Skip to main content


It’s Getting Weird Over Here: A U.S. Expat Ruminates on Europe’s Increasing Anti-Americanism

By Alexander Wardwell
March 24, 2003

A friend in Berlin says he’s so tired of Germans getting into his face about Iraq he doesn’t go out much anymore. Another friend, living just outside Paris, told me his kids are getting harassed at school for being half-American. And in London, someone kicked in the rear window of another friend’s car, where she had a sticker commemorating the victims of 9/11. It’s getting weird over here.

For the tens of thousands of Americans living in Europe, this latest wave of anti-Americanism is unwelcome if not all that surprising. Hemingway and Fitzgerald seemed to have a lot fun in Paris between the wars and more American servicemen probably got laid on VE Day than at any other time in the history of the US Armed Forces, but that was a long time ago. Since then, being an American in Europe has been a bit like sharing a beautiful house with a toothless, elderly relative who constantