Will It Be U.S. vs. the World?
By Clyde Prestowitz
16 July 2002
THE WAY THINGS are going, it will soon be the United States against the
world." That comment, by a top leader in Kuala Lumpur, was just one of
hundreds of expressions of a new and disturbing alienation from America
I heard during a recent swing through 14 Asian, European, and Latin
What a contrast to the supportive attitudes abroad immediately after
Sept. 11. Then, the sometimes anti-American French journal Le Monde
captured the world's sentiment with a headline proclaiming: "We are all
Americans." Ten months later, the American image is increasingly
perceived as ugly, and support abroad for U.S. policies is plummeting
-- in response to such U.S. actions as the threat last week to withdraw
its peacekeepers from Bosnia unless Americans are exempted from
jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court. Of course,
anti-Americanism isn't new, but what I found disturbing after 35 years
of visiting these cities was that foreign leaders who have been
longtime friends of the United States are the ones voicing dismay.
While most foreign observers express affinity for Americans as people,
they show increasing resentment of the United States as a nation and
frequently remark, with regard to Sept. 11, that "now America knows
what it feels like." They show satisfaction that, for once, America
understands what it's like to be vulnerable. And they hope our tragedy
might instill some humility and blunt American arrogance on issues such
as energy conservation, global warming, and global poverty.
Many people abroad are now convinced that the United States aims to
control their destiny and that, despite its talk of democracy, human
rights, and free trade, it really thinks only of its own narrow
interests. In Seoul, American hostility toward North Korea is seen to
be undermining President Kim Dae Jung's efforts to engage the North.
Several top South Korean leaders told me that Washington either doesn't
understand or doesn't care that South Korea cannot afford to take over
a collapsing North Korea. "How can we make Washington understand that
we need a long transition and that we must prevent, not precipitate, a
sudden collapse of the North?" asked a key Korean negotiator.
In six weeks of traveling, I often heard that while the United States
speaks of principles, it often undermines its moral suasion by
cynically pursuing its national interests. Recently, for example, the
White House welcomed Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir. Only a
few years ago, Washington was lambasting Mahathir both for the
imposition of capital market controls during the 1997 financial crisis
and for human rights abuses in the jailing of his deputy prime minister
on charges of engaging in homosexual acts. Today the former minister
remains in jail and the capital markets remain somewhat restricted, but
Mahathir is a favorite in Washington because he's tough on terror. For
some, the U.S. stance proves the insincerity of its proclaimed devotion
to human rights and free trade.
Looming far above all other causes of alienation from America are two
transcendent issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American
The gulf between the American view of the Middle East and that of
virtually everyone else couldn't be wider. Americans tend to see Israel
as an allied country. Everywhere I went, leaders emphasized that
calling for an end to Palestinian violence without mentioning the
Israeli expansion of settlements is unfair.
The United States often treats the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as a
local conflict that can be contained, but it is spilling over. It is
radicalizing attitudes in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
Strategically important and traditionally practitioners of a liberal
Islam, neither nation has significant economic or political ties to the
Middle East. Yet no conversation there can get past the
Israeli-Palestinian situation that has caused many, including longtime
friends of America, to conclude that the United States is attacking
The perception abroad of a new American unilateralism is even more
serious. Our refusal of initial offers of NATO help in Afghanistan;
rejection of agreements to ban land mines and restrict chemical and
biological warfare; the U.S. declaration of a "first strike" policy
that might include an attack on Iraq have convinced foreign observers
that the United States no longer feels any need to consult its friends
or, indeed, any need for friends at all.
While America can't make itself universally loved, a Mexican Cabinet
minister noted that it would be very costly to be universally disliked.
"In an era of global interdependence, even a hyperpower needs friends,"
he emphasized. The United States must pay more than lip service to
Congress could play an important role. It has extensive powers to
advise and consent on foreign policy, as well as to direct funding. In
exercising these powers, it holds extensive hearings. Yet it rarely
calls foreign witnesses. Imagine having the U.S. trade representative
and the European trade commissioner square off in front of a
congressional committee. Congress and the American people would be
better informed, while our friends overseas might feel less frustrated
by dint of telling us publicly what they now only confide in private.