There is a hatred of the United States that leads to murderous violence. There is also a repudiation of that country which although rabid does not lead to violence; almost trivial in nature, little attention is paid to it. For this reason, I call it anti-Americanism light.
Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, the protagonists of the attack in San Bernardino, California, are the latest examples of fanatical terrorists who hate the United States for its power, values and politics. They are willing to kill — and die — in order to harm the country and its people. I distinguish their hatred of the United States from the anti-Americanism of those who take to the streets, or who use the media, social networks and university classrooms to rant against the country without necessarily wanting to bring about its destruction. Am I, then, saying that all criticisms of the United States, or of those who protest against its policies, are trivial and wrong? Of course not. There are justified criticisms that I, in fact, share. The invasion of Iraq is the supreme example of its mistakes, and there are others too. Furthermore, it goes without saying that there must be absolute freedom to criticize the superpower.
Mine, however, is a different argument: It is a mistake to believe, as some American leaders do, that trivial anti-Americanism which does not lead to terrorism comes at no greater cost.
I have no doubt that the constant avalanche of harsh criticism of the United States — often based on slander, half-truths, exaggerations or prejudices — feeds a far more profound and dangerous resentment against the country, and hinders the defense of values that even critics share.
Among other things, the most violent anti-Americans believe they form part of a worldwide movement of millions of people. This is not true, but clearly the assumption provides them with encouragement and makes them feel as if they have more support than is the case.
Despite its mistakes, occasional abuses and deviations from its fundamental principles, the United States is an essential bastion in the defense of democracy and other universal values; a defense that requires legitimacy, and which in turn is derived from others accepting its influence. I certainly do not advocate giving the superpower a blank check to exercise its unfettered power. But I do maintain that the outright rejection of the United States — which is virulent and often based on lies — is bad for the world.
For example, in many countries instinctive reactions fueled by anti-Americanism light make it increasingly difficult for governments to ally or cooperate with the United States. In addition, the relevance and effectiveness of many U.N. agencies has been eroded by subtle — and at times not so subtle — anti-Americanism.
And there’s more. The raucousness of the worldwide chorus against the United States is undermining domestic support for its involvement in important international affairs. Many Americans have difficulty understanding why their taxes should be used to finance the international role of the United States. Many people ask themselves, why should we be the world’s sheriff if the only thing it leads to is resentment against our country? Or, for example, when football is riddled with corruption, why did we — and not the countries with most to lose — have to be the ones to dismantle the rotten edifice of FIFA?
In fact, the anti-Americanism light that prevails in many countries is extremely helpful for demagogues and irresponsible isolationists. Donald Trump is the most recent example. There is also a dangerous underestimation of the consequences of anti-Americanism light. In the United States, it is easy to find those who feel it is difficult to change anti-Americanism light opinions, and it isn’t worth the effort. They believe these opinions do not matter anyway, and trivial anti-Americanism holds no relevance. The bad joke circulating in Washington is that there are many people in the world burning American flags by morning, and during the afternoon they are queuing up at the consulate to obtain a visa to enable them to travel to the United States.
It is a mistake to underestimate these superficial and unfounded criticisms. It is in the interest of democrats throughout the world for the United States to have an international influence that does not depend solely on its enormous military and economic strength. This interest is undermined when U.S. legitimacy is challenged, not only as a result of Washington’s mistakes, but also because of instinctive criticisms that blame the country for the most diverse problems that exist in the world today.
The global rise of trivial anti-Americanism is a dangerous trend, and not just for Americans.