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American Primacy and Anti-americanism in World Politics

by Peter J. Katzenstein, Walter S. Carpenter, Jr. Professor of International Studies, Cornell University

My comments reflect changes in U.S. policy since 9/11 and are organized around two topics that are closely related politically, though analytically distinct. One is American primacy, and the other is Anti-Americanism.

American Primacy

American primacy consists of three dimensions: economic, military, and political. Individually they describe different types of power. Collectively they refer to American primacy.


In the 1990s, the American economy could do no wrong. Only in the last four years has it become apparent that not everything is going well. The U.S. has experienced the sharpest increase in unemployment since 1973–75, and the most sustained loss in jobs since Herbert Hoover. We appear to be at the beginning of what parts of Europe have coped with for the last decade—jobless growth. The number of long-term unemployed has increased to two million. And we have no reliable figures to track those who have left the labor market altogether, and those who are no longer counted as belonging to the ranks of the unemployed. Early in 2004, many economists estimated that this unreported number would add another 2 percent to the official unemployment statistic of
5.6 percent. If you add a significant portion of the two million who are incarcerated, a number unparalleled in the advanced industrial world, you come to an unemployment rate that is quite comparable to the European double-digit figures.

The current U.S. budget deficit runs around 6 percent of our GDP, twice as large as the maximum of 3 percent that the EU permits its member states, which France and Germany are currently “overshooting—slightly. Under the Bush administration, the U.S. reaches the 3 percent level only by raiding the “lock box“ of Social Security, which is currently still running a surplus. However, this breaks the president’s solemn pledge never to touch those surpluses (from his 2000 campaign). The fiscal recklessness of the current administration will simply increase the bill for a future cohort of political leaders and future generations of Americans.

The turnabout in the fiscal future of our country is truly astounding. From a $2.6 trillion surplus at the beginning of the Bush Administration, we have turned to a $5.5 trillion deficit (as projected by the bipartisan congressional budget estimate for the coming decade). That is an $8 trillion turnaround. The deficit amounts to about 80 percent of our annual GDP. The good news is that I will pay only a small portion of this; the bad news is that, during their lifetime, students at Cornell and BYU will pay the most.

Conservatism in this country used to mean fiscal responsibility. In budgetary terms we do not have a conservative government now, rather an extremist one—a reckless one at that. This is not to argue that the administration’s massive tax cuts were ill-advised—they were not. The best way out of a recession is to put money into the pockets of consumers. Democrats who opposed any tax cuts were clearly wrong. Those who opposed permanent tax cuts geared overwhelmingly to the very rich were not. The fiscal recklessness of this administration and of the Republican majority in Congress is breathtaking. So is the political hypocrisy of a substantial number of Democrats who opportunistically exploited their short-term political gain at the expense of our long-term economic loss.

Our trade deficit now runs in the vicinity of $500 billion a year, a figure unfathomable even four years ago. Insatiable consumer demand and a national savings rate that is too low (by about 2–3 percent of GDP) means that we need to borrow from others. One way to illustrate the financial imbalance in the world economy is by the size of governments’ foreign exchange reserves—a proxy measuring which countries are providing the capital to finance our trade and budget deficits. China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan together hold about $750 billion in reserves: $450 billion for China, $200 billion for Taiwan, and $100 billion for Hong Kong. Japan holds $620 billion, Europe $320 billion, and the United States, by far the largest economy in the world, holds all of $72 billion in reserves, or about 10 percent of the combined holdings of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Foreign holdings of U.S. stocks, bonds, and other assets exceed American holdings of foreign assets by $2.3 trillion—about 20 percent of our GDP. In sharp contrast, at the height of its empire, Britain before 1914 owned foreign assets valued at about 150 percent of its GDP.

The trend line in these figures has not changed much during recent years, or recent decades. For almost four decades, the U.S. has tended to act like a vacuum cleaner sucking up other countries’ savings. Foreign investors have trust in the political safety of their investments in America and in good economic returns. But the degree of U.S. indebtedness has increased so much that even economists who interpret these figures—as illustrations not of financial weakness but of strength, indicated by the depth and liquidity of U.S. financial markets—are now worrying about investor confidence in times of financial turbulence or crisis. Our economic prosperity depends on the confidence and willingness of foreign investors and governments to bankroll our runaway spending habits. The size of our deficits are unavoidably diminishing that confidence. Exogenous shocks or a slowdown in our economy may test that confidence in the not too distant future.

