The Right Coast

August 12, 2005
America Unloved
By Maimon Schwarzschild

Clive Davis is right, unfortunately, about British attitudes to the US, which are ambivalent (to put it charitably):
[T]here's no mistaking the hostility to American values among large sections of the British population. Conservative commentators in the US have got plenty of mileage out of jibes at French anti-Americanism; the unpleasant truth is that Britain is home to a similar phenomenon. Last October an ICM opinion survey registered a sharp increase in hostility to the US. A startling 73% of British voters felt that the US exercised too much influence around the globe. As the Guardian reported at the time: "A majority in Britain also believe that US democracy is no longer a model for others. But perhaps a more startling finding from the Guardian/ICM poll is that a majority of British voters -- 51% -- say that they believe that American culture is threatening our own culture."

Where has this hostility come from? Well, to some extent, it was always there. Even at the height of WW2... attitudes to Americans were decidedly mixed. Hence that famous catch-phrase about US servicemen: "over-paid, over-sexed, and over here". Angus Calder's vivid account of the wartime UK, "The People's War", points to the result of a popularity poll conducted in 1943. Americans were well down the list of admired allies: "After Mussolini's fall in the summer of that year," writes Calder, "they were actually less well spoken of than the Italians..."

There's no question that media bias plays a major part in skewing public perceptions. The BBC, which once brought us "Alistair Cooke's America", [now] seldom misses an opportunity to portray the States as violent, dysfunctional and imperialist. A left-liberal mind-set is de rigueur at Broadcasting House, tarnishing what is still, in many ways, a great institution. In this closed world neocons, not Islamists, are regarded as the great threat to democracy. Unfortunately, even in these days of multi-channel broadcast, the Corporation's huge resources and its immense cultural reach mean that it still sets the agenda. While the national press is slightly less shrill, pro-American commentators are very much a minority.
Anyone who spends time in Britain -- I've just returned a few days ago -- will recognise the truth of Davis' report.

What is to be done, as V. I. Lenin so plangently asked? Davis criticises the Bush administration's public relations, especially where Europeans are concerned. And no doubt, American public diplomacy in Europe (and elsewhere) is dire. But it is not clear that it would make much difference even if American diplomats and spokespeople were far more self-assured, non-apologetic, and articulate than in fact they are. The truth is that America's hard-driving economic success -- and its demotic, commercial, utterly non-traditional popular culture -- inspire a mix of envy and contempt among many Europeans (and among many people elsewhere in the world as well, of course). American public diplomacy surely ought to be improved: there's almost nowhere to go but up. But ambivalence, at best, is probably an inescapable price of America's success: at least so long as America is successful in, well, such a very American way.