- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 8, 2006

AMERICA AGAINST THE WORLD

By Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes

Times Books, $25, 259 pages

REVIEWED BY CLIVE DAVIS

Sometimes there is no escaping the background noise. Take the village where I live, for instance: Picture postcard Middle England, swans on the Thames, real ale in the pubs, a view of Windsor Castle from the hill. For the past four weeks we have been running our own community radio station on a special summer license. And what did the breakfast show presenters choose to play in honor of the Fourth of July? A Sousa march? “Yankee Doodle Dandy?” “America The Beautiful?”

No, the disc they opted for was “American Idiot” by that staunchly anti-Bush American punk band, Green Day. Not exactly the ideal song to celebrate an ally’s birthday.

An American friend of mine, a long-time resident here, considered complaining, but then, as she explained to me, she thought better of it, because hardly anyone she knows here has a kind word to say about her country. After hearing the same barbed comments for so many years, she is too tired to fight back.

I can’t say I blame her. A day earlier, I had been digesting the Daily Telegraph’s report of a new survey of British attitudes towards the United States. The responses were closer to what you would expect to hear in downtown Pyongyang. Only 12 percent of Britons trusted America to act wisely on the global stage. As for their view of the country as a whole, most saw America as “a cruel, vulgar, arrogant society, riven by class and racism, crime-ridden, obsessed with money and led by an incompetent hypocrite.”

More than two-thirds who offered an opinion believed America is essentially an imperial power seeking world domination. And 81 percent said George W. Bush’s call for the spread of democracy around the world was a cover for the pursuit of American self-interest. All very discouraging. Were you aware that there were really that many Oliver Stone fans out there?

More unpleasant news awaits in Andrew Kohut’s and Bruce Stokes’ rather dry, data-driven survey of global opinion. Drawing on Pew Research Center analysis, the authors deliver page after page of statistics, all delivered in an ultra-discreet monotone. After a while you feel as if you have been button-holed by a particularly gloomy computer.

Why wallow in all this feel-bad sentiment, much of which, I’m sure, is already on its way to being processed into Al Gore’s next 26 speeches? Anyone who has been paying minimal attention to these issues will not be too surprised by most of the findings. But Mr. Kohut and Mr. Stokes also add enough detail to remind us that the bigger picture is rather more nuanced. It’s a shame their prose is so leaden, as they have useful lessons to pass on.

As it is, those of us who think it is still possible for the United States and its allies to find some common ground will have to seek inspiration in Timothy Garton Ash’s scholarly but stylish polemic, “Free World.” Mr. Garton Ash writes from a center-left point of view (say it softly, but he is actually a columnist for the Guardian) but, thankfully, he is not afflicted with the usual north Oxford superiority complex. Above all, he understands that America and the western democracies cannot afford to be driven apart my media caricatures or inept leadership.

Some of the authors’ figures make provocative reading. America has long been used to welcoming the world’s huddled masses, yet it seems that the masses themselves have had second thoughts about their choice of destination:

“More than a million legal and illegal immigrants enter the United States every year, but when presented with a choice people around the world say they no longer see America as the prime land of opportunity. Asked where a young person should go to lead a good life, no more than 10 percent of respondents to a 2005 Pew survey in 13 of 16 countries recommended the United States. Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and even Germany were all preferred destinations. Only in India was America still the most popular place if one’s children were thinking of emigrating.”

A startling conclusion, all in all. Americans like to think of themselves as the city on the hill. Could it be that others see just another suburb in the smog?

The book devotes a good deal of space to the question of American exceptionalism, attempting to separate myth from reality. Yes, Americans are more enthusiastic about the death penalty — a major source of transatlantic friction — yet “substantial” support for capital punishment exists throughout Europe. (The big difference, of course, is that, rightly or wrongly, European legislatures feel much freer to ignore the popular will on this particular topic.)

On religion — the subject that seems to agitate Europeans above all others — the picture is slightly cloudier than we usually assume. Americans are “nearly four times more likely than the French or the Western Germans to believe in the Devil,” yet with the exception of the question of Israel, “the American public’s religiosity has little influence on most U.S. foreign policies.” (Not an entirely innocuous finding, given the pivotal role the Middle East plays in the geo-political chess game.)

Given the size of the footprint America leaves in all corners of the globe, a measure of hostility is inescapable. In some respects, fear of America also substitutes for the world’s fear of where the irresistible forces of modernity and individualism are taking the rest of us. That is a partly rational, partly irrational response, and there is nothing even Al Gore could do about it.

Yet, you are left with the conclusion that, as ever, a fair amount of the antipathy and mutual incomprehension can be traced back to misperceptions. Aside from Iraq, for instance, no politico-economic issue has antagonized European public opinion quite as much as George Bush’s decision to withdraw support from the Kyoto Treaty. Mr. Kohut and Mr. Stokes may be right to argue that the American public was indifferent to the question — as it is to most overseas entanglements — but when they state that “Europeans knew all about it,” I find myself asking myself how much Europeans really understood about the issue.

I have not met a single, sensible, non-wonkish Briton who is even aware of the American position that the Treaty is fatally flawed, or that the U.S. Senate had already failed to ratify it. Almost everyone I have spoken to prefers to believe that George W. Bush would prefer to destroy the planet rather than upset the oil industry cronies who are supposedly keeping him in power.

Now, who is to blame for that simplistic notion? The European media? Yes. Europeans may have lost interest in organized religion, but they now worship at the shrine of environmentalism. But this administration’s astonishingly clumsy public diplomacy must take some responsibility too. To outsiders, it seems blindingly obvious. In Washington, however, people are too busy playing the partisan game to pay attention to what is being said beyond the Beltway, let alone on the other side of the Atlantic.

Somehow, the country that is home to Madison Avenue has forgotten the most basic rules of marketing.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times, and keeps a weblog at www.clivedavis-online.com.

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