HATE George W. Bush? Wish the US would just butt out of everywhere? Well, be careful what you wish for. You might just get it. And you may not like it when it happens.
The Lowy Institute for International Policy has released its annual poll surveying Australians on foreign policy and global affairs. The release of the poll last week gave commentators enough time to predictably crow about the findings: a waning regard among Australians for ANZUS, the growing negative feelings Australians have towards the US and the fact that more Australians think it would be a good thing if the US becomes significantly less politically powerful.
It seems increasing numbers of Americans agree. As Dick Morris, a former adviser to Bill Clinton has remarked, isolationism runs deep in the American body politic. Periods of outward engagement by the US - in the Korean War, Vietnam and the Cold War - were followed by the US turning inwards. The events of September 11 changed that. And yet, now, if polls in the US are accurate, after Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are once again opting for isolationism.
A poll last year by the Pew Research Centre found that 42 per cent of Americans feel the US should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own. Importantly, with Democrats being twice as likely as Republicans to hold this view towards introversion, Morris predicted in April 2006 that "the wind of isolationism is at the Democrats' back, propelling them onward to the likelihood of massive victories in 2006 and 2008". Last year's congressional elections that routed the Republicans proved Morris correct. And the 2008 presidential elections will likely do the same.
While opposition to the war in Iraq is no doubt a driver of this growing preference for isolationism, it's worth asking whether growing anti-Americanism is also encouraging Americans to turn inwards. If the world keeps telling you to go away, that your power is despised and your culture is wicked, what are you to do? Retreat may be the natural reaction to the irrational anti-Americanism that has long infected the West. Who can forget how European intellectuals danced on the graves at ground zero? French philosopher Jean Baudrillard declared his "immense joy" when planes flew into the twin towers. Italian Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo explained the Islamist violence as "the legitimate daughter of the culture of violence, hunger and inhumane exploitation".
Left-wing US haters aside, disdain towards America now runs much deeper. That much became clear at the recent Bonython Lecture hosted by the Centre for Independent Studies, where American Lawrence Mead put a simple thesis: there is only one superpower. Mead argued that the US, a nation with British institutions and continental scale, was supreme. "The US may make mistakes in particular policies," he said, "but no other country is likely to displace us as the dominant power in the world."
Far from being a gathering of knee-jerk anti-Americans who drone on with Noam Chomsky diatribes at dinner parties, this was a largely conservative business crowd. The longer Mead spoke, the more they grumbled. "He's joking, right?" said the chap sitting on my right. The man on my left rolled his eyes at what he regarded as American hubris. Similar reactions rippled across the room that evening. A decade ago, such a speech would have barely raised a murmur. How times have changed.
Iraq has certainly blotted America's copybook. Legitimate debates can be had about other US policies, too. But much of the contempt for America is explained by the growing realisation that this superpower is here to stay, by the insecurities of once powerful countries and the concomitant need to bring the big boy on the block to heel. To be sure, hubris does not help and the Bush administration has sometimes engaged in hyper hubris. But anti-Americanism transcends Bush. It predates him and will outlast him.
Last year, a worldwide poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and WorldPublicOpinion.org found that a majority in 15 countries reject the idea that the US should continue to be the pre-eminent world leader in solving international problems and they believe the US is too often the world policeman. But get this. A majority of those polled do not want the US to withdraw from efforts to solve international problems. In short, people want US involvement - but on their terms.
The hankering for multilateralism is understandable but also, in many quarters, hypocritical. The European belief that legitimacy emanates from the UN was sidelined in 1999 over Kosovo. Back then, with genocide on their doorstep, the absence of Security Council authorisation didn't hold back the Europeans and US military might was welcomed. Yet, when it came to Iraq, Europeans were the first to cry foul when the US invaded without the go-ahead from the Security Council. The double standards reveal that Europeans, ensconced in a transatlantic struggle for relevance, will demand international legitimacy as a means of balancing US power when it suits them.
But the UN has proved useless when it comes to any crunch. It was rendered irrelevant during the Cold War. It baulked at stopping genocide in Rwanda. Its premier Human Rights Council is still as feckless as ever, unable to address genuine human rights abuses but only too willing to lambast Israel at every opportunity. Nothing has changed on the UN front since its inception half a century ago. And neither will it.
Which is why we ought to be careful about demanding that the US butt out of world affairs. Just in case they do. Who will pick up the slack if the US does the multilateral thing, sending in token troops to the next genocide hot spot? Which country's ships will be among the first into port laden with aid and troops when the next tsunami hits Asia? Are we happy to leave it to Russia or China to guard Western interests when it comes to Iran and North Korea? And just remind me the last time European soft power, not to mention hard power, solved a major conflict.
And so it goes on. Everywhere one looks, the US is there. Not always perfect. Criticise them for specific failures by all means. But acknowledge the scorecard: the full spectrum of US hegemony, from its brute military muscle to the soft seduction of American ideas, has been an overwhelming force for good.
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