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Varieties of Anti-Americanism By: Peter J. Katzenstein and Robert O. Keohane
Policy Review | Friday, November 10, 2006


Arab reactions to American support for Israel in its recent conflict with Hezbollah have put anti-Americanism in the headlines once again. Around the world, not just in the Middle East, when bad things happen there is a widespread tendency to blame America for its sins, either of commission or omission. When its Belgrade embassy is bombed, Chinese people believe it was a deliberate act of the United States government; terror plots by native British subjects are viewed as reflecting British support for American policy; when aids devastates much of Africa, the United States is faulted for not doing enough to stop it.

These outbursts of anti-Americanism can be seen simply as a way of protesting American foreign policy. Is “anti-Americanism” really just a common phrase for such opposition, or does it go deeper? If anti-American expressions were simply ways to protest policies of the hegemonic power, only the label would be new. Before World War i Americans reacted to British hegemony by opposing “John Bull.” Yet there is a widespread feeling that anti-Americanism is more than simply opposition to what the United States does, but extends to opposition to what the United States is — what it stands for. Critiques of the United States often extend far beyond its foreign policy: to its social and economic practices, including the public role of women; to its social policies, including the death penalty; and to its popular culture, including the flaunting of sex. Globalization is often seen as Americanization and resented as such. Furthermore, in France, which has had long-standing relations with the United States, anti-Americanism extends to the decades before the founding of the American republic.

With several colleagues we recently completed a book, Anti-Americanisms in World Politics,1 exploring these issues, and in this short article we discuss four of its themes. First, we distinguish between anti-Americanisms that are rooted in opinion or bias. Second, as our book’s title suggests, there are many varieties of anti-Americanism. The beginning of wisdom is to recognize that what is called anti-Americanism varies, depending on who is reacting to America. In our book, we describe several different types of anti-Americanism and indicate where each type is concentrated. The variety of anti-Americanism helps us to see, third, the futility of grand explanations for anti-Americanism. It is accounted for better as the result of particular sets of forces. Finally, the persistence of anti-Americanism, as well as the great variety of forms that it takes, reflects what we call the polyvalence of a complex and kaleidoscopic American society in which observers can find whatever they don’t like — from Protestantism to porn. The complexity of anti-Americanism reflects the polyvalence of America itself.

Opinion and bias

Basic to our argument is a distinction between opinion and bias. Some expressions of unfavorable attitudes merely reflect opinion: unfavorable judgments about the United States or its policies. Others, however, reflect bias: a predisposition to believe negative reports about the United States and to discount positive ones. Bias implies a distortion of information processing, while adverse opinion is consistent with maintaining openness to new information that will change one’s views. The long-term consequences of bias for American foreign policy are much greater than the consequences of opinion.

The distinction between opinion and bias has implications for policy, and particularly for the debate between left and right on its significance. Indeed, our findings suggest that the positions on anti-Americanism of both left and right are internally inconsistent. Broadly speaking, the American left focuses on opinion rather than bias — opposition, in the left’s view largely justified, to American foreign policy. The left also frequently suggests that anti-Americanism poses a serious long-term problem for U.S. diplomacy. Yet insofar as anti-Americanism reflects ephemeral opinion, why should it have long-lasting effects? Policy changes would remove the basis for criticism and solve the problem. Conversely, the American right argues that anti-Americanism reflects a deep bias against the United States: People who hate freedom hate us for what we are. Yet the right also tends to argue that anti-Americanism can be ignored: If the United States follows effective policies, views will follow. But the essence of bias is the rejection of information inconsistent with one’s prior view: Biased people do not change their views in response to new information. Hence, if bias is the problem, it poses a major long-term problem for the United States. Both left and right need to rethink their positions.

