11 September 2001>News Stories>Less admiration of America and more fear

Less admiration of America and more fear

Philip Bowring . IHT . 12 February 2002

Respect is a two-sided coin. On the one side is admiration, on the other fear. The weighting of respect shown to the United States by the rest of the world has been rebalanced in the past two years. The preponderance of admiration has given way to fear of its military, trade and financial power.

Likewise, to a visitor to Washington, the balance of attitude has changed here, too. A quiet self-confidence here that the United States was a model for economic growth as well as a source of personal liberty and political institutions has waned. In its place is realization of the scope of American power in a uni-polar world. With that has come a willingness, even delight, to ride roughshod over friends and allies who are now deemed marginal.

But for Sept. 11, the unilateralism which was an early mark of the new Bush administration would probably have been tempered by the realities of global leadership in a complex world. However, the attack so aroused a U.S. sense of grievance that the world is now expected to go along with every response, rational or irrational, focused or emotional, that has flowed from it.

President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" speech was greeted with astonishment in most countries. But here even critics who thought the words clumsy considered it "just too bad for them" if foreign friends were offended by the crude threats and lack of concern for others' interests - including such key allies as South Korea and Germany. In the bipolar era it was possible to divide the world into black and white spheres, even if that was not accepted by the nonaligned group. The Soviet empire and militant communism were real threats to enough countries. If Al Qaeda is such a threat to the West, how come there is so little consultation with actual allies or building of bridges to potential ones?

Why link North Korea to Iran, or Iran to its old enemy Iraq? Why ignore most NATO allies? Why insist on a U.S. troop presence in the Philippines, stirring up nationalist sentiment as well as suspicion among Muslim neighbors?

The answer lies partly in the scale of U.S. military power. It is now estimated by Paul Kennedy of Yale that with the latest budgeted boost, the United States will account for 40 percent of global military spending, double its global share of GDP. Its arms technology has left friends and potential foes far behind. Even China's arms boosts have made little difference to the global balance. In military terms the United States barely needs allies to conduct wars against the likes of Iraq, let alone the Taliban. No wonder rivals are cowed and friends ignored. Whether ever greater military capacity is much defense against Al Qaeda is another matter.

Yet Pax Americana rests on the consent of others as well as on U.S. firepower. Consent in turn rests on respect for U.S. principles of government, and for the merits of an open world economic order. Economic globalization requires a degree of international cooperation noticeably absent from recent U.S. diplomacy.

The perception has grown of an America that now has a callous attitude to poor nations, excessive influence over the IMF and the World Bank, and an unwillingness to make concessions in the interests of multilateralism. Its hand-off approach to the wreckage of currency policies in Argentina that it once encouraged and its contemptuous view of Japan are all part of this unilateralism.

Yet in the economic sphere America's power rests heavily on its ability to continue to use the dollar's reserve currency role to finance its own deficits. It is impossible to predict when this will end, but it is unsustainable.

Meanwhile, Enron and Nasdaq have taken some of the shine off entrepreneurship. Post-September "national interest" self-censorship by the media has undermined America's promotion of free media internationally and given succor to authoritarians. Ditto the detentions of non-Americans and the treatment of prisoners.

The most visible backers of anti-U.S. terrorism have been defeated, and others will now lie low. But the aims of terror - to undermine institutions, relationships, trust - may be progressing underground. Sympathy for America can easily shift to cynicism.

The United States may feel almighty, but to maximize its positive global influence it needs friends, and they have their own legitimate national interests. The balance between fear and admiration of the United States needs readjustment. That at least is the wish of its admirers