Why is America disliked so intensely and widely, with special emphasis in the Middle East? Here is one explanation: "No people are so disliked out of their own country... They assume superiority, and this manner is far from pleasant to other people ... I have never seen among any people such rudeness and violation of good breeding... As a nation they are intensely selfish and arrogant." A furious indictment, to be sure -- but not of the United States. For the words are those of an American, Robert Laird Collier, writing of the Britain he toured at its imperial zenith in the 1880s.
Over the past half-century, in one part of the world after another, U.S. influence has moved into the vacuum left by the British and other departing powers, often with reluctance (the Middle East), not always with success (Vietnam) but in any case as the pre-eminent force among several, even where the commitment has been a U.N.-endorsed multilateralist's dream (Korea, Kuwait).
What America shares with an earlier Britain is that insufferable sense of mission, the conviction that it a force for good in world affairs. Any force for change, good or bad, presents a challenge to an existing order, and resentment comes with it.
That would be enough to raise hackles. But America, more so than even Britain, represents a special type of challenge to the world. That challenge has been recognized, feared, resented and finally hated, as Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin amply illustrate in their fascinating study: "Hating America: A History." From America's frontier era, when it appeared an ungovernable land with an inhospitable climate; to the 19th-century European conceit that it was a failed society, racked by vices obsolete in Europe (like slavery); to the triumph of American economic expansion and military power, the success of what is now the world's sole superpower has caused anti-American resentment to become a perverse ideal.
It is not easy for established, traditional nations, whether in Europe, the Middle East or elsewhere, to see a new society, pioneered by the huddled masses of their teeming shores, aggregate the energies of its mixed population and outperform all others in virtually every branch of modern human endeavor.
The United States has a way of overturning each and every prospective obituary. Its early critics thought its people would grow malnourished and weak. Later critics thought its racial divide would be its undoing. Others doubted its capacity for concerted action -- Adolf Hitler thought it a "mongrel nation" without hope, to be despised rather than feared. But the no-hope mongrel is now top dog.
Add to this a popular culture -- replete with junk food and a surfeit of popular movie fare that leaches like a solvent at aristocratic, landed cultures -- and the discontented in many lands will see a mortal threat to their way of life.
More directly, U.S. might has left behind democratic states in Germany, Japan and, less directly, much of Eastern Europe. Middle Eastern autocrats fear they are next, and perhaps they are right.
The fear is rarely of military action, Iraq aside. America is the agent and principal of Western civilization and its ideas can be explosive. Sometimes, they bring down empires without a shot -- witness the strange case of the Soviet Union. To rally adherents to any number of causes -- totalitarian, authoritarian or merely culturally reactionary -- demonization of the United States serves an indispensable purpose. This is why even official U.S. allies in the Middle East, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, carefully direct their publics' hatred towards America.
It is perhaps the mark of a force for good that its opponents have the liberty of expressing resentment. Nothing like self-censorship afflicts the commentariat of the Arab world, or even Europe, however threatened by America they claim to be.
In contrast, when Nazi Germany was on the rise, European powers great and small felt impelled at times to censor their own press. Winston Churchill was informally banned from speaking about Germany on the BBC during much of the 1930s. Malevolent powers by contrast have little tolerance of dissent and opponents (read potential victims) know it only too well.
All of this provides the clue to the wanton, uninhibited resentment of America. Its mission is undiluted by the fact that it possesses no colonies and never ran an empire, lording it over subject peoples. Its military interventions have been vital to the freedom and sovereignty of more than one country in Europe and the Middle East. Like any other major power, it has tallied its fair share of deplorable decisions and disastrous mistakes. This, we are often told, lies at the bottom of the current harvest of hatred and terrorism. The history, recounted by the Rubins, however, tells a different story.
Daniel Mandel is associate director of the Middle East Forum and a fellow in history at Melbourne University.