Tony Blair appears to have set himself his toughest task yet. Neither reforming public services nor maintaining economic stability compares in difficulty to the mission he took on yesterday. For a Labour politician to confront anti-Americanism is to set himself up in opposition to the dominant ideology of the contemporary Left.
Knocking America off its superpower pedestal has long supplanted taking control of the commanding heights of the economy as the idea which holds the Left together. Forget Clause Four. That was a dead red letter. It’s opposition to Uncle Sam which is the glue in the Left coalition, the brew which puts fire into bien-pensant bellies, the opium of radical intellectuals. And the crack in Osama bin Laden’s pipe.
Anti-Americanism provides the drumbeat for the protesters who march at every significant left-wing rally. Whether the protest is nominally against war, global capitalism or environmental degradation, the real enemy is Washington. Every significant Left intellectual, from Harold Pinter through Dario Fo to Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky has made criticism of the American imperium his defining belief. But Yankee-phobia now extends far beyond the protest march and the academy.
The German Social Democrats and Greens put opposition to US foreign policy at the heart of their, successful, re-election strategy last autumn. The Liberal Democrats here have made criticism of US policy towards Iraq the single biggest dividing line between themselves and the Blair Government.
The cultural popularity of anti-Americanism, particularly among Britain’s intelligentsia, is striking. The surprise publishing hit of last year was Why do people hate America? by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies, a work which set out to reassure readers that hatred of America was more than a rising sentiment, it was a moral duty. The top of the UK bestseller list is Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men, a furious polemic against US foreign, domestic and economic policy by one of its own citizens.
The widespread prevalence of anti-Americanism, the cachet accorded to its advocates, the reflexive sniggering triggered by any favourable mention of America’s President, all make opposition to this trend unpopular. But vitally necessary. For Yankee-phobia is, at heart, a dark thing, a prejudice with ugly antecedents which creates unholy alliances. And, like all prejudices, it thrives on myths which will end up only serving evil ends.
It is a myth that America is a trigger-happy cowboy state over-eager to throw its weight around, a myth that America seeks to use its undoubted military power to establish an exploitative empire, and a myth that America thrives by impoverishing and oppressing other nations.
A trigger-happy starter of wars and provoker of enemies? The truth is that the US has been painstakingly slow to involve itself in foreign conflicts. It hung back from involvement in Bosnia and Kosovo until it was clear that Europe could not manage alone. It refrained from dealing properly with al-Qaeda when that network attacked US embassies in 1998 and, even after 9/11, it waited until a huge international coalition had been assembled before striking back. In Iraq, it refrained from finishing off President Saddam Hussein in 1991 out of deference to its Arab allies. And with North Korea, it has practised diplomacy in the face of nuclear provocation since 1994, out of respect for its regional allies. Even now, in dealing with the dangers posed by Iraq and North Korea, the diplomatic route is followed out of deference to others.
An imperial exploiter? The truth is that America seeks to disentangle itself from anything which smacks of neocolonial occupation. It is anxious to bring the boys back home from the Balkans and Afghanistan. The real criticism of weight is that the US should do more on the ground to help failed states rebuild, as it did in Japan and Germany after the Second World War.
Which takes us to the myth of America the locust state, the predator on the poorest nations of the Earth. The truth, as the US writer Charles Krauthammer has pointed out, is that America’s influence for good in suffering states is directly measurable in three very different examples. After the Second World War three devastated nations were divided. In each case one part of a culturally unified nation fell under America’s political influence. And in each case — South Korea versus North, West Germany as against East, Taiwan as opposed to Communist China — the territory which took the American path enjoyed greater freedom and prosperity.
Why then do the myths of America the Hateful take such powerful hold? Because anti-Americanism provides a useful emotional function which goes beyond logic and reaches deep into the darker recesses of the European soul. In centuries past those on the Left who wished to personalise their hatred of capitalism, who sought to make it emotionally resonant by fastening an envious political passion on to a blameless scapegoat people, embraced anti-Semitism. It was the socialism of fools. Which is what anti-Americanism is now.
It should not therefore be surprising that those on the populist Right who share the Left’s antipathy towards the US are those, like the Austrian Freedom Party or the French National Front, who are heirs of anti-Semitic traditions. Nor should it be remarkable that the other tie which binds these allies of new Left and old Right together, the thread linking those such as George Galloway and Jörg Haider, is their hostility to Israel.
Both America and Israel were founded by peoples who were refugees from prejudice in Europe. Europe’s tragedy is that prejudice has been given new life, in antipathy to both those states.