The view we take in the volume is that much of what is called anti-Americanism, especially outside of the Middle East, indeed is largely opinion. As such, it is volatile and would diminish in response to different policies, as it has in the past. The left is correct on this score, while the right overestimates resentment toward American power and hatred of American values. If the right were correct, anti-Americanism would have been high at the beginning of the new millennium. To the contrary, 2002 Pew polls show that outside the Middle East and Argentina, pluralities in every country polled were favorably disposed toward the United States. Yet with respect to the consequences of anti-American views, the right seems to be on stronger ground. It is difficult to identify big problems for American foreign policy created by anti-Americanism as such, as opposed to American policy. This should perhaps not be surprising, since prior to the Iraq war public opinion toward the United States was largely favorable. The right is therefore broadly on target in its claim that much anti-Americanism — reflecting criticisms of what the United States does rather than what it is — does not pose serious short-term problems for American foreign policy. However, if opinion were to harden into bias, as may be occurring in the Middle East, the consequences for the United States would be much more severe.

Anti-Americanisms

Since we are interested in attitudes that go beyond negative opinions of American foreign policy, we define anti-Americanism as a psychological tendency to hold negative views of the United States and of American society in general. Such negative views, which can be more or less intense, can be classified into four major types of anti-Americanism, based on the identities and values of the observers. From least to most intense, we designate these types of anti-Americanism as liberal, social, sovereign-nationalist, and radical. Other forms of anti-Americanism are more historically specific. We discuss them under a separate rubric.

Liberal anti-Americanism. Liberals often criticize the United States bitterly for not living up to its own ideals. A country dedicated to democracy and self-determination supported dictatorships around the world during the Cold War and continued to do so in the Middle East after the Cold War had ended. The war against terrorism has led the United States to begin supporting a variety of otherwise unattractive, even repugnant, regimes and political practices. On economic issues, the United States claims to favor freedom of trade but protects its own agriculture from competition stemming from developing countries and seeks extensive patent and copyright protection for American drug firms and owners of intellectual property. Such behavior opens the United States to charges of hypocrisy from people who share its professed ideals but lament its actions.

Liberal anti-Americanism is prevalent in the liberal societies of advanced industrialized countries, especially those colonized or influenced by Great Britain. No liberal anti-American ever detonated a bomb against Americans or planned an attack on the United States. The potential impact of liberal anti-Americanism would be not to generate attacks on the United States but to reduce support for American policy. The more the United States is seen as a self-interested power parading under the banners of democracy and human rights rather than as a true proponent of those values, the less willing other liberals may be to defend it with words or deeds.

Since liberal anti-Americanism feeds on perceptions of hypocrisy, a less hypocritical set of United States policies could presumably reduce it. Hypocrisy, however, is inherent in the situation of a superpower that professes universalistic ideals. It afflicted the Soviet Union even more than the United States. Furthermore, a prominent feature of pluralist democracy is that its leaders find it necessary to claim that they are acting consistently with democratic ideals while they have to respond to groups seeking to pursue their own self-interests, usually narrowly defined. When the interests of politically strong groups imply policies that do not reflect democratic ideals, the ideals are typically compromised. Hypocrisy routinely results. It is criticized not only in liberal but also in nonliberal states: for instance, Chinese public discourse overwhelmingly associates the United States with adherence to a double standard in its foreign policy in general and in its conduct of the war on terror specifically.

Hypocrisy in American foreign policy is not so much the result of the ethical failings of American leaders as a byproduct of the role played by the United States in world politics and of democratic politics at home. It will not, therefore, be eradicated. As long as political hypocrisy persists, abundant material will be available for liberal anti-Americanism.

Social anti-Americanism. Since democracy comes in many stripes, we are wrong to mistake the American tree for the democratic forest. Many democratic societies do not share the peculiar combination of respect for individual liberty, reliance on personal responsibility, and distrust of government characteristic of the United States. People in other democratic societies may therefore react negatively to America’s political institutions and its social and political arrangements that rely heavily on market processes. They favor deeper state involvement in social programs than is politically feasible or socially acceptable in the United States. Social democratic welfare states in Scandinavia, Christian democratic welfare states on the European continent, and developmental industrial states in Asia, such as Japan, are prime examples of democracies whose institutions and practices contrast in many ways with those of the United States.

Social anti-Americanism is based on value conflicts that reflect relevant differences in many spheres of life that are touching on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The injustice embedded in American policies that favor the rich over the poor is often decried. The sting is different here than for liberals who resent American hypocrisy. Genuine value conflicts exist on issues such as the death penalty, the desirability of generous social protections, preference for multilateral approaches over unilateral ones, and the sanctity of international treaties. Still, these value conflicts are smaller than those with radical anti-Americanism, since social anti-Americanism shares in core American values.

Sovereign-nationalist anti-Americanism. A third form of anti-Americanism focuses not on correcting domestic market outcomes but on political power. Sovereign nationalists focus on two values: the importance of not losing control over the terms by which polities are inserted in world politics and the inherent importance and value of collective national identities. These identities often embody values that are at odds with America’s. State sovereignty thus becomes a shield against unwanted intrusions from America.

The emphasis placed by different sovereign nationalists can vary in three ways. First, it can be on nationalism: on collective national identities that offer a source of positive identification. National identity is one of the most important political values in contemporary world politics, and there is little evidence suggesting that this is about to change. Such identities create the potential for anti-Americanism, both when they are strong (since they provide positive countervalues) and when they are weak (since anti-Americanism can become a substitute for the absence of positive values).

Second, sovereign nationalists can emphasize sovereignty. In the many parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa where state sovereignty came only after hard-fought wars of national liberation, sovereignty is a much-cherished good that is to be defended. And in Latin America, with its very different history, the unquestioned preeminence of the U.S. has reinforced the perceived value of sovereignty. Anti-Americanism rooted in sovereignty is less common in Europe than in other parts of the world for one simple reason: European politics over the past half-century has been devoted to a common project — the partial pooling of sovereignty in an emerging European polity.

A third variant of sovereign-nationalist anti-Americanism appears where people see their states as potential great powers. Such societies may define their own situations partly in opposition to dominant states. Some Germans came to strongly dislike Britain before World War i as blocking what they believed was Germany’s rightful “place in the sun.” The British-German rivalry before the First World War was particularly striking in view of the similarities between these highly industrialized and partially democratic societies and the fact that their royal families were related by blood ties. Their political rivalry was systemic, pitting the dominant naval power of the nineteenth century against a rapidly rising land power. Rivalry bred animosity rather than vice versa.

Sovereign-nationalist anti-Americanism resonates well in polities that have strong state traditions. Encroachments on state sovereignty are particularly resented when the state has the capacity and a tradition of directing domestic affairs. This is true in particular of the states of East Asia. The issues of “respect” and saving “face” in international politics can make anti-Americanism especially virulent, since they stir nationalist passions in a way that social anti-Americanism rarely does.

China is particularly interesting for this category, since all three elements of sovereign-nationalist anti-Americanism are present there. The Chinese elites and public are highly nationalistic and very sensitive to threats to Chinese sovereignty. Furthermore, China is already a great power and has aspirations to become more powerful. Yet it is still weaker than the United States. Hence, the superior military capacity of the United States and its expressed willingness to use that capacity (for instance, against an attack by China on Taiwan) create latent anti-Americanism. When the United States attacks China (as it did with the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999) or seems to threaten it (as in the episode of the ec–3 spy plane in 2001), explicit anti-Americanism appears quickly.

Radical anti-Americanism. We characterize a fourth form of anti-Americanism as radical. It is built around the belief that America’s identity, as reflected in the internal economic and political power relations and institutional practices of the United States, ensures that its actions will be hostile to the furtherance of good values, practices, and institutions elsewhere in the world. For progress toward a better world to take place, the American economy and society will have to be transformed, either from within or from without.

Radical anti-Americanism was characteristic of Marxist-Leninist states such as the Soviet Union until its last few years and is still defining Cuba and North Korea today. When Marxist revolutionary zeal was great, radical anti-Americanism was associated with violent revolution against U.S.-sponsored regimes, if not the United States itself. Its Marxist-Leninist adherents are now so weak, however, that it is mostly confined to the realm of rhetoric. For the United States to satisfy adherents of this brand of radical anti-Americanism, it would need to change the nature of its political-economic system.

The most extreme form of contemporary radical anti-Americanism holds that Western values are so abhorrent that people holding them should be destroyed. The United States is the leading state of the West and therefore the central source of evil. This perceived evil may take various forms, from equality for women, to public displays of the human body, to belief in the superiority of Christianity. For those holding extreme versions of Occidentalist ideas, the central conclusion is that the West, and the United States in particular, are so incorrigibly bad that they must be destroyed. And since the people who live in these societies have renounced the path of righteousness and truth, they must be attacked and exterminated.