In sum, the economic foundations of American primacy look shaky. One likely source of fierce opposition to the administration’s extremist pursuit of a policy of primacy lies at home among the American voting public, who are going to have to pay the expenses supporting primacy.


I recall giving lectures in the early 1990s on the meaning of the collapse of the Soviet Union for the United States. I used comparative defense spending figures to make one central point. Depending on which ruble/dollar conversion one used, Soviet defense spending was running around $25 billion, less than 10 percent of the corresponding American figure at that time. These figures showed that world politics had moved beyond bipolarity. Yet I had a very difficult time convincing my audience that we had moved into uncharted territory. Since it had nuclear weapons, Russia was, by definition, a superpower. No longer. Today it is indisputable that militarily we are living in a unipolar world. There is only one superpower—the U.S. Our current defense budget runs at about $500 billion, an approximate and minimal estimate since, in the interest of avoiding unwelcome political transparency, this administration fights the Iraq war off-budget to the tune, soon, of about $200 billion, a figure that is bound to increase as the time of our stay in Iraq extends into years. Our defense budget is considerably larger than the combined outlays of the next fifteen countries combined—and all of these countries are our allies or would-be allies. It is quite reasonable to ask, as some Americans do, whether we are overspending on defense and underspending on homeland security and other issues that relate to our security indirectly.


Our military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq confirmed what supporters and opponents of both wars had predicted: the U.S. would win. We won in Iraq with half the troops, in half the time, compared to 1990, not because we had new, high-tech weapons, but because UN sanctions had reduced the Iraqi army to about half its 1991 fighting strength. The low casualty figures during the war surprised and invalidated the arguments of those who had opposed the war with predictions of a bloodbath in Iraq’s cities and casualty figures running in the ten of thousands. It turned out that members of Iraq’s Republican Guard simply had no fight in them. They melted away. Urban warfare, however, came after the end of the war, and it continues, with Iraqis paying most of the bill in terms of casualties and running great risks in their daily lives, not to speak of the insufferable hardships that the war and the occupation has brought. With unemployment rates as high as 50–70 percent in some places now, many Iraqi‘s who are thankful to be rid of Saddam Hussein, scoff at the American notion of “Operation Freedom.” Will the U.S. snatch political defeat from the jaws of military victory?

Our enemies are a heterogeneous coalition of remnants of the old Baathist regime, thousands of criminals whom Saddam Hussein released from prison shortly before the war, Sunni and Shiite nationalists, and Al-Qaeda fighters or related groups. These cadres and groups are gathering in Iraq as a consequence of the war. They were not there before. By replacing Saddam Hussein, we solved one problem. But by mobilizing Al-Qaeda to attack the many soft targets that Iraq now offers, we have created a new and urgent problem of widespread terrorism that leaves the U.S. without a clear exit strategy. The rationale for the war—an immediate security threat to the U.S.—did not exist. This was a massive intelligence failure, here and abroad, and the result of what, to me at least, looks like a politically motivated strategy misleading the American public. “Weaponized weapons of mass destruction“ that could be deployed in battle and on short-term notice—not weapons of mass destruction—were the main  reason the president offered to mobilize Congress and the country into war. Meanwhile we have learned, through all the verbal obfuscations at daily White House and Defense Department briefings, that those weaponized weapons of mass destruction never existed.


The 9/11 attack has had a profound effect on American politics. I happened to be in Manhattan on that day. The experience left a deep imprint on me, much deeper than on my students in Ithaca or my colleagues at, I venture to say, BYU. I only happened to be in Manhattan. I do not live there. For those living in New York and in Washington, D.C., the impact has been nothing but traumatic. They have experienced firsthand becoming targets of mass murderers and live their daily lives with the knowledge that history may indeed repeat itself. The president reacted as he did as the result of a profound shock that continues to be felt acutely in these two cities, and in the country at large. The dramatic change in policy that we have experienced reflects a dramatic event in our history.

In the 2000 election, we elected, in a manner of speaking, an inexperienced president who preached humility and caution and who hired realists and pragmatists to run his foreign policy. It was one of the strengths of this president to acknowledge, through his appointment of a group of seasoned professionals, at the outset that he was ill-prepared to conduct the nation‘s foreign affairs. After 9/11, the administration argued that a revolution had occurred in world politics. The administration was correct in insisting that we were once again at war—and not one of our choosing. They were wrong in interpreting the war on terror primarily in the traditional framework of interstate war, thus focusing attention too quickly and too strongly on Iraq and other “evil“ states that we could defeat with our military might and diverting attention and resources away from the unfamiliar and relatively unprotected front of homeland security.

