Asia Program

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U.S. Alliance Politics: From Special Relationships to Anti-Americanism

December 17, 2008 // 2:30pm4:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Canada Institute
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Today, many nations seek "special relationships" with the United States. At the same time, public sentiment in many of these countries is increasingly anti-American. What accounts for these seemingly contradictory trends? This question was the subject of a presentation made by Brendon O'Connor at a December 17 event organized by the Asia Program and cosponsored by the Canada Institute.

O'Connor's remarks focused on the "Anglosphere" nations of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. These countries are bound together by a shared sense of "specialness" that fosters loyalty and trust. Anglosphere nations share intelligence; implement similar immigration policies; host many of each others' students on exchanges; and support free-market economies. In the security realm, they perceive risk as "diffuse," and not as "localized"—as do the nations of continental Europe. According to O'Connor, the Anglosphere also prefers "to mend fences quickly." Finally, these nations' political elites seek close relations with the United States.

While Anglosphere elites embrace Washington, Anglosphere publics are increasingly skeptical of it. Anti-Americanism is an "amorphous" concept, O'Connor acknowledged. It can be defined as a prejudice, an ideology, or a tendency. Yet regardless of how it is ultimately conceptualized, O'Connor asserted that the source of anti-Americanism is "how the United States uses its power, and how its rise to power is resented." Since the 19th century, he explained, America's burgeoning clout has been regarded as undeserved. The United States has long been depicted in the European media as an adolescent that has suddenly become immensely powerful.

How have special relationships and anti-Americanism been linked during the George W. Bush era? Using Australia, the UK, and Canada as case studies, O'Connor suggested that anti-American public sentiment may rise when special relations with the United States deepen. In Australia, former prime minister John Howard eagerly pursued a special relationship with Washington—and largely succeeded, as evidenced by the closer intelligence relationship his government cultivated with Bush's administration. How has the Australian public responded? According to O'Connor, there are now "bubbling anxieties" on a popular level—particularly about the threat encroaching Americanization poses to Australian cultural independence. Meanwhile, in the UK, a similar dynamic has played out. Former prime minister Tony Blair fervently sought, and secured, a special relationship with Bush. Consequently, Blair's public opinion ratings dropped and protests against the U.S.-led Iraq war proliferated.

Canada's experience has been different. Its relations with the United States in recent years, while strong, have been "less intense" than those of the UK or Australia—a reality that has "kept a lid on anti-Americanism" in Canada. O'Connor posited that Ottawa has actually emerged with "the least number of scars" in its relationship with Washington.

The event's first commentator, Michael Fullilove, underscored the depth of the ties between the Anglosphere nations. The "thickness" of their intelligence links is "hard to fully grasp," he noted. Below the political level, relationships are "really thick" and promote a sense of community. Nonetheless, he insisted, countries make decisions based on interests, not culture. He pointed out that two members of the Anglosphere—Canada and New Zealand—"sat out" the Iraq war, while two non-members—Spain and Poland—were early and enthusiastic war supporters. Fullilove closed with a warning: President Bush's departure will "expose a disconnect," in that Americans will expect their allies "to step up and share burdens," while America's allies will expect the United States to listen more. He concluded that President-elect Barack Obama should indeed listen to his allies—but "be deaf" to calls for isolationism and protectionism. In turn, leaders in nations close to the United States must be more forceful in promoting their countries' alliances with Washington when speaking to their publics.

The second commentator, Peter Beinart, observed that many members of the U.S. foreign policy elite have some sort of connection to the countries of the Anglosphere—while few can claim links to France, Russia, or other nations where English is not the native language. It is "blindingly obvious," Beinart argued, "that language matters a great deal" in the foreign policy realm. Many U.S. foreign policy elites also tend to be conservative. He argued that these cultural/linguistic connections to the Anglosphere and conservative ideology both help sustain America's strong relations with Anglosphere countries. For example, in the case of the UK, Americans perceive the British as "plucky" and as fighters—which is how many Americans like to think of themselves. Similarly, some of American conservatives' biggest heroes—such as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher—hail from the UK.

Drafted by Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020

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