Its Own Worst Enemy

George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine

1.

America’s current status as a hegemonic, unrivaled, unchallengeable “hyper-power,” the subject of Joseph Nye’s book, is exemplified in its military establishment. Before September 11, before President Bush proposed a 14 percent ($48 billion) increase in defense spending this year, the US was already in a league of its own. It has bases, ships, planes, and soldiers all around the globe. Washington spends more on its armed forces than any nation in history: the US defense budget will soon outdistance the annual defense expenditures of the next nine states combined. True, the member states of the EU between them have more soldiers than the US, and collectively their defense spending totaled nearly 70 percent that of Washington’s pre-2002 outlays; but the results in technology and hardware are simply not comparable. The US can intervene or make war almost anywhere in the world. No one else even comes close.

But the “America” that much of the world carries in its head is not defined by throw weights, smart bombs, or even GIs. It is more subtle and diffuse than that. In some places it is a fading memory of liberation. In others it is a promise of freedom, opportunity, and plenty: a political metaphor and a private fantasy. Elsewhere, or in the same places at other times, America has been identified with local repression. In short, America is everywhere. Americans—just 5 percent of the world’s population—generate 30 percent of the World’s Gross Product, consume nearly 30 percent of global oil production, and are responsible for almost as high a share of the world’s output of greenhouse gases. Our world is divided in many ways: rich/poor; North/South; Western/non-Western. But more and more, the division that counts is the one separating America from everyone else.

The anti-Americanism now preoccupying commentators should thus come as no surprise. The United States, by virtue of its unique standing, is exposed to the world’s critical gaze in everything it does or fails to do. Some of the antipathy the US arouses is a function of what it is: long before America rose to global dominion foreign visitors were criticizing its brash self-assurance, the narcissistic confidence of Americans in the superiority of American values and practices, and their rootless inattentiveness to history and tradition—their own and other people’s. The charge sheet has grown since the United States took the world stage, but it has not changed much. This “cultural” anti-Americanism is shared by Europeans, Latin Americans, and Asians, secular and religious alike. It is not about antipathy to the West, or freedom, or the Enlightenment, or any other abstraction exemplified by the US. It is about America.1

Resented for what it is, America also stokes antipathy by what it does. Here things have recently changed for the worse. The US is often a delinquent international citizen. It is reluctant to join international initiatives or agreements, whether on…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already subscribe to the Online or Print + Online Edition, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.