We rushed into the Iraq war for reasons that were not only related directly to the events of 9/11. We rushed for a whole lot of other reasons that had little to do with 9/11. Some were well defined, geostrategic ones, others were extremely ambitious ideological ones, still others were narrowly focused on Iraq—due to what a core group of centrally placed individuals in the administration regarded as unfinished business that combined geostrategy with ideology. Because the point has been silenced in the American discussion, while it is widely aired in the rest of the world, let me address the issue of oil that brings into focus a narrow conception of the U.S. national interest, and the rationale for the war.


This is an administration staffed by people who know the energy industry extremely well. They had good reason to worry about U.S. energy security. After all, fifteen of the nineteen attackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens. In 1976, the U.S. made a very straightforward deal with Saudi Arabia: We will protect you, the six thousand princes of the House of Saud, and you will run a responsible energy policy that leaves the price of oil denominated in dollars, thus assuring the continued status of the dollar as the world’s lead currency. Both sides heeded this pact. The House of Saud, however, had earlier made a deal with radical clerics inside Saudi Arabia: We, the House of Saud, will abet, indeed support financially, as you teach and train young jihadists for fighting abroad, and you will not destabilize the House of Saud. Since 1979, Saudi Arabia has exported not just oil but also about twenty thousand militants who have fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia, and, currently, also in Iraq. Having defeated one super power, the Soviet Union, they are eager to bring down a second, the U.S.

The Saudi and U.S. governments find themselves in a very difficult position. It would have been foolhardy for any president, for example, to discount the possibility of dramatic change either in the Saudi regime or in Saudi policy. Furthermore, another catastrophic attack on the United States with extensive involvement of Saudi citizens might be a cause for war, forced upon a Republican or Democratic administration by an enraged populace. Thinking about an alternative source of oil for the U.S. must have figured geostrategically, apart from all other considerations. Anticipating unpleasant futures, it is far from foolish to plan for the development of a firm military and political base in the second-largest oil producer in the Middle East, thus preparing for the eventuality of a rupture in Saudi–U.S. relations.

I have no direct evidence supporting my hunch that strategic calculations motivated the administration’s policy toward Iraq. Yet, I find it implausible to assume that geostrategic calculations carried no weight in an administration headed by a president and vice president with exceptionally close ties to the energy industry and staffed by hawks and realists. The only plausible conclusion is that the official rationale for war, weaponized weapons of mass destructions, was a convenient smoke screen, because it lent a sense of urgency and made it possible for the administration to make its case based on fear and intimidation rather than strategic reasoning. Geostrategy does not easily yield consensus in democratic politics at home or persuasion in coalition politics abroad. Fear and intimidation—in this administration’s thinking—do.

However, by moving as it did, unilaterally, without the support of the UN, the U.S. greatly increased the security risk for other countries with large Muslim populations, particularly in Europe, and quite possibly our own as well. The determined and unrelenting opposition of all but a handful of countries on the UN Security Council surprised the United States. That has not changed since the end of the war.

In February 2002, the U.S.’ diplomatic strategy aimed to isolate France in the UN Security Council and to have at least a substantial majority of the council endorse the war, thus giving the action a semblance of legitimacy though not legality. Britain, Spain, and Bulgaria were clearly on the side of the U.S., while France, Germany, Russia, China, and Syria were clearly opposed. Traditional friendship and intense pressure and economic promises made by the U.S. did not change the determined opposition of six states perceived to be in the middle: Pakistan, Mexico, Chile, Cameroon, Guinea, and Angola. The U.S.’ unwillingness to call for a vote in the Security Council was an enormous diplomatic defeat for the administration‘s Iraq policy, even before the war had begun. The absence of compelling evidence that Iraq posed an immediate threat to its neighbors or the U.S. was simply too glaring, subsequently borne out by the fact that as of March 2004, despite an intense search, the U.S. occupation had failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 was deeply traumatic. The U.S. had armed itself throughout the Cold War to avoid another surprise attack, out of the blue sky. We were successful then against the other superpower. We are failing now, against an enemy we only dimly perceive and do not understand.

Marshalling the enormous economic, military, and political resources at the disposal of the U.S., the Bush administration has fundamentally misunderstood, and neglected, the most important resource of primacy in world politics—legitimacy. The Bush administration’s reckless disregard of issues of legitimacy has stripped the U.S. of an essential power resource, something this administration, even if reelected, will not recoup. Our foreign policy agenda will remain seriously damaged for years to come, whatever the outcome of the war on terror or the success or failure of our policies in Iraq. The exercise of raw power thus has begotten anti-Americanism.



