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Friendly Fire

by Daniel W. Drezner

Only at TNR Online
Post date: 04.09.03

Anti-Americanism is hardly a new phenomenon. Railing against the United States has long been a favorite pastime of totalitarian thugs like Kim Jong Il or Fidel Castro. For ten years we've been dreading the hatred fermenting on the "Arab street." America-bashing has been a part of French political and cultural life for decades. But since Iraq moved to the top of the international agenda, a more disturbing trend has emerged. Suddenly politicians in otherwise friendly liberal democracies are winning elections by running against the United States.

Last fall, Gerhard Schroeder won a razor-thin reelection victory by declaring that Germany would not support the United States or the United Nations in Iraq. In January, South Koreans elected Roh Moo Hyun, who had openly questioned the U.S.-South Korea Mutual Security Treaty--long considered the cornerstone of South Korea's national security--in his campaign for president. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won an overwhelming victory in Brazil's presidential election last October in part by attacking the Free Trade Area of the Americas as a way for the United States to keep Latin America under its thumb.

And yet for all the mileage politicians in relatively liberal democracies have gotten out of anti-Americanism of late, there's little reason to believe we're witnessing a permanent change in the way foreign campaigns are run. Bashing Uncle Sam may be a look like a surefire vote-getter at the height of an international crisis, but there are too many factors limiting the resonance of anti-American appeals to make them an effective long-term strategy.

Consider first the fleeting nature of the passions stirred by an international crisis. On the one hand, "rally-round-the-flag" effects almost invariably lead to bumps in public support for the party in power during wartime. George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Australian Prime Minister John Howard are all enjoying increases in their popularity with respect to the immediate prewar period, when domestic opposition to the war was at times intense. But as George H.W. Bush can attest, these bumps fade quickly after the conflict ends. The same logic holds for "rally-against-the-flag" effects. As Operation Iraqi Freedom winds down, so will the crisis mentality that has pervaded international affairs since last August. This will make it that much more difficult for politicians to use anti-Americanism as a campaign weapon.

Another mitigating factor is the difficulty of demonstrating tangible benefits to anti-American policies over the long term. After all, campaigning against the United States is one thing; governing against the United States is another matter altogether. The practical realities of a unipolar world compel most governments to cooperate with America to advance their own interests, which is one reason why many politicians don't even bother trying to make good on their anti-American rhetoric once in office. It should come as no surprise, for example, that President Roh of South Korea was quick to express his support for the U.S. position on Iraq once the war started, despite widespread public opposition.

Meanwhile, those who do stick to their guns typically find the going pretty tough. French obstructionism at the U.N. Security Council did not halt the war with Iraq and is likely to only marginalize the one institution where France is still accorded great power status. France will likely be cut out of significant postwar reconstruction contracts. These looming developments have already led former European Commission president Jacques Delors and French conservative parliamentarians to publicly criticize the Chirac government's foreign policy. And French businesses are expressing concern about the economic losses that come with strained Franco-American ties.

It's no surprise, then, that voters quickly become alienated from their elected leadership as the costs of anti-Americanism accrue. In France, Jacques Chirac retains high poll numbers, but the popularity of his prime minister, Jean Pierre Raffarin, is plummeting. A recent poll shows that 72 percent of Canadians believe that the Chretien government should have supported the United States more actively in the war effort. And a scant six months after his reelection victory, Germany's Gerhard Schroeder is so unpopular that songs mocking him routinely make it into the German top 40.

Which brings us to a final reason why anti-Americanism is such a losing proposition for foreign politicians: They can use it to get elected, but it's hollow as an agenda for governing. Indeed, parties often turn to anti-Americanism because they aren't sure how to govern. Schroeder's opposition to the war, although popular, is now a moot issue. Attention is drifting back toward the deteriorating domestic economy, the original source of the Social Democrats' unpopularity.

To be sure, it's not out of the question that future politicians will be able to exploit anti-American sentiment for domestic political purposes. Last November, the Pew Global Attitudes Survey reported that "criticisms of U.S. policies and ideals such as American-style democracy and business practices are ... highly prevalent among the publics of traditional allies." The source of much of this hostility is the brute fact of American hegemony, and it seems hard to envision this kind of enmity disappearing entirely any time before U.S. power wanes.

But while anti-Americanism may win you the occasional election, winning a single election is rarely a politician's only goal. Most want to win the next one, too. As long as that's the case, anti-Americanism will never be a permanent feature of electoral politics abroad.

Links to relevant documentation and further information can be found here.


Daniel W. Drezner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Sanctions Paradox (Cambridge 1999). He writes regularly at


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