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Thursday, Oct. 04, 2001

The initial response in Britain to the terrorist attacks of September 11th was one of horror, disbelief, and concern. Apart from grief for the Britons who died, there was a spontaneous and striking outpouring of sympathy for America.

Since then, shock has given way to a sense of mobilization, fuelled by Prime Minister Tony Blair's grim-faced resolve and tabloid newspaper speculation about undercover heroics on the part of the British special forces. Rumbling underneath this, however, has been another current of thought: a residual suspicion about U.S. power and influence in the world.

Distrust of the United States exists on both sides of the political spectrum here in Britain, but is particularly a feature of the traditional left. The most extreme manifestation was a now-notorious editorial in the weekly New Statesman, suggesting that the New York bond traders who died were less innocent victims than the civilians killed by American forces in Iraq or Vietnam, because the traders lived in a democracy where they could influence government policy.

Even on the left, this argument was generally held to be a little over the top. However the sentiment behind it — that America is a force for oppression and injustice in the world — is more widely shared, among many in Britain and in the international community. Thus, if Washington truly wants to build a broad international base of support for its new mission against terrorism, it might be worth trying to understand a little better the kind of reactions that America's global role provokes.

America Commands Attention, But Fails to Pay Attention

For a number of years, there has been an unhealthy asymmetry of attention between the United States and the rest of the world. Since the end of the Cold War, international affairs have figured only sporadically in public debate in America. Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo: these have been episodes that flickered across the television screen and faded away, leaving America's sense of itself basically untouched.

To much of the outside world, by contrast, the United States appears omnipresent. The French, for example, are so preoccupied with America's unrivalled global reach that they use the new term "hyperpower" to describe it.

The tide of international economic integration has washed so much American culture around the world that globalization and Americanization are widely seen as synonymous. Indeed, the combination of American military, cultural, and economic predominance has produced a feeling in many quarters that America is ramming its "system" down the world's throat. These are all sentiments that one hears expressed with regularity outside the U.S. — though not always to Americans.

Two Strands of Criticisms of the U.S. From Abroad

Predominant among this loose collection of arguments are two distinct strands of thought. One holds that America is imposing a uniform socio-economic model on the world. This is happening, it is alleged, through international institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO, and through the expansion of international markets, particularly capital markets.

"Globalization", the prominent British journalist Will Hutton wrote recently, "has become a vehicle for the expansion of U.S. standards, systems and values." He warned Europeans to be on guard against "the subtle colonization of our imagination" by Uncle Sam. In a similar vein, the French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine has complained of the "uniformity" that results from American supremacy.

The second line of criticism takes issue with American unilateralism. It complains about the United States' trying to apply its own laws extra-territorially, and insisting on the maintenance of the embargo on Iraq.

This latter view also faults the U.S. for pulling out of the Kyoto protocol on climate change, an important environmental measure; for refusing to sign agreements on germ warfare and the international criminal court; and for its announced intention to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia. The U.S. is criticized for wanting to impose international justice on others, yet not being willing to live by the rules it would impose — by, for example, subjecting its own citizens to the jurisdiction of an international court.

Perhaps the best summary of this second line of thinking is the proposition debated by the Oxford Union in May 1999: "Resolved, that the United States is a rogue state."

Somewhat Contradictory Complaints, But Serious Ones

It's worth noting that these two complaints are in tension with each other. After all, at the heart of globalization is an extension of institutional and legal forms around the world — not just through the freeing of capital transfers, but through the institution of a whole network of legal regulations and procedures as well.

Accordingly, globalization ought to force the United States to become less of a rogue state, by extending uniform rules and practices internationally — to affect the U.S. as well. By its nature, the fledgling international regime created by globalization is bound to observe the rule of law and honour the principle of consistency. It also creates a forum in which arguments of fairness can be made — if the United States and the other leading powers are prepared to listen.

Why the "War on Terrorism" Should Be Multilateral

If Americans want a true answer to why some dislike the U.S. abroad, these two arguments — that America is forcing globalization on the world, and that it fails to follow international rules — are a good place to start.

It should be emphasized that these arguments do not explain the hatred of Osama bin Laden and the terrorists themselves; that hatred is deeply involved with America's presence in the Middle East, and aid to Israel as well. But they do explain the possible ambivalence, or even opposition, some potential allies might have towards U.S. counterterrorism measures, if they are imposed unilaterally. And they explain why one need not be a terrorist, or anything approaching one, to be highly uncomfortable with American foreign policy.

The United States suffers particularly from the sense that it wants to write the rules for other countries, while refusing to be bound by them itself. It would do well to listen to those who are concerned that the new global order, which America promotes and benefits from, does too little to serve the interests of the poor.

Even more, as the administration gears up for a long and difficult international campaign, it should commit itself firmly to a more multilateral approach. This would be in keeping with the idea of a battle against terrorism — which can, after all, be seen as a form of organized crime within the international community. And it would be true to the American domestic tradition of equality under the law, with equality, too, being viewed on an international scale, as equality among nations.

Anthony Dworkin is a writer and journalist based in London. He was until recently a producer with BBC Current Affairs.

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