If we can trust the results of surveys commissioned (by Gallup, Pew, the German Marshall Fund, and the U.S. State Department among others), one empirical finding stands out in all the anti-Americanism studies: Responses differ greatly depending on whether questions are asked about the U.S. and its policies or about the American people and their values. In most areas of the world, respondents deeply dislike the U.S. and its policies—especially this administration. The same is not true of attitudes toward America and American people, including, significantly, in many parts of the Middle East and the Islamic world.

Among our traditional allies in Europe, anti-Americanism is rampant now. The outpouring of grief and sympathy felt after 9/11, and testified to by huge marches and candle vigils in most major European cities and many smaller towns, had been transformed by February 2003 into the largest anti-war demonstrations in peace time that Europe has witnessed since the end of World War II. In Britain, the most trusted and dependable ally of the U.S., 1.5 million people marched through the streets of London in strong opposition against the war in Iraq. Comparable demonstrations occurred in all major cities, including in Italy and Spain, where governments backed the war against the overwhelming preference of the electorate. Surprisingly, over time, opposition to the U.S. has increased, not diminished.

In South Korea, another trusted and long-standing ally, anti-Americanism is also running rampant in a most civilized and dignified way. In December 2002, tens of thousands of people marched week after week, holding candles and protesting the U.S. This was not the Korean “left” snake-dancing and shouting slogans, while confronting police armed for violent street demonstrations 1980s-style. This was instead all of Korean society on the move, protesting a variety of errors of commission (undercutting the sunshine policy of President Kim by the incoming Bush administration as well as what were widely interpreted as calculated acts of public humiliation of Kim), as well as acts of omission (Bush’s failure to apologize to the South Korean people and government for a very unfortunate mishap that cost two Korean girls their lives in the summer of 2002). Even though it remained crucially dependent on the U.S. in times of heightened threat from North Korea, public support for the U. S. collapsed in South Korea, dropping by more than half within the last five years.

Turkey is the most optimistic scenario for a U.S.-inspired reorganization of the Middle East, including Iraq—a democratizing, modern Muslim state with strong secular institutions. Seeking permission to use a Turkish corridor to attack Iraq from the north, the Bush administration offered Turkey over $20 billion in loans and aid before the Iraq war. The Turkish Parliament voted down the U.S. offer for the obvious reason that more than 90 percent of the Turkish population was strongly opposed to the war and to U.S. policies. It is not inconceivable that a modernizing, democratic, secular Iraq will be overwhelmingly anti-American. A modernizing, democratic, Shiite Iraq, perhaps in close relations will Iran, will be even more anti-American. And these are the two most optimistic scenarios for the current U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Anti-Americanism is so intense in part because of the yawning gap between what the U.S. says and what the U.S. does in pursuit of its objectives. We have enormous power to do good in the pursuit of our professed values. Yet we also do enormous evil. Anti-Americanism abroad is fueled by talk of “betrayal“ and “hypocrisy.“ In the eyes of many, the U.S. government betrays U.S. ideals typically expressed in highly moralistic and, in more recent years, religious language. Just as U.S. moralism knows no bounds, we think there is no limit to U.S. power. As is true for other countries, in the case of the U.S., often expediency and petty interests prevail.

Anti-Americanism is fed by the inevitable shortfall between the inflated expectations that American rhetoric raises and the often modest results that our flawed policies produce. The result is a deep ambivalence in popular attitudes toward the U.S. that is fed by both general and specific sources of anti-Americanism.


General Sources of Anti-Americanism

Power Imbalances and Threats. Overwhelm-ing material capability begets its own opposition. Power balancing among states and popular resentment have existed throughout history, as they did in the mid-1990s in China, and in France in 2002–03. Power balancing is primarily the business of governments. Publics resonate also with other sources.

Globalization Backlash. The demonstrations in Seattle in 1999 show that a broad and heterogeneous coalition of forces, here and abroad, oppose globalization—typically associated with Americanization. This phenomenon is not universal. It is happening in Latin America, but not in East Asia. It is happening in the Middle East, but not in Africa.

