After a similar challenge posed by George W. Bush following popular opposition to his invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Trump presidency is another reminder to America’s allies of the dangers that emerge when individuals, rather than economic and political structures, are considered significant agents of change.
The personification of politics works well in the liberal outskirts of empire when White House incumbents are popular. But when someone as polarising as Donald Trump is elected, lobbyists for Washington must work especially hard to distinguish the value of the US alliance from the behavior of a transient President. This is not an easy task, as the 2018 Lowy Institute poll reveals. Although support for the alliance remains solid to this point, trust in the US to act responsibly in the world has collapsed as Australians increasingly distance themselves from the United States under the 45th President.
This will eventually spill over attitudes towards the alliance and it is unsurprising. Trump’s policies lack coherence and consistency, he seems to have no ideological principles beyond personal and family avarice, he owes Australia nothing and one of his few consistencies over the last eighteen months has been criticism of America’s traditional allies.
In difficult periods such as this one, local US lobbies try to reinforce bipartisan support for the relationship through institutions such as the Australia America Leadership Dialogue, which seeks to socialise present and future media, academic and political elites into the ongoing importance of the alliance. Opportunities to network and schmooze with shakers and movers within the US political establishment whilst being duchessed in the Washington beltway, proves irresistible to most Australian invitees. As it does when Australian “thought leaders” and “influencers” meet with their British and Israeli counterparts in matching institutional structures.
However, when this approach is insufficient to deal with America’s critics, US lobbyists in Australia play the anti-American card, an attempt to conflate opposition to US foreign policy with hostility to America and Americans. This tactic is increasingly popular elsewhere, especially in Israel where defenders of the holy state often conflate opposition to Tel Aviv’s treatment of Palestinians with anti-semitism in an attempt to intimidate and silence Israel’s critics.
Accusations of anti-Americanism are curious but effective. They presuppose an identification of the state with attitudes towards a nation or a society. As Noam Chomsky explains:
Those with deep totalitarian commitments identify the state with the society, its people, and its culture. Therefore those who criticised the policies of the Kremlin under Stalin were condemned as “anti-Soviet” or “hating Russia”. For their counterparts in the West, those who criticise the policies of the US government are “anti-American” and “hate America”; these are the standard terms used by intellectual opinion, including left-liberal segments, so deeply committed to their totalitarian instincts that they cannot even recognise them, let alone understand their disgraceful history …
The charge of anti-Americanism is nothing less than an accusation of racism, designed to stigmatise, discredit and silence those who question or oppose US foreign policy. US motives are assumed to be pure and noble, beyond criticism except for the execution of policy which occasionally might be flawed. As Chomsky says:
Across the entire spectrum of debate it’s presupposed that the US, alone in modern history, acts out of a commitment to abstract moral principles rather than rational calculation by ruling groups concerned for their material interests.
Criticisms of the cost and feasibility of US efforts to “do good” in Indochina, Central America and the Middle East is allowed providing they are limited to questions of tactics rather than motives. “Mistakes”, “strategic blunders” and “tragic errors” can always occur in pursuit of honourable objectives. The Vietnam War, for example, was lost, not because it was wrong to attack South Vietnam in principle (a non-subject), but because insufficient resources were allocated, there was a lack of political will to see the conflict through, and domestic support for the war was undermined by radical student groups sympathetic to the enemy.
However, there should be no talk of “US aggression” or “US state terrorism”, let alone “US imperialism”: these are not so much taboo subjects, they are non-subjects – and therefore unworthy of any consideration. Those who question the motives of the United States lack sufficient loyalty to the West and betray a simplistic and hateful left wing bias. Instead, they should respect the “indispensable state” and its historic mission as leader of the democratic world.
International politics from a Western perspective is replete with non-subjects. In the Middle East they include Israeli “colonialism” on the West Bank and the idea that Iran is supporting the Syrian government to “curb Israeli expansionism” in the region. It is the same for the fact that Israel, more than any other state including Russia, meddles in US elections. Or that the US has conducted promiscuous interventions across the world since 1945. These ideas lie outside “legitimate” political discourse and analysis. Again it is not that these subjects are considered and then rejected: they are unthinkable.
In a binary West versus the rest world, accusations of anti-Americanism are likely to become a more common method of smearing opponents of US foreign policy.
Moral panics about challenges to Western civilisation and the failure to defend Western ideas and values are, in part, products of the relative decline of US power and authority in the world. They are not just about the economic rise of India and China. The capacity of the US-led West to impose its will on the rest of the world through economic and military dominance, is no longer what it once was. This is what is meant by the collapse of the so-called rules-based international order, which could more accurately be described as unchallenged US hegemony that fellow Western states could sometimes benefit from. Whether it is at the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation or in various environmental summits dealing with the challenges of climate change, the West can no longer be confident that it will always prevail.
Nostalgia for the dominance of Western civilisation omits the ways in which US and European hegemony were always seen outside the centres of Western power. Slavery, colonialism, occupation, exploitation and military aggression were the norm “out there” and correctly considered central features of West’s mission civilisatrice. To be reminded of this inside the centres of Western power today only invites accusations of disloyalty to the Western world’s Judeo-Christian heritage generally, and in more specific guise, anti-Americanism.
Dr Scott Burchill is Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Deakin University.