Religiously inspired and secular radical anti-Americanism argue for the weakening, destruction, or transformation of the political and economic institutions of the United States. The distinctive mark of both strands of anti-Americanism is the demand for revolutionary changes in the nature of American society.

It should be clear that these four different types of anti-Americanism are not simply variants of the same schema, emotions, or set of norms with only slight variations at the margin. On the contrary, adherents of different types of anti-Americanism can express antithetical attitudes. Radical Muslims oppose a popular culture that commercializes sex and portrays women as liberated from the control of men and are also critical of secular liberal values. Social and Christian democratic Europeans, by contrast, may love American popular culture but criticize the United States for the death penalty and for not living up to secular values they share with liberals. Liberal anti-Americanism exists because its proponents regard the United States as failing to live up to its professed values — which are entirely opposed to those of religious radicals and are largely embraced by liberals. Secular radical anti-Americans may oppose the American embrace of capitalism but may accept scientific rationalism, gender egalitarianism, and secularism — as Marxists have done. Anti-Americanism can be fostered by Islamic fundamentalism, idealistic liberalism, or Marxism. And it can be embraced by people who, not accepting any of these sets of beliefs, fear the practices or deplore the policies of the United States.

Historically specific anti-Americanisms

Two other forms of anti-Americanism, which do not fit within our general typology, are both historically sensitive and particularistic: elitist anti-Americanism and legacy anti-Americanism.

Elitist anti-Americanism arises in countries in which the elite has a long history of looking down on American culture. In France, for example, discussions of anti-Americanism date back to the eighteenth century, when some European writers held that everything in the Americas was degenerate.2 The climate was enervating; plants and animals did not grow to the same size; people were uncouth. In France and in much of Western Europe, the tradition of disparaging America has continued ever since. Americans are often seen as uncultured materialists seeking individual personal advancement without concern for the arts, music, or other finer things of life. Or they are viewed as excessively religious and therefore insufficiently rational. French intellectuals are the European epicenter of anti-Americanism, and some of their disdain spills over to the public. However, as our book shows, French anti-Americanism is largely an elite phenomenon. Indeed, polls of the French public between the 1960s and 2002 indicated majority pro-Americanism in France, with favorable ratings that were only somewhat lower than levels observed elsewhere in Europe.

Legacy anti-Americanism stems from resentment of past wrongs committed by the United States toward another society. Mexican anti-Americanism is prompted by the experiences of U.S. military attack and various forms of imperialism during the past 200 years. The Iranian revolution of 1979 and the subsequent hostage crisis were fueled by memories of American intervention in Iranian politics in the 1950s, and Iranian hostility to the United States now reflects the hostile relations between the countries during the revolution and hostage crisis. Between the late 1960s and the end of the twentieth century, the highest levels of anti-Americanism recorded in Western Europe were found in Spain and especially Greece — both countries that had experienced civil wars; in the case of Spain the United States supported for decades a repressive dictator. Legacy anti-Americanism can be explosive, but it is not unalterable. As the Philippines and Vietnam — both highly pro-American countries today — show, history can ameliorate or reverse negative views of the United States as well as reinforce them.

The futility of grand explanations

Often anti-americanism is explained as the result of some master set of forces — for example, of hegemony or globalization. The United States is hated because it is “Mr. Big” or because of its neoliberalism. However, all of these broad explanations founder on the variety of anti-Americanisms.

Consider first the “Mr. Big” hypothesis. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been by far the most powerful state in the world, without any serious rivals. The collapse of the Soviet bloc means that countries formerly requiring American protection from the Soviet Union no longer need such support, so their publics feel free to be more critical. In this view, it is no accident that American political power is at its zenith while American standing is at its nadir. Resentment at the negative effects of others’ exercise of power is hardly surprising. Yet this explanation runs up against some inconvenient facts. If it were correct, anti-Americanism would have increased sharply during the 1990s; but we have seen that outside the Middle East, the United States was almost universally popular as late as 2002. The Mr. Big hypothesis could help account for certain forms of liberal and sovereign-nationalist anti-Americanism: Liberals criticize the United States for hypocrisy (and sometimes for being too reluctant to intervene to right wrongs), while sovereign nationalists fear the imposition of American power on their own societies. But it could hardly account for social, radical, elitist, or legacy anti-Americanism, each of which reacts to features of American society, or its behavior in the past, that are quite distinct from contemporary hegemony.

A second overarching explanation focuses on globalization backlash. The expansion of capitalism — often labeled globalization — generates what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.” Those who are adversely affected can be expected to resist such change. In Benjamin Barber’s clever phrase, the spread of American practices and popular culture creates “McWorld,” which is widely resented even by people who find some aspects of it very attractive.3 The anti-Americanism generated by McWorld is diffuse and widely distributed in world politics. But some societies most affected by economic globalization — such as India — are among the most pro-American. Even among the Chinese, whose reactions to the United States are decidedly mixed, America’s wealth and its role in globalization are not objects of distrust or resentment as much as of envy and emulation. In terms of our typology, only social anti-Americanism and some forms of sovereign-nationalist anti-Americanism could be generated by the role of the United States in economic globalization — not the liberal, radical, elitist, or legacy forms.

A third argument ascribes anti-Americanism to cultural and religious identities that are antithetical to the values being generated and exported by American culture — from Christianity to the commercialization of sex. The globalization of the media has made sexual images not only available to but also unavoidable for people around the world. One reaction is admiration and emulation, captured by Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power. But another reaction is antipathy and resistance. The products of secular mass culture are a source of international value conflict. They bring images of sexual freedom and decadence, female emancipation, and equality among the sexes into the homes of patriarchal and authoritarian communities, Muslim and otherwise. For others, it is American religiosity, not its sex-oriented commercialized culture, that generates negative reactions. Like the other arguments, the cultural identity argument has some resonance, but only for certain audiences. It may provide an explanation of some aspects of social, radical, and elitist anti-Americanism, but does not explain the liberal, sovereign-nationalist, or legacy varieties.

Each of the grand explanations probably contains at least a grain of truth, but none constitutes a general explanation of anti-Americanism.

The polyvalence of American society

American symbols are polyvalent. They embody a variety of values with different meanings to different people and indeed even to the same individual. Elites and ordinary folks abroad are deeply ambivalent about the United States. Visitors, such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, are impressed, repelled, and fascinated in about equal measure. Lévy dislikes what he calls America’s “obesity” — in shopping malls, churches, and automobiles — and its marginalization of the poor; but he is impressed by its openness, vitality, and patriotism.4 As David Laitin has noted, the World Trade Center was a symbol not only of capitalism and America but of New York’s cosmopolitan culture, so often scorned by middle America. The Statue of Liberty symbolizes not only America and its conception of freedom. A gift of France, it has become an American symbol of welcome to the world’s “huddled masses” that expresses a basic belief in America as a land of unlimited opportunity.

The United States has a vigorous and expressive popular culture, which is enormously appealing both to Americans and to many people elsewhere in the world. This popular culture is quite hedonistic, oriented toward material possessions and sensual pleasure. At the same time, however, the U.S. is today much more religious than most other societies. One important root of America’s polyvalence is the tension between these two characteristics. Furthermore, both American popular culture and American religious practices are subject to rapid change, expanding further the varieties of expression in the society and continually opening new options. The dynamism and heterogeneity of American society create a vast set of choices: of values, institutions, and practices.

America’s openness to the rest of the world is reflected in its food and popular culture. The American fast-food industry has imported its products from France (fries), Germany (hamburgers and frankfurters) and Italy (pizza). What it added was brilliant marketing and efficient distribution. In many ways the same is true also for the American movie industry, especially in the past two decades. Hollywood is a brand name held by Americans and non-Americans alike. In the 1990s only three of the seven major Hollywood studios were controlled by U.S. corporations. Many of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors and actors are non-American. And many of Hollywood’s movies about America, both admiring and critical, are made by non-Americans. Like the United Nations, Hollywood is both in America and of the world. And so is America itself — a product of the rest of the world as well as of its own internal characteristics.

“Americanization,” therefore, does not describe a simple extension of American products and processes to other parts of the world. On the contrary, it refers to the selective appropriation of American symbols and values by individuals and groups in other societies — symbols and values that may well have had their origins elsewhere. Americanization thus is a profoundly interactive process between America and all parts of the world. And, we argue here, it is deeply intertwined with anti-American views. The interactions that generate Americanization may involve markets, informal networks, or the exercise of corporate or governmental power — often in various combinations. They reflect and reinforce the polyvalent nature of American society as expressed in the activities of Americans, who freely export and import products and practices. But they also reflect the variations in attitudes and interests of people in other societies, seeking to use, resist, and recast symbols that are associated with the United States. Similar patterns of interaction generate pro-Americanism and anti-Americanism, since both pro- and anti-Americanism provide an idiom to debate American and local concerns. Anti- and pro-Americanism have as much to do with the conceptual lenses through which individuals living in very different societies view America as with America itself. In our volume, Iain Johnston and Dani Stockmann report that when residents of Beijing in 1999 were asked simply to compare on an identity-difference scale their perceptions of Americans with their views of Chinese, they placed them very far apart. But when, in the following year, Japanese, the antithesis of the Chinese, were added to the comparison, respondents reduced the perceived identity difference between Americans and Chinese. In other parts of the world, bilateral perceptions of regional enemies can also displace, to some extent, negative evaluations of the United States. For instance, in sharp contrast to the European continent, the British press and public continue to view Germany and Germans primarily through the lens of German militarism, Nazi Germany, and World War II.

Because there is so much in America to dislike as well as to admire, polyvalence makes anti-Americanism persistent. American society is both extremely secular and deeply religious. This is played out in the tensions between blue “metro” and red “retro” America and the strong overtones of self-righteousness and moralism this conflict helps generate. If a society veers toward secularism, as much of Europe has, American religiosity is likely to become salient — odd, disturbing, and, due to American power, vaguely threatening. How can a people who believe more strongly in the Virgin Birth than in the theory of evolution be trusted to lead an alliance of liberal societies? If a society adopts more fervently Islamic religious doctrine and practices, as has occurred throughout much of the Islamic world during the past quarter-century, the prominence of women in American society and the vulgarity and emphasis on sexuality that pervades much of American popular culture are likely to evoke loathing, even fear. Thus, anti-Americanism is closely linked to the polyvalence of American society.

In 1941 Henry Luce wrote a prescient article on “the American Century.” The American Century — at least its first 65 years — created enormous changes, some sought by the United States and others unsought and unanticipated. Resentment and anti-Americanism were among the undesired results of American power and engagement with the world. Our own cacophony projects itself onto others and can be amplified as it reverberates, via other societies, around the world.

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about anti-Americanism is that we Americans seem to care so much about it. Americans want to know about anti-Americanism: to understand ourselves better and, perhaps above all, to be reassured. This is one of our enduring traits. Americans’ reaction to anti-Americanism in the twenty-first century thus is not very different from what Alexis de Tocqueville encountered in 1835:

The Americans, in their intercourse with strangers, appear impatient of the smallest censure and insatiable of praise. . . . They unceasingly harass you to extort praise, and if you resist their entreaties they fall to praising themselves. It would seem as if, doubting their own merit, they wished to have it constantly exhibited before their eyes.5

Perhaps we care because we lack self-confidence, because we are uncertain whether to be proud of our role in the world or dismayed by it. Like people in many other societies, we look outside, as if into a mirror, in order to see our own reflections with a better perspective than we can provide on our own. Anti-Americanism is important for what it tells us about United States foreign policy and America’s impact on the world. It is also important for what it tells us about ourselves.

ENDNOTES:

1 Peter J. Katzenstein and Robert O. Keohane, eds., Anti-Americanisms in World Politics (Cornell University Press, 2007).

2 Philippe Roger, The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

3 Benjamin Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld (Crown, 1995).

4 Bernard-Henri Lévy, American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Random House, 2006).

5 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835), 1965 edition, 252.

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Peter J. Katzenstein is the Walter S. Carpenter Jr. professor of international studies at Cornell University. Robert O. Keohane is professor of international affairs at Princeton University.


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