Why Don't We Americans Listen Anymore?
By Clyde Prestowitz
21 July 2002
The Oakland Tribune
'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 American capitals.
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 to withdraw its
peacekeepers from Bosnia unless Americans are exempted from
jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court.
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.
Others in Asia see the United States, prodded by constituencies at home
that are obsessed with China's military, as too narrowly focused in its
approach to Beijing and inattentive to sentiments in the region. In
China there is widespread disappointment and resentment over the recent
U.S. designation of China as a "strategic competitor rather than a
strategic partner," as well as over the president's declaration that
America "will do whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan. Both are seen as
needlessly hostile. "We want to sell to America, not attack it," said
one official in Shanghai.
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 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.
Trade policies have reinforced the perception of U.S. arrogance and
double standards. Generations of U.S. trade negotiators have pounded
Japan, the European Union and others to reduce agricultural subsidies
and to open their markets in politically sensitive areas such as
computer chips, movies, beef and rice. Now, pleading political
necessity, the United States has outraged these nations by increasing
its own agricultural subsidies and restricting steel and lumber
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. The events of Sept. 11 and recent suicide
bombings have only strengthened the close American identification with
Israel. But people I met overseas, while condemning suicide bombings
and sympathizing with the Israeli victims, also noted the fact that
Palestinians have been under occupation of questionable legality for
nearly 40 years. Everywhere I went, leaders emphasized that calling for
an end to Palestinian violence without mentioning the Israeli expansion
of settlements is unfair. Yet our friends abroad see the United States
as unwilling, for domestic political reasons, to oppose or pressure
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. A number of U.S. actions -- our rejection of the Kyoto treaty
on global warming; refusal of initial offers of NATO help in
Afghanistan; rejection of agreements to create an International
Criminal Court, ban land mines and restrict chemical and biological
warfare; as well as 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.
A top European business leader and former EU commissioner who has long
been counted among America's best friends said, "After World War II,
America was all-powerful and created a new world by defining its
national interest broadly in a way that made it attractive for other
countries to define their interests in terms of embracing America's."
In particular, the United States backed the creation of global
institutions, due process and the rule of law.
"Now," he said, "you are again all-powerful and the world is again in a
period of restructuring but, without talking to anyone, you appear to
be turning your back on things you have championed for half a century
and defining your interest narrowly in terms of your own immediate
The United States must pay more than lip service to others' views. When
the White House finds it necessary to swim against the stream of
international opinion, it should explain why and offer alternatives.
Often, form matters as much as substance. As an editor in Tokyo noted,
"Imagine how different the reaction to U.S. rejection of the Kyoto
treaty would have been if the U.S. had explained the treaty's flaws
publicly and made a counterproposal, rather than just saying the treaty
wasn't good for the American economy."
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.
Most importantly, by paying more attention to its friends, America
would avoid squandering precious goodwill and ensure that the global
lineup will never be "America against the world."
Clyde Prestowitz is founder and president of the Economic Strategy
Institute and was a U.S. trade negotiator in the Reagan administration.