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A YEAR AFTER

U.S. Foreign Policy Assertive, Divisive

Reaction: America's unilateralism has eroded the post-Sept. 11 global solidarity as nations grow disillusioned, critics say.

September 01, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — On Sept. 12, Le Monde newspaper printed a headline for the ages: "We are all Americans."

Such sentiment in France, whose Le Monde-reading elite tends to snipe at American politicians even as it consumes American products, epitomized a global outpouring of sympathy for the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In the following months, former foes and staunch allies backed what the United States called the war on terrorism. They generally regarded it as a smart, methodical campaign that did the world a service by toppling Afghanistan's Taliban regime and dismantling the Al Qaeda terrorist network base there. U.S. pressure combined with the horror of Sept. 11 to spur many countries to confront festering problems of Islamic extremism, border security and transnational crime.

The aftermath brought international transformations such as a remarkable U.S.-Russian partnership. The realpolitik of the war on terrorism created instant winners (Israel), forlorn losers (Latin America) and unlikely allies (Pakistan).

But in many ways and in many places, the attacks did not change the world. The post-Sept. 11 period of solidarity appears to have dissipated, a mere pause in a steady rise of disillusionment with the world's only remaining superpower, according to interviews conducted by Times correspondents around the world.

With a few important exceptions, foreign leaders and voters say the U.S. may have missed a historic opportunity to forge a broad international coalition and revamp its increasingly negative image.

"There was an all-time high splash of pro-American sentiment after Sept. 11," said Yuri A. Levada, director of VTSIOM, one of Russia's main polling groups. "But we soon saw that America didn't know what to do with all the support it was getting from all over the world, including Russia."

Today, critics accuse the U.S. of aggressive unilateralism. Rightly or wrongly, they regard the Bush administration--with the notable exception of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell--as a caricature of arrogance. They cite President Bush's "axis of evil" speech, the legal limbo of the prisoners in U.S. military custody at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, American opposition to an international criminal court and environmental treaty, and, most prominently, the current war of words on Iraq.

If the U.S. marches alone against Iraq, it might find itself with fewer friends than in a long time, according to the interviews.

"The U.S. thinks it can fight any country that disobeys its rule," said Wu Wei, 35, a Chinese journalist. "But the truth is that no country can rule the world.... If the U.S. doesn't modify its current policies, more Americans will be sacrificed for the wrongheaded policies of the U.S. government."

As always, the America-bashing must be examined carefully and in context. It seems almost ritualistic to blow off steam with rhetoric while quietly cooperating with and benefiting from U.S. policies.

Anti-Americanism is a familiar and tricky phenomenon, according to Chris Brown, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. Brown said Europeans react superficially to issues such as the saber-rattling on Iraq, failing to recognize that the debate in Washington is more sophisticated than critics would acknowledge.

"There is an ambiguous view of America in the world anyway," Brown said. "Everybody criticizes it, but the people who criticize it most virulently are the same ones who want to go and work there."

The United States still enjoys the allegiance of allies from Britain to Japan, Italy to Australia. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared with characteristic effusiveness last year: "I love America. I am on whatever side America is on, even before I know what it is."

Probably more than any nation, Israel remains a staunch friend of America. Israelis also see themselves fighting a war on terrorism, even if Palestinians and some Israeli dissenters say the analogy is flawed. Israeli support grew during the last year as the Bush administration sided overwhelmingly with Israel in the conflict with the Palestinian Authority and all but abandoned Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

In fact, Israel may be unique in that it actually encourages an invasion of Iraq--"the sooner the better," as government officials put it. The conservative Jerusalem Post recently proclaimed that Bush's hard line on Iraq puts him "at the cusp of greatness."

On Sept. 11, unexpected solidarity came from a formidable former enemy. The first world leader to call Bush with condolences was Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. The phone call set up a sea change in the relationship. Amid consternation and grief, the world almost took for granted the unexpected transformation in U.S. relations with Russia.

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