With Donald Trump in the White House, it’s not surprising to see world opinion shift against the United States once again. Indeed, it feels like European public opinion has moved back to where it was in the Bush era when many people feared that the US was out of control.
After 9/11, the Bush Administration was animated by the hubris of revenge. Finally, the Republicans had a free pass for tearing up civil liberties and bombing countries. The first was Afghanistan, where the US made no effort to conceal its lust for revenge. There was no moral crusade comparable to Iraq in 2003. Officially, the US invaded the country just to catch Osama bin Laden. Yet it soon turned into a moral crusade, with the US occupying the country and engaging in statecraft.
The reasons for this can be debated. It is unlikely Afghanistan was ever important in and of itself to external powers, but rather that the country may be seen as a battleground between different players. For starters, the country is essential for building a future energy network across Central Asia. It’s also the case that India and Pakistan would like a friendly client regime in Kabul to take their side on Kashmir. But this is a tangent.
It’s important to remember that the European powers stayed with the US on Afghanistan. Even Russia and China saw the American ‘war on terror’ as an opportunity for them to crackdown against Muslims in Chechnya and Western China. It wouldn’t be until 2003 that France, Germany, Russia and China broke ranks. This was a rare moment of bravery, particularly for Germany.
Since then the European powers have returned to the fold, France and the US working closely together in the attack on Libya, the bombing of Syria and the intervention in Mali. Even Russia (despite all talk of the contrary) has worked with the US in its bombing campaign against Syrian rebels under the pretext of defeating Islamic State. Yet we’re meant to believe that Russia is happy to work with Trump, whereas France and Germany are not so enthused.
Earlier this year, Chancellor Angela Merkel was applauded for ignoring Trump’s inauguration. But she later went to Washington and tried to shake his hand, but he ignored her and was rated childish by the press. Likewise, President Emmanuel Macron’s aggressive handshake with Trump was celebrated by the French leader’s liberal supporters. The fact that neither Germany nor France has broken with the US is lost to such people.
The hypocrisy of European leaders is clear: Merkel first ignores Trump before paying her respects, while Macron squeezes the president’s hand, only to invite him to celebrate Bastille Day. At least the UK government is consistent in its slavish attitude. Say what you will about Theresa May, she doesn’t pretend to oppose Trump. There’s actually some honesty in her servility to American power.
The same can be said for the illusions built around the American presidency itself. The basic complaint of liberals and conservatives, who claim to oppose Trump, is that the world no longer has the kind of American leadership it had in the past. As if Trump is entirely aberrant from US history, as if the country has no leaders like him at all. Not Nixon, not Reagan, not Bush… People have such short memories. They often forget the misdeeds of the last president.
This is evident in the descriptions of Trump’s speech as a ‘u-turn’ for US foreign policy. It should not be forgotten that it was Obama who dropped the withdrawal of US troops after the Battle of Kunduz. And yet the mainstream media assumes that the withdrawal took place. It largely did, except for 8,400 soldiers. Trump’s position is to expand this presence and basically handover Afghan policy to the generals. This can only lead to disaster for Afghanistan and for the United States.
The kind of hypocrisy expressed by American liberals is alive and well in Europe in another form. It is alive and well in the search for a leader of the free world and the hope that the centre ground might still be saved, or even be able to save us. The latter is personified by Macron, the former by Merkel. The idea that either leader can save the liberal dream is utterly risible because neither is willing to really break with Trump. This is where the supposed chasm between Europe and America seems much more narrow. Indeed, the European powers (if we can even call them that) are now vassal states to the US world-empire.
This is always the danger of so-called ‘anti-Americanism’. If it just means a form of cultural snobbery, then the political reality can remain the same because sneering at Americans helps reconcile Europeans to their status as servants to empire. France takes part in NATO, but disapproves of Disneyland Paris to make up for it. Contrary to the hysterics on the US right, there is a severe dearth of ‘anti-Americanism’, but there is a more serious point – it may be insufficient for opposing the empire.
Photograph courtesy of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Published under a Creative Commons license.