In Defense of America, by Bronwen Maddox (Little, Brown, 216 pp., $16.99)
“Only one opinion or ideology in the world today has a truly global reach,” observed political scientist James Caeser in 2004. “It is anti-Americanism.” Even after the death of Communism as a worldwide revolutionary doctrine, hatred for the United States—which the Soviet Union stirred around the world—persists as a political impulse in every corner of the globe. For a brief moment following the terrorist attacks of September 11, some hoped that, at least out of sympathy, people overseas might put aside their long-held dislike for the United States. That hope was quickly dashed.
Anti-Americanism, of course, became more pronounced following the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and American political commentators across the spectrum find it troubling. The rising tide of anti-American feeling formed a crucial component of Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. His election would, he implicitly promised and his supporters loudly declaimed, restore America’s image in the world. If only it were as easy as replacing one president with another.
Bronwen Maddox won’t win many friends with her new book, and her impending unpopularity on the British social circuit owes much to her bold title, In Defense of America. Maddox, the chief foreign affairs commentator of The Times of London and a former Washington bureau chief for that paper, makes many criticisms of the United States, or at least of George W. Bush’s administration. Lest anyone of the “America, Love It or Leave It” school mistake it for an uncritical defense of the world’s only superpower, Maddox’s book offers not unstinting praise but tough love.
“The United States is comically bad at making its own case,” Maddox writes in the book’s opening pages. This observation will ring true to those Americans who wonder how their country—which welcomes more immigrants than any other, is more generous in its foreign aid than any other, and whose culture is so popular—could be loathed by so many. It will sound even more spot-on to those non-Americans, like Maddox, who consider themselves friends of the United States. For years, overseas admirers of the U.S. have had to endure witless editorials and boorish dinner companions ranting about how Uncle Sam is the root of all evil. Unfortunately, the government of the United States has failed miserably at defending itself in the court of world opinion.
Maddox makes the case for American indispensability. “American values are Western values,” she titles her third chapter. She stresses to her non-American readers that whatever differences they might have with America, they would do well to understand that the United States ultimately stands for individual rights, political freedom, and the free exchange of goods—all distinctly Western ideas.
Maddox does not waste time reviewing the classic anti-American arguments—whose propagators will not be convinced of their errors, anyway—choosing instead to focus on specific allegations made against the United States over the past several years. A widely held belief among the liberal intelligentsia, both in the states and in Europe, is that anti-Americanism began under the second President Bush. History tells a different story. Take France, for example. Charles de Gaulle, the most popular political figure in recent French history, staked his presidency on driving a wedge into the American-led NATO alliance during the Cold War’s early years (it was only last month that France finally rejoined NATO’s military command structure). Anti-Americanism goes back to before the founding of the United States; it’s not just a political disposition, but also a theoretical premise based upon deep-seated feelings of historical envy and opposition to capitalism—not to mention cultural snobbery. Another cause, Maddox notes, is the simultaneous decline of Europe alongside America’s international ascendance. No matter what America does, she suggests, it’s unlikely completely to eradicate this inherent European mindset.
Maddox also rejects a widely held nostrum about the Bush administration: that its policies represented a radical departure from previous American presidential administrations. “The promotion of democracy, now mocked for its unforeseen consequences, is the idealistic essence of American policy,” Maddox writes, tracing the sentiment back to America’s founding ideals. “The United States’ best defense in its recent actions abroad is that it was acting in that honorable cause, and this goal should be salvaged from the icy bath of ‘realism’ that has followed the Iraq debacle.” America, she argues, will be making a big mistake if it retreats in the face of difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan and shows a reticence to engage with the world. While criticizing the Bush administration primarily for its detainee policy (which, along with “torture,” she labels “indefensible”), Maddox endorses the “enduring spirit” of American foreign policy, which she deems idealistic, just, and necessary.
The bulk of Maddox’s book contends with the very specific criticisms made about American foreign policy over the past few years. She agrees with many of these complaints, though she does not believe that they are as egregious as America’s most vociferous critics would have it. Nevertheless, the litany of grievances are well rehearsed at this point, and Maddox does not examine them in a new or interesting way. She condemns the Bush administration’s decision to back out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, its “continued refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol” (she doesn’t bother to mention that the Clinton administration also refused), opposition to the International Criminal Court, and “a general contempt for the United Nations.” She faults the administration for naming Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank, not because he lacked the requisite qualifications, but because he supported the Iraq War.
Revisiting these well-trod arguments almost seems obligatory for any European political writer, and perhaps there’s no way to make a broader defense of America without acknowledging them. At times, Maddox even sounds like one of the anti-American Europeans she’s trying to sway. For instance, she hastily rejects the American complaint that the ICC would ultimately become a tool for anti-American bureaucrats to court-martial U.S. soldiers—an odd dismissal from an author of a book decrying anti-Americanism. But unlike the vast majority of her fellow European intellectuals, Maddox doesn’t let these disagreements blind her to America’s ultimate beneficence. America is “arrogant but not lawless,” the title of her sixth chapter declares. Given the tenor of debate in Europe today, I’ll take that as a compliment.
Looking at the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey is enough to make any American or friend of America feel depressed. Turning on the television, one’s likely to see a mob, somewhere, madly burning the stars and stripes. Some degree of this hatred is attributable to the personality of George W. Bush, who had a preternatural ability to provoke diametrically opposite reactions—undying devotion and maniacal hatred—from people. One can certainly hope that President Barack Obama, with his pledge to be a great unifier, will put a stop to all this nonsense. Careful students of world history should not be so sanguine.