HONG KONG - Anti-Americanism is on the rise again. Evidence is anecdotal, and a very clear cause like the Vietnam War is lacking. But from surprising and diverse quarters one is hearing hostile sentiments aimed at America in general rather than simply at specific policies.
George W. Bush is not the cause, after only four months in office. But he has perhaps been a catalyst, with actions ranging from environmental policies to missile defense stimulating latent anti-American viruses. Like any anti-ism, this is an emotional reaction rather than anything susceptible to reasoned discussion. But it needs to be recognized as a troubling trend.
In Asia, some current complaints could be dismissed as the frustrations of the China lobby at Washington's new, hard-nosed attitude to Beijing. For every China sympathizer crying "foul" there are probably a Japanese, an Indian and a Malay quietly cheering Mr. Bush's arms sales to Taiwan and courtesy to the Dalai Lama.
But there is a sense that being the only superpower has gone to America's head, as if it were now the only power. In particular, it can set the rules of globalization, defining its "good" and "bad" aspects.
There is nothing new about congressional disdain for the United Nations, but it has been thrown into sharper focus by the push for economic liberalization and globalized brands. So the world must have Coca-Cola and McDonald's, but not globalized decision-making.
The issue of an international human rights court may not be a major global concern. But when America lectures other countries on the need for legal frameworks and institutions, its own refusal to accept international jurisdiction is seen for what it is. Anti-Americanism feeds on such once un-American phenomena as the concentration of international media in few (and sometimes highly ideological) hands. Much damage is being done to the pluralism of which the United States is so justly proud by its self-promoting multimedia news combines. If America - not its citizens - is seen to press its narrow corporate interests rather than its philosophy of freedom and diversity, the outcome will be negative for America and the world.
That world, and Asia in particular, is used to lectures on the merits of competition. But how many global users of personal computers and the Internet can escape Microsoft?
In various theaters the image of the United States as the gentle giant, the peacemaking intermediary, may be eroding. One never used to hear much comment in East Asia about Israel/Palestine and the U.S. role, but that may be changing. If Washington fails, due to domestic pressures, to put its full weight behind its own Mitchell report, its honest broker role and global acceptance of its commitment to racial equality will suffer.
Its reputation is already being eroded as outsiders perceive, rightly or not, its government to be too influenced by fundamentalist Christians.
Much of the world has long wanted the United States to take leads because it believed that America was well-motivated and in the forefront of social and technological progress. It likes to see America lead by example. But if America is seen, as with emission standards, to put narrow domestic interests before global needs, respect can easily turn to disappointment and contempt.
The same applies to trade liberalization. The U.S. record is superb, but doubts are being raised. Does it really want China in the World Trade Organization? Does it put trade with the Americas before WTO progress? The doubters are probably wrong, but that there are doubts is worrying. America's assumptions about its own economy are also drawing ire. East Asia mostly made a pragmatic response to its financial crisis, opening up trade to competition and industries to foreign takeover as required by the IMF. The easy money and tax cutting policies now being pursued in the United States are the very opposite of the austerity forced on Asia when it ran into its debt and over-investment problems. America's response to its own problems, its failure to subject itself to monetary discipline, is possible because of the dollar's dominant reserve currency role. One is now hearing in Asia the sentiment that Charles de Gaulle expressed in the 1960s. Why should a country with a huge deficit still be able to buy other countries' industries by using its reserve currency status?
It is of course not America's fault that Japan and Europe have failed to establish their currencies' credibility, or that Asian monetary cooperation has proved minimal. But those concerned to halt the spread of the anti-American virus cannot ignore this issue.
Europe's periodic bouts of anti-Americanism have never become overwhelming. Sensible friends and allies want the United States to use its technological superiority to maintain its global reach as others, such as China, gain in relative strength and ambition.
But it does America no favors to deny that resentment of its attitudes and assumptions has been increasing. The nation which invented public relations should look to its own.
© 2001 the International Herald Tribune