Conflicting Identities. Our national interests are to some extent defined by who we are. This is true of all societies. The U.S. is exporting many values, often contradictory, among them women‘s rights, popular culture, and religion. Those exports are experienced in different parts of the world as deeply threatening and distasteful; in other parts of the world, they are met with indifference; and in still others, much of the American youth culture and religious values are embraced. Whether you are running a socialist-capitalist hybrid economy in China, whether you belong to a Fundamentalist Hindu party in India, or whether you are an atheist in Europe, America‘s secular and religious exports feed the sense that “they are different from us.“ Through politics this sentiment can easily be converted into a source of anti-Americanism.

Specific Sources of Anti-Americanism

History and Memory of Grievances. We are a great power that has done a great deal of good in the world. I, for one, would not be an American now if the U.S. had not defeated Nazi Germany in the bloodiest war in the twentieth century and subsequently rebuilt and reformed Germany. But as with all great powers, the U.S. has also done harm in the world, either unintentionally or willfully. There is an African saying: When the elephants make love, the grass suffers. The U.S. has also stomped on the grass and crushed it, and more than once people abroad have interpreted these as acts of aggression or vengeance. For many Chinese, Koreans, and Indonesians, not to mention Vietnamese, for example, given the history of the relations between the U.S. and these countries, it would not take much to become anti-American. The same holds for Greece, where the U.S. intervened in a civil war in the late 1940s, and for Spain, where the U.S. supported, for many years, the fascist regime of General Franco during the Cold War. Anti-Americanism easily feeds off those historical memories. This is true also in the Caribbean, where the U.S. has left very deep footprints for many decades and in Latin America, where the U.S. has supported many military dictators for decades. Through our actions we have created a history and a memory of grievances, which is easily turned into anti-Americanism.

Politics of Democracy and Democratization. A second specific source of anti-Americanism is democracy. Anti-Americanism is a device that is useful for contesting political office in old and new democracies. It is an ideology around which politicians can build coalitions to support their efforts to get elected. Leaders in an autocratic government are fearful of unwittingly starting a process of democratization. In an era of democracy and democratization, anti-Americanism is bound to be a useful tool for instrumental, narrow purposes by self-interested political elites. Anti-American campaigns can be useful for grandstanding at election time. Experienced in the form of American nationalism every four years, Americans understand the grandstanding aspect of democratic politics particularly well.

Regional Context and Transnational Connections between Countries. Finally, it would be wrong to think about anti-Americanism just as a relationship between any one country and the United States. Each country has neighbors, and very often those neighbors are deeply detested—even more so than the United States. For example, the Chinese and the Japanese do not like each other one bit. They may not like the Americans, but they dislike each other more. The quality of anti-Americanism is influenced by such neighborly dislike. Such dynamics may also be in play for India and Pakistan, Japan and South Korea, and other conflicting relationships.

Migration can also spur anti-Americanism. Take for example South Asia and the Middle East. Many Indians, from Kerala and other parts of India, work in the Middle East, as do citizens from the Philippines. They bring back not only cash but also information and attitudes. Such migration can spread anti-Americanism. Muslims from the Middle East end up in Europe, which has a population of 17 million now compared to 0.7 million in the 1970s—one of the fastest growing populations in Europe. The contact between the Middle East and Europe is particularly intense, and some mosques there are now breeding grounds for recruiting militants and sending them on to conduct attacks or wage war.



Anti-Americanism is a prejudice, like many others. Unlike others, it is becoming fashionable and politically acceptable. It is a language by which politics can be conducted in the era of American preeminence. That language is universal. And it is American. We have a lot of anti-Americanism in the United States and have had it for more than 150 years. Mark Twain is a superb example. As the U.S. turned imperialist at the end of the nineteenth century, Twain and others organized in the Anti-Imperialist League turned against America. A century later, in today’s polarized politics, close to half of all Americans are also anti-American, strongly opposed to this administration’s foreign policy.

The war on terrorism has moved us into uncharted territory, and all governments in the world—not just in Washington—are rethinking basic assumptions of world politics that have been unquestioned for half a century. Trading consent for coercion, the course that the Bush administration has chosen, may well create a world disordered, even though after September 11th, what we wanted most of all was a more secure and orderly world.

The central point of these pages is simple: Because the Bush administration has favored naked power over legitimacy, America’s primacy is now shallower than it was a few years ago, and anti-Americanism is on a sharp upswing. What is unfolding, however, is not preordained. Political choice will remain enormously consequential for future developments in world politics. 

This article draws on an Area Focus Lecture delivered Wednesday, 3 March 2004 on the Brigham Young University campus and sponsored by the Center for the Study of Europe.