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The Washington Quarterly 25.2 (2002) 101-114

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Winning the War of Ideas

Antony J. Blinken

U.S. success in Afghanistan will count for little if the United States loses the global war of ideas. That war has produced a growing gap between much of the world's perception of the United States and the U.S. perception of itself. If this gap persists, U.S. influence abroad will erode, and the partners the United States needs to advance its interests will stand down. The few real enemies the United States faces will find it easier both to avoid sanction and to recruit others to their cause.

The United States remains powerfully attractive. Most people around the world hold a favorable view of the United States, considering it a land of opportunity and democratic ideals while admiring the country's technological and scientific achievements. 1 Millions of the world's citizens desire to move to, become educated in, do business with, or visit the United States. When people vote with their feet, the United States wins in a landslide.

Yet, the United States tends to disregard an increasingly potent mix of criticism and resentment that is diluting its attraction: anti-Americanism. Admittedly, anti-Americanism is a recurring refrain in U.S. history. A century ago, conservatives in Europe looked across the Atlantic and saw a society plagued by loose mores, bad manners, materialism, and egocentrism. A few decades ago, liberal critics around the world saw a country poisoned by racial strife at home and corrupted by its association with dictators abroad.

Although anti-Americanism is nothing new, its relevance to U.S. interests is emerging in starker relief. The early United States had few ambitions beyond its borders; European disdain was that of old money for new and did not prevent the United States from prospering. In the 1960s, for every person distressed by U.S. deficiencies, dozens more were alienated by Soviet [End Page 101] tyranny. Now, the United States has global interests and no ideological rival whose vices remind the world of its virtues. The United States' global pervasiveness makes it a symbol of the status quo and, rightly or wrongly, a potential target for people everywhere who do not like the status quo. The war of ideologies is over. The war of ideas is just beginning.

Critics of the United States cluster in distinct, if overlapping, categories. Some focus on U.S. policies abroad, others on U.S. domestic behavior. Some decry unilateralism and the onslaught of "Americanization"; others fear exclusion from the progress and prosperity that the United States enjoys.

As a result, on the battlefield of ideas, the United States often is on the defensive for what it does or fails to do, as well as for how others perceive it. Some of the criticisms are justified. On other fronts, however, facts have been losing ground to fiction. Many Muslims outside the United States consider the country hostile to Islamic and to Arab interests. In fact, the United States saved tens of thousands of Muslims in the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Washington brokered a peace offer from Israel that would have given Palestinians 95 percent of the occupied territories and dominion over East Jerusalem. At the request of the government of Saudi Arabia, U.S. troops were deployed there to protect that country's people and Islamic holy sites from Iraq. The United Nations (UN)--not the United States--imposed sanctions against Iraq. The Taliban killed far more Muslims intentionally than the U.S. bombing campaign killed accidentally; the demise of the Taliban will save many more Muslim lives.

Europeans complain about a growing values gap between the West and the United States. They see a country enamored of the death penalty, obsessed with guns and violence, and beholden to unchecked capitalism. In fact, U.S. citizens are questioning the death penalty, not embracing it; violent crime is at a 30-year low; large majorities favor stricter gun control; and the poverty rate is at its lowest level in 22 years. On every continent, some blame...


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