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Commentary

So What If They Hate the U.S.?

January 31, 2002|EDWARD BERNARD GLICK | Edward Bernard Glick is a professor emeritus of political science at Temple University in Philadelphia.

The purveyors of international opinion, particularly in Western Europe, are at it again. This time, they're criticizing the United States for its supposed mistreatment of the Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Before that, they criticized us for detaining people from the Middle East who may be here illegally, as if that were not a serious offense.

I wonder, though, how would Frenchmen, Britons and Swedes be behaving now if, instead of destroying New York's World Trade Center on Sept. 11, terrorists had killed 3,000 people in attacks on the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the area around Big Ben in London or the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm?

Americans should be very wary of European public opinion.

With few exceptions, Europe's elites, particularly on the left, always have been publicly contemptuous (and privately jealous) of the U.S. They have mocked our dynamism, openness, diversity, informality, social mobility and our appeal to the huddled masses of the world.

Despite the fact that the U.S. saved Europe in both world wars, and left thousands of its soldiers buried in its graveyards while doing so, Europe cannot forgive history for its having ceded to us in the New World the Old World's erstwhile cultural, diplomatic, economic and military dominance.

When European intellectuals and their U.S. counterparts proclaim that the peoples of the world hate the U.S., they forget that Americans are not the ones who are paying fortunes of money to be smuggled into other countries. It's the other way around.

Nothing delights liberal Americans and foreigners more than seeking solutions acceptable to world public opinion. Yet nothing is more difficult for them to grasp than the myth of international public opinion. Because of different perceptions of justice, democracy, self-determination, colonialism and imperialism, world public opinion is a phenomenon that really doesn't exist.

In the heat of an issue, how many people stop to realize that what passes for world public opinion isn't based on an agreed-upon value system, that it is not always objective, that it is hard to define, that it is easily manufactured or manipulated, that it is fragmented and ephemeral, that it has a short memory and that it can often turn out to be wrong?

Take the matter of definition. How should one define world public opinion on a given issue? By the level of violence committed in its name? By its repetition? By its media coverage? By the language and number of resolutions that the United Nations has adopted on the issue?

Or take its fickle and forgetful nature. The world public opinion that condemned U.S. intervention in Vietnam is the same that ignored China's conquest of Tibet. The foreign intellectuals who condemned U.S. use of nonlethal tear gas during the Vietnam War were the same intellectuals who maintained silence when Iraq used lethal poison gas during the Iraq-Iran War.

Clearly, when a democracy such as the U.S. enters something as momentous as the war on terrorism, it is obliged to debate, explain and, if possible, justify its actions. But when Thomas Jefferson admonished us, in the Declaration of Independence, to afford "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind," he did not mean blind obedience.

When U.S. national interests are involved, when there is no other choice in, say, fighting terrorism or preventing rogue states from using weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. must do what it must do, even if that means defying the multifarious voices of mirage-like public opinion.

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