The Roots of Resentment

Why so many people hate America

The entire world seemed to pause in solidarity with American suffering in the hours and days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. With national flags flying at half-mast from Paris to Tokyo and the revulsion and horror expressed by millions around the globe, many Americans felt less alone in a suddenly uncertain world. It even seemed as if the U.S. had no enemies at all--apart from a shadowy band of Islamic radicals in distant lands.

Tap the pulse of the streets in many world capitals, though, and it becomes clear the U.S. fan club is not as big as many American citizens and policymakers want to believe. In France, politicians from across the political spectrum rushed to support the U.S. in a way not seen since World War II. But there also has been a rash of angry calls to the popular Radio France Internationale. "What is so special about the American dead?" asked one caller. "Millions have died in Africa, but they never left messages on answering machines since they were too poor to have cell phones." Half a world away, Chinese Internet sites were jammed with anti-U.S. vitriol before censors clamped down. When he heard of the bombing, Beijing construction site supervisor Li Jiankun, 30, says he felt sympathy for the American people but none for the U.S. government. "They are constantly intervening in other countries' affairs," Li says. "This is an opinion shared by all my co-workers." And in the streets of Cairo, tour guide Abdel Hady Gaballah voices the sentiments of many: "Everyone knows that America's policies lack justice," he says.

Varied voices, indeed. But they mirror an unpleasant truth: Beneath the surface of public promises of solidarity with the U.S. in this time of crisis lurks a deep and growing resentment of America and its policies. To be sure, anti-Americanism in most places is hardly the virulent variety exhibited by flag-burning mobs. And more often than not, it's mixed with admiration and even a desire to live in America.

UNDERCURRENTS. But the sentiment is serious enough that it could pose major challenges as President George W. Bush solicits worldwide support for a war on terrorism. Across the 22 nations of the Arab world, strong anti-U.S. undercurrents breed tolerance of terrorist networks like those of Osama bin Laden. And as the U.S. fights back in the coming months, domestic opinion could weaken the support in Europe, Central Asia, and moderate Mideast states for sustained military action, especially if U.S. strikes kill Muslim civilians.

The causes of anti-Americanism differ from region to region. And they reflect how much the world has changed since the end of the cold war. American ideals inspired student protesters in Beijing at Tiananmen Square in 1989. And in the early 1990s, the U.S. basked in glory after driving the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. Throughout the collapsed Soviet empire, the American way was viewed as the new model. Following the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993, Washington was seen as an honest broker in the search for peace.

Canvas the global scene now. Begin with the turbulent Middle East, where support for eventual U.S. actions will be vital. It is the one region where anti-Americanism is now metastasizing out of control. At its most extreme, groups such as bin Laden's Al Qaeda network or the underground al Gamma al-Islamiyya, responsible for the murder of 58 tourists in Egypt in 1997, view America as the infidel power that is spreading its permissive, secular culture, the Great Satan that pollutes the world with its pornographic cinema, its alcohol, and its equal treatment of women. America is also seen as the prop for corrupt, secular Arab regimes, and of course, Israel. To these radicals, it is imperative that Americans be violently driven out of Dar al-Islam, the lands of Islam.

While only a tiny minority support terrorism, this stance strikes a chord among vast segments in the Middle East. The decade-old intifada among Palestinians has intensified smoldering resentment in moderate states such as Egypt over massive U.S. support for Israel. And while these nations backed the Persian Gulf War coalition against Saddam Hussein, they're angry at years of U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq. One sign: a Sept. 12 anti-U.S. demonstration in Kuwait itself. "The Arabs sense they have been not only scorned by the U.S., but considered somewhat less than human," says political scientist Dan Tschirgi of American University in Cairo.

The failure of key Muslim nations to benefit from globalization has created a more fertile ground in which extreme ideas can grow. While the U.S. boomed in the 1990s, Arab economies grew by a mere 0.7% annually. Unchecked population growth has resulted in massive youth unemployment. This has been coupled with a breakdown in social services. Indeed, across huge swaths of Western and Northern Africa and all the way to Pakistan, Islamic institutions--schools, welfare groups, even hospitals--have been stepping in to fill the gaps. "You can see people switching loyalties to an Islamic belief system as secular, liberal models fail for them," says Mark Malloch Brown, head of the United Nations Development Program.

The same trends are at work in the old Soviet republics of Central Asia. Since 1990, the economies of Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have shrunk dramatically. But a gush of U.S. aid in the early 1990s has slowed because of frustration over the slow pace of economic reform. "The social consequence is that you see an unhappy population that is moving toward Islamic fundamentalism," says Kathleen Collins, a University of Notre Dame researcher who has spent three years in Central Asia.

SCHEMING. Economic despair isn't the only ingredient for anti-Americanism. Take China. It has prospered over the past decade. But according to popular sentiment stoked by Beijing, the U.S. is scheming to keep China from becoming a world power. Many Chinese resent U.S. support of Taiwan and its criticism of Beijing's human rights abuses. "The Chinese do not support violence against America," says Gao Chaoqun, executive editor of Strategy & Management, a Beijing-based policy journal. "They just resent the U.S. hegemony."

Washington also cannot take the current front of European solidarity for granted. In Russia, there is resentment over Bush's plans to renounce missile control treaties and a feeling that the U.S. didn't offer enough aid after showering it with capitalistic advice. Among the left in Western Europe, the march of U.S. free-market policies and the abrogation of the Kyoto global warming treaty have sparked a globalization backlash. Members of France's center-left coalition government also are starting to chime up. "The reality is that American policy could only result in the kind of terrorism we've just seen," says Green Party member Noël Mamère.

For the past decade, a triumphant America has been able to push its agenda without worrying too much about what everyone else thought. That may well have to change if it wants the rest of the world's help for the fight ahead.

By John Rossant in Paris, with Pete Engardio in New York, Dexter Roberts in Beijing, Susan Postlewaite in Cairo, and Paul Starobin in Moscow

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE