of democratic change.

That does not get rid of the deep opposition that now exists to the US taking a leading role in the world, and the suspicion of its motives. It does not get rid of the filter of prejudice that takes for granted the best that the US achieves, and exaggerates the worst.

Expectations of Mr Obama around the world have moved from the vocabulary of politics into magic. To hear some claims that this is a giant step for mankind, you would think that people had found a universal saviour. Despite the determination of Mr Obama to rebuild ties with the world he is bound to disappoint those hopes. He may run into the usual limits of US influence, force or money. Or he may, with every justification, pursue the interests of 300 million Americans, not those of six billion other people. The old resentment of the US may then be laid at his door.

On Sunday I took part in a debate on the role of the US as the world’s policeman as part of the Battle of Ideas, a weekend of talks in London sponsored by The Times. The audience – urban , educated, moderate in choice of words – was critical of the US, as were the other panellists (an academic and a blogger). The US was lawless, guided only by self-interest, they said – and they were not just talking about the Bush years. Many derided the actions of the US in Central and Eastern Europe, denying that it gave those countries much support.

One man said quietly to me afterwards that he felt at odds with much of the audience and thought that it was a generational division. “If you grew up in the Cold War, you remember thinking that the bomb might drop, you remember the Marshall Plan. But I think many younger people just say, ‘That was then, now is different’.”

I agree with him. You cannot dismiss the huge building blocks of the US’s postwar achievement in reconstructing Europe and in setting up the United Nations as irrelevant to the present. The foreign policy of the US has always been a mixture of self-interest and idealism, never as pure as admirers would like, rarely as venal as critics maintain. In the past 20 years its support of central and eastern European countries, financially and diplomatically, has been crucial to the smoothness with which many moved from the Soviet Union to the European Union.

Of course, the US has been high-handed in its manner from its birth. The fall of the Soviet Union, in making it the world’s superpower, added triumphalism. The national shock of September 11, 2001, injected paranoia and an ugly version of its historic sense of manifest destiny to its confused attempt to identify its enemies. The Bush Administration specialised in handcrafted insults of old allies.

It would be wrong to pretend that Mr Bush was entirely an oddity in his foreign policy. You cannot reject the worst of the US’s actions without throwing out the idealism and the willingness to intervene in others’ problems, which inspired its best. If it were not for Iraq, Bush would have won more credit for the past two years, in which he has done much of what is reasonable for the world to ask of a US president. He has worked with other countries through the United Nations, tried to engage the Middle East and taken the great share of military burdens in joint conflicts.

Mr Obama said that he wanted to restore the US’s standing in the world. Already, he has done so. He will be incomparably better than Mr Bush. But his foreign champions seem to want from him a vast commitment of time, money and lives of US soldiers – and in their interests, as much as the US’s own. That is to set for him a standard that no US president has tried to meet. It is to construct a pretext to let loose again, at some point, the antiAmerican sentiment that has certainly not gone away.

US Mass Murder: another bombing kills 40 innocents at Afghan wedding party