During the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Julia E. Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was struck by a peculiar feature of the political debate in Washington. She observed that analysts who were generalists and purported to have a “big picture” view of international affairs were far more sanguine about the ability of the United States to remake Iraq than were those analysts who had a narrower, but also deeper, regional expertise.
Sweig, an expert in Latin America, knew that U.S. efforts to shape the political and economic systems in the Middle East would be hugely controversial, massively expensive, and leave a vast reservoir of anti-American sentiment.
“I knew from my experience in Latin America that there were deep reservations about the projection of American power there over the past 150 years. From my study of Latin America, I knew there was going to be a backlash globally as the rest of the world got a taste of the medicine that Latin America had been digesting for a long time,” she said.
In an interview with The Washington Diplomat from her office at the Council on Foreign Relations near Dupont Circle, Sweig said the war in Iraq has accelerated a gathering movement in international affairs: antipathy toward the United States.
“I think it is wrong to just call this mood ‘anti-Americanism.’ Anti-Americanism seems too small, too insignificant,” she said. “‘Anti-America,’ a proper noun, begins to get at a new force internationally that the United States and other powers have to deal with because it is pervasive. It extends across regions, classes, races, genders. It extends from East to West, from North to South. It’s ubiquitous.”
Sweig’s provocative book, “Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century,” argues that much of the world has lost faith in, and respect for, the United States.
“In part because of the 24-7 media, everything we do is on display for everyone to judge. Everyone can see Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and the flouting of international law vis-à-vis Iraq. The good news is that we’ve hit rock bottom and have nowhere to go but up. We can begin to recover some of our standing. But I don’t think we’ll ever recover the standing we had in, say, the 1960s and ’70s.”
Sweig said hostility toward the United States now sweeps across regions, generations and genders. Antipathy toward the United States, she contends, is no longer just a nuisance that Americans can dismiss as sour grapes or envy by a resentful world—but a powerful global force that hampers the country’s ability to confront global problems.
“The major issues we face as a globe are so enormously serious—weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, global climate change, poverty, genocide—not one can be dealt with by one country alone. It’s axiomatic that if the U.S. wants to get anything done, it needs help and not just from our cousins across the pond,” she said.
A native of Chicago, Sweig studied at the University of California in Santa Cruz, where she became interested in international relations, with a specific focus on Latin America. She earned a master’s degree and doctorate from the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. She is now a Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow and director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Her previous book, “Inside the Cuban Revolution,” won an award by the American Historical Association for best book of the year by an independent scholar. In her current book, “Friendly Fire,” Sweig carefully surveys the surge of anti-American sentiment in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and South Asia, studying its growing strength in countries such as Germany, Great Britain, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
“What is shattering about the new list is not just its length or scope, but rather, outside of the Middle East, the politically ‘Western’ and essentially pro-American character of the new anti-American countries, as well as the tendency for younger generations to be more likely than their elders to see the United States as a negative influence in the world,” she wrote.
Sweig believes the current anti-Americanism is a far cry from earlier versions that were more focused on specific policies and did not include harsh views of the American people themselves—a sentiment that has morphed from a marginal ideology into a new international state of mind.
She argues that between 2001 and 2005, the twin debacles of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina exposed a major rift between the United States and much of the international community. The result is that now, America’s motives in war and peace, its commitment to protecting the environment, combating terrorism, spurring economic growth, fighting poverty, and promoting democracy are viewed skeptically almost everywhere.
According to Sweig, the experience in Iraq has been hurtful to the United States on many levels. She said the world has been exasperated by President George Bush’s breezy self-confidence, his administration’s inability to plan carefully and craft sound contingency plans, and the unwillingness of Democrats to challenge the basic premises of the Iraq war until recently. She also faulted the administration’s long-standing unwillingness to admit errors in Iraq for reinforcing the world’s view of the United States as both arrogant and ignorant.
She added that the war in Iraq has created an almost daily global reminder of American overreaching, believing it could go into Iraq virtually alone, and of the ineptitude in meeting the challenges of the occupation and insurgency—all of which is a far cry from the kind of successful nation-building and reconstruction the United States undertook after World War II.
Assessing the challenges more broadly, Sweig said U.S. leaders have developed a habit of getting information about other nations from their elite counterparts. She calls it America’s “80-20” problem in which U.S. views of other countries are based on information from elites—the top 20 percent—and not the rank and file, the 80 percent. As an example, she noted that most of the U.S. government’s information about Venezuela prior to the first election of Hugo Chavez came from the top 20 percent in the private sector, oil industry, media elite, organized labor and the Catholic Church who detest Chavez. Americans had little understanding of the smoldering discontent in Venezuela that Chavez tapped into.
Sweig said her study of Latin America has given her an acute understanding of how a region can sour on the United States. Latin America, she argues, can even be seen as the geographic and historic birthplace of anti-Americanism. She pointed to the fact that the United States has long claimed the right to pre-emptive military intervention in the Americas, citing 28 U.S. interventions in Honduras, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico, Costa Rica and Guatemala between 1900 and 1921 alone.
Sweig is also a leading scholar on Cuba and has visited that country nearly 30 times in the last two decades and had conversations with Fidel Castro. She is convinced that U.S. policy toward Cuba has been ineffective and counterproductive. In fact, she said U.S. policy has had the singular effect of solidifying Castro’s position as the unchallengeable political leader in his country for four decades.
Sweig also contends that the U.S. policy of regime change in Cuba has been dominated by wishful thinking and is largely divorced from reality. Because of these failed policies, she said, the United States has few tools to influence behavior in Cuba.
Although Sweig believes the United States needs to better communicate with the rest of the world, she is adamant that large spending on public diplomacy should not be the first response and is not an alternative to sound domestic and international policies, management competence, and respectful engagement with the international community. “You can’t expect good communications policy and public diplomacy to help you climb out of a hole that horrendous policies have created for you. Good PR doesn’t substitute for good policy. Never will.”
But even if strong policies are in place and a credible communications strategy is executed, Sweig advises Americans to speak about their history with more humility. The first step would be a more frank acknowledgment that although U.S. history is replete with examples of lofty values and striking accomplishments, there have been a lot of mistakes as well.
She noted, for instance, that during the Cold War, which is now seen as an almost hallowed period in U.S. history, there were plenty of black marks that should be openly acknowledged. These include overthrowing an Iranian government in the early 1950s and installing the Shah, supporting authoritarian governments in South Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia, participating in proxy wars in Angola and Mozambique, and embracing the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Sweig said U.S. officials should also adopt better manners in international discourse, listening to the views of others, and that the government needs to take international law more seriously and firmly support global organizations.
In addition, she recommends that the United States embrace a generation-long initiative to emphasize foreign language study, cultural exchange programs and job training programs for Americans so that the concept of globalization seems less daunting.
“The American body politic is very sour on the rest of the world. We’re in a crouch mode now,” she said. “Compared to other periods in our history, we’re quite isolated and fearful not only on the security front but on the jobs and economy front. We need serious domestic policies to help the United States confront globalization.”
Sweig believes America’s relationship with the world can improve, but big changes are not likely to occur until after a new administration comes into power in 2009.
She offered a specific and simple suggestion for that new administration on how to start rebuilding the country’s troubled relationship with Latin America and the rest of the world: Return Guantanamo to Cuba. “It is a strategically useless base on a strategically insignificant island that is causing a lot of grief. The United States would be well advised to begin the rest of the century by simply giving it back.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.