Anti-Americanism and Public Diplomacy

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By Prof. Inderjeet Parmar
03 January 2011

Anti-Americanism is a label used with some extravagance and frequency but is rarely worn as a badge of honour. It is a pejorative label applied by one’s opponents: it indicates that the individual voicing an opinion critical of US policies or leaders is biased, prejudiced, irrational. The label is designed to close off debate. The-then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, you will recall, levelled the “anti-American” charge at Lib Dems’ leader Nick Clegg during one of the televised debates ahead of the May 2010 general election. Julian Assange, head of the Wikileaks organisation, is currently the World’s Number One “Anti-American” although, today, that label appears insufficient to some, like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, who call Assange a “terrorist” and “enemy combatant”.


It is a significant matter that “anti-Americanism” is almost invariably seen by scholars and US administration officials, by definition, as an irrational, unreasonable or prejudiced response to American culture. This is so much the case that even Francis Fukuyama, who accused Neocons of not recognizing that American policies must take part of the responsibility for generating opposition to the US, actually labels the phenomenon as “anti-American”. That is, it is embedded in the very language that is used to categorize all opposition to the US as irrational, even when an individual might actually hold a reasoned differing view.

They hate our values and resent our success. This is the most conventional explanation of opposition to US policies.

Very occasionally, however, the nearly-unthinkable appears in print from within the inner sanctum of US power (this is not a reference to leaked secret cables etc…). A report a few years back from the US Defense Science Board (Task Force on Strategic Communication, 2004) was very explicit. It noted that American public diplomacy could only be effective if weighed in the context of actual US policies, “conflicts of interest, cultural differences, memories…. [that] shape perceptions and limit the effectiveness of strategic communication.” It also recognized that Muslims’ perceptions of the United States were overwhelmingly negative, citing polls showing that Muslims saw the US as trying to weaken Islam and to dominate the Muslim world. The Report further argued that among Muslim masses there was “no yearning-to-be-liberated-by-the-US groundswell…. except to be liberated perhaps from what they see as apostate tyrannies that the U.S. so determinedly promotes and defends.” The Report went on to argue that “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’, but rather they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support of Israel and against Palestinian rights… and support for… tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf States.” The idea that America is bringing democracy to the region was seen as “self-serving hypocrisy… [because]… in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering.”

Put simply, the Defense Science Board Report concluded, the US has “a fundamental problem of credibility. Simply, there is none – the United States today is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam.”

As Osama Siblani, publisher of America’s largest Arab-American newspaper, argued, “They [the US] could have the prophet Muhammed doing public relations and it wouldn’t help.” The Obama effect, while real enough, has not prevented high levels of Muslim dissatisfaction with US policies.

But the dominant view in the foreign policy elite mind set, hardwired and unalterable, is the fundamental belief in the rightness of America’s cause and its right to use its power however and whenever it deems necessary to maintain a preponderance of power and to prevent the emergence of rivals. As a Council on Foreign Relations report noted, the “United States must further broaden and sharpen the message and the messengers we use to persuade the peoples of the world of the justness of our cause,” and not permit “the foreign opinion tail to wag the dog of American foreign policy.”

This raises a key question: if extending or at least consolidating its power is the principal purpose of US foreign policy, could anti-Americanism be seen as a cost worth bearing? Opposition to United States’ foreign policies has been high for decades in the Middle East and south Asia, and moderately or very high in parts of Europe. If anti-Americanism increases as a result of the post-9-11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially among populations that already oppose or “hate” America, does it really matter? After all, the “costs” of Muslims’ opposition to American support of Israel have been borne for decades. This point is, in fact, implied in the Council on Foreign Relations report in which they recommend public diplomacy officers to get involved in foreign policy-making not in order to “change its [America’s] policies to suit others’ wishes… [but to make Washington]… aware of the cost of [resulting] anti-Americanism….”

This clearly suggests that cost-benefit analyses are being applied to foreign policy, much as they routinely are to domestic issues, and that the administration may consider the costs of “anti-Americanism” bearable.

Yet, American administrations continue to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into public diplomacy to convince the world of the justice of its cause. Why?

There are two logics that appear to determine administrations’ efforts to “combat” anti-Americanism. The first logic is domestic opinion – media, Congress, and public – demanding action from the White House to curb rising hostility to the United States, the self-evidently “good” country. The second logic, however, is the logic of viewing anti-Americanism as an absorbable cost, too low normally to matter in the world of power politics. The two logics would suggest the policies rolled out to combat anti-Americanism are likely to be, despite the fanfare, superficial, lacking consistency and coordination, unsystematic, inefficiently administered, and relatively cheap. They are followed largely to mollify public opinion, Congress, media critics, and the political opposition, rather than as a serious attempt to solve the problem:

That would require modification or abandonment of US policies and is therefore unthinkable.


Inderjeet Parmar is Professor of Government. He studied Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Sociology at the University of London. He obtained his doctorate at the University of Manchester. He joined the Department of Government as a lecturer in 1996. From 1991, he was lecturer in American Studies.



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