Why Don't They Like Us?

America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked by Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes (Times Books, 259 pages, $25.00)

Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America by Josef Joffe (Norton, 271 pages, $24.95)

After September 11, the Bush administration identified anti-Americanism as a top priority in the war on terrorism and created a comprehensive plan, including the appointment of a new assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, to reshape foreign perceptions of the United States. Not surprisingly, the campaign has gone about as well as the Iraq War. Observers of anti-Americanism now see a variety of species -- from European condescension to Latin American historical resentment to murderous jihadist impulses in the Mideast -- all on the rise, propagating in the fertile environment that Bush's policies have created.

Two new books explore the sources of American unpopularity. America Against the World, by Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes, focuses on public opinion abroad, while Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America by Josef Joffe concentrates on what elites think. Each book has its limitations, but together they provide a bracing picture of the challenge that America faces.

Kohut, who runs the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and Stokes, a columnist for National Journal, draw on public-opinion tracking polls that Pew has conducted in fifty countries. In most places surveyed, America's reputation nosedived between 2002 and 2004, though it picked up slightly in 2005. Unhappily, foreigners now blame not just the U.S. government but the American people for the policies they dislike, and a majority of Europeans think that the world would be better off if a second great power, like the European Union, were to challenge American primacy.

According to America Against the World, many of the core beliefs that fuel anti-Americanism are based on misperceptions of the American public. For example, while populations abroad suspect that the United States is intent on empire, a majority of Americans surveyed would prefer that their country play a shared global leadership role, rather than a solo one. People overseas, Kohut and Stokes say, shouldn't confuse “the ambitions of America's elites with the attitudes of the American public.” But here the authors are victims of their own methodology, which focuses on survey results and pays little attention to the political developments that have given rise to anti-Americanism in the first place.

In identifying Americans with the policies of the government, foreigners are only making a reasonable inference from the facts available to them. By returning Bush to office in 2004, the American people acquiesced in positions that are disliked around the world. It's hardly surprising that foreigners would evaluate Americans on the basis of their actions rather than on the basis of beliefs that Americans may hold but don't (or can't) act upon.

To reach beyond poll results for an explanation of why America is disliked -- and a prescription of what to do about it -- requires a more detailed probe into the disjuncture between American public opinion and policy. Why hasn't the American public's preference for multilateralism and international law -- documented in America Against the World and earlier surveys -- been able to register in U.S. policy making during the Bush era? Why have Americans supported an aggressive transformative agenda in the Middle East despite a belief that American values and systems should not be imposed overseas? The answers are simply beyond the scope of this book.

Joffe, who is the publisher and editor of the German paper Die Zeit, offers some insight into the problems in Überpower, a sophisticated and compelling analysis of America's international position since 9-11. Given the self-preserving tendencies of hegemonic powers, Joffe argues that it's perfectly logical -- even historically inevitable -- that the United States would try to extend its own influence and prevent the emergence of any rival. In the process, however, the United States has generated a backlash. Focusing on Europe, Joffe provides a penetrating and even-handed portrayal of the envy and disdain that color elite perceptions of the United States. But just as Kohut and Stokes give too much weight to popular opinion, so Joffe at times falls into the opposite trap of seeing elite opinion as the all-important factor in politics.

Joffe argues intriguingly that elite resentment of the United States stems as much from its economic and cultural influence as from its military and foreign policies. He takes on a well-aired argument by the political scientist Joseph Nye that the United States needs to rely less on armed force and more on “soft power” -- a combination of diplomacy, goodwill gestures, and cultural potency. Soft power, Joffe argues, doesn't actually build affinities with America but, on the contrary, “twists minds in resentment and rage.”

As an example, Joffe cites the Toubon Law in France that aimed to stanch the spread of American culture by penalizing the use of such English words as “car wash” and “disk jockey.” Similarly, Joffe describes in depth the venomous reaction of German art critics when a collection from New York's Museum of Modern Art was exhibited in Berlin in 2004. The critics argued that America had stolen modern art from Europe. “Thus was pilferage and grand theft added to the oldest of indictments: America's cultural inferiority,” Joffe writes.

Joffe acknowledges America's power of “seduction” over foreigners. But he maintains that, like an impulsive one-night stand, the attraction quickly sours into repulsion: “We hate the seducer for seducing us, and we hate ourselves for yielding to temptation.” But Joffe never convincingly establishes that the revulsion toward America is widely felt and acted upon. Notwithstanding the Toubon Law, French scientists now follow the rule “publish in English or perish in French” and a French minister of education announced in 1998 that English should no longer be considered a foreign language in French schools. Joffe also acknowledges that, for all the critical attacks on the Berlin MoMA show, more than a million visitors lined up to see it.

The elite disdain and popular embrace of American culture may be linked. For the popular appeal of America's language, art, or movies may be precisely what irks cultural guardians and governments. German critics wouldn't have mounted so vociferous an attack on an exhibit they thought few Berliners would bother to see. Even at the height of the Iraq War, international efforts to boycott U.S. products and brands never gained traction.

Joffe is most convincing when he used the historical experiences of Britain and Germany to analyze how the United States can fashion a type of superpower leadership that the rest of the world will follow. For the 250 years before World War I, Britain repeatedly sided with the weaker countries on the European continent to counter the rise of potentially threatening powers. According to Joffe, however, the United States will not find it easy to recruit allies to balance a rising China or a threatening Middle East power such as Iran in part because of economic interdependence -- need for access to Chinese markets or capital and Iranian oil, for example. More apt to America's situation, Joffe argues, is Bismarck's strategy after 1871 of forging an overlapping array of sometimes conflicting alliances and friendships -- an approach Joffe calls “bonding” in contrast to Britain's “balancing.” This strategy allowed Bismarck to envelop virtually every important country in symbiotic relationships that aligned their political and economic interests with his own, deterring the formation of coalitions against Germany. But, as Joffe points out, in the modern era of shifting threats, keeping other countries enfolded in warm bear hugs requires providing enough goods and benefits so that the embraced are not tempted to wriggle free.

On this model, the task for America involves building relationships bilaterally with many different nations and successfully shaping opinion on both a mass and an elite level. But any such strategy will all come to naught without U.S. policies that other countries can support. Under President Bush, the under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs Karen Hughes has had an impossible job; perhaps no one in that position could ever have been expected to build respect for America abroad. After all, we once had, not just a single official, but an entire department devoted to that mission. It was called the Department of State.

Suzanne Nossel is a senior fellow at the Security and Peace Initiative, a joint project of The Century Foundation and Center for American Progress.