According to a BBC World Service poll, 64 per cent of Britons see America’s influence on the world to have been more negative than positive. Astonishingly, given the amount of ideological common ground between the two countries, this is 15 per cent higher than the global average. As an Australian living in Britain the anti-Americanism here is notable. The question of why is multifaceted. A cynical view is that the visible parallels between American culture and British working class culture (the brashness, the monolingualism, the lack of haute culture) have led to the US being looked down upon by the upper echelons of British society since its inception. This doesn’t seem entirely fair on the Brits though, and there does seem to be a deeper, moral anger in this country which is particularly directed at US foreign policy.
There’s a consensus among many in Britain that the self-righteous talk emanating from across the Atlantic about liberty and democracy is a façade – and that the real America has caused much more human suffering around the globe than it has alleviated. This seems blinkered. The American contributions to global progress have been staggering and a world without the United States would be a crueler, darker place. The centrepiece of antiAmericanism since 2016 both in this country and around the world has been the political abomination that is Donald Trump. Even if you’re pro-America, the Trump presidency has been incredibly hard to watch. Like an old friend who has moved in with some ghastly, bigoted partner, America has increasingly isolated itself from friends and allies, many of whom have found themselves straining to recognise the country they once knew. Where is the country, we may well ask ourselves, that sent tens of thousands of its own citizens to die in the fight against fascism in Western Europe and the Pacific? Where is the country of Jefferson, Roosevelt and King? The answer is it never left.
There is so much more to America than the current administration. The country that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 has not gone away, nor have the 73 per cent of the voting age population who didn’t vote for Trump in the 2016 election. Trump was victorious not by virtue of having won more votes than his opponent, but by an unfortunate quirk in the American electoral system. What’s more, Trump’s first year in office has been marked by some of the lowest approval ratings in modern American political history. It seems it is become easy to forget that most Americans do not like their president, and millions of Americans are every bit as shocked and as outraged by the Trump regime as those looking on from abroad. These Americans should not be tarred by the same brush as the illiberal, incompetent demagogue running the show. It pays to remember, also, that for all of America’s transgressions (and there have been many) there has never in the history of human civilisation been a nation state that has held so much power and yet yielded it so gently. The post-war United States has been thoroughly unconcerned with the idea of a geographic empire. Under the ‘Pax Americana’ there has been no process of permanent American geographical colonisation, nor has modern America attempted to annex the territory of its substantially less powerful neighbours. The same can certainly not be said of the British, French, Ottoman, Japanese Empires, nor can it be said of the USSR or China. Rather, the American world has seen a blossoming of democracies and of human rights protections around the world.
This is not a coincidence, nor was it in any way inevitable. Indeed since the fall of the Soviet Union there have been more countries and more people living in full democracies than in any other system of government. Even countries which aren’t democratic now feel the need to pretend that they are. America is not only the oldest democracy in the world (depending on your criteria), it is also by far its loudest supporter. It’s pretty clear there must be a link between this enormous proliferation of universal suffrage and the fact that the world’s greatest power happens to be the inventor of modern democracy. The transition of countries such as South Korea and the Philippines to democratic systems quite simply would not have happened without continual American pressure. Thanks largely to America, the majority of the world’s population now live in societies in which governments are accountable to the people. There effect has been one of remarkable change and frankly is not something to be sniffed at.
The irony of the American order is that the United States has been judged by their own criteria. When it comes to equality, access to justice and social process in general, it’s no secret that America lags behind much of Northern Europe. Criticising America along these lines is not only a critique many are eager to make, but is one that is wholly justified, especially in the Trump era. We should keep in the back of our minds, though, that many of our own indicators of progress derive their existence from the United States. For example, when we criticise Trump for his blatant sexism we draw heavily on the American feminist canon. Second wave feminism was born in the United States and spread from North America to the rest of the world. Even the word ‘sexist’ itself is attributable to American feminist Caroline Bird.
Likewise when we attack Trump’s racism we join our voices to those of millions of African-Americans, whose struggle for equal rights over the past decades prompted an end to racial discrimination laws around the world. The American civil rights movement spelled the end of the ‘White Australia Policy’ and focused global attention on the system of apartheid in South Africa. Without the United States, these laws would likely not have changed when they did.
Finally, when we criticise the Republican Party’s antiquated stance on global warming, it pays to remember that the world’s first environmental justice movements stemmed from the United States, which was also home to the world’s first national park. Our definition of progress has been heavily influenced by American ideals; if we lived in a world without the United States many of the battles for justice and equality globally would either have been lost or would never have been fought. One may well wonder whether we would have seen an end to apartheid, or a global push for female sexual liberation, or ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ in a world in which China were hegemon.
The softest target for those seeking to criticise the United States is undeniably its record in the Middle East. One should be careful in defending American policy in the region too vigorously, as much of it has been an unmitigated disaster. On the other hand, though blaming the systemic problems in the region purely on misguided American interventionism is inaccurate. Many of the Middle East’s woes are traceable to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the arbitrary carving up of the region by the British and French, and the geopolitical ventriloquism of the USSR – not to mention the intractable regional rivalries that exist on both a political and religious level. The United States have had their fair share of guilt to bear too, however assertions that the Middle East would be in a stable state of peace if America had just kept its nose out are pretty difficult to argue.
Likewise, to suggest that the American era should be purely judged through the lens of a region which has been mired in intraregional sectarian conflict for centuries doesn’t really seem like a fair evaluation. After the Trump inauguration many were quick to announce that we had entered into a post-American world. Analogies were hastily thrown together with the final days of Rome, with an image created of an inward looking United States in a state of gradual economic decline. Much of this followed the lead of Donald Trump’s own rhetoric about the country, which he labelled “a hellhole” which was “going down
fast.” Again though, this picture just isn’t accurate.
The American economy has been steadily growing for the past nine years and this January saw the creation of an additional 200,000 jobs, marking the country’s 88th straight month of job growth. To top it off America remains the world leader in almost all global industries, from financial services to digital technology. While it’s true that China’s GDP is now closing in on the top spot, the total value of America’s already manufactured assets (infrastructure, buildings machines and equipment) and its human capital (education, skills etc.) continue to dwarf those of every other major economy and will for a long time to come. America is not dead, and it is not dying. For all the talk of America retreating into itself, recent years have seen an increased American military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. This is good news, helping to smother regional tensions before they flare. Without US hegemony in Asia we could have seen a full blown Australian-Indonesian war over East Timor, or a nuclear South Korea and Japan, or bolder Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. The undergraduate assertion that America has no right to involve itself in the politics of the AsiaPacific region demonstrates a lack of understanding of what an East Asian or South East Asian power vacuum would actually look like, and who would step up to fill it. The Trump administration will pass and Europe will eventually once again see a country that more closely resembles our own staring back at us from across the Atlantic.
It’s of critical importance that in the whirlwind of Trump-ism we don’t forget all that America has done, and all that it still can. Though the phrase has become a tired, overworked cliché, America is still the country that emerged from decades of colonial oppression and the depravities of war to write in their Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be selfevident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” America has often been unfaithful to this principle, and has on occasions visibly strayed from it both at home and abroad, but it remains an astonishingly beautiful idea.The declaration was written against the backdrop of a pre-democratic, despotic colonial world. For all America’s faults, their foundation as a state remains arguably the most moving pronouncement of the supremacy of human dignity in the history of our species.Reasoned criticism of the United States has its place, but those who long for a truly unAmerican world should be careful what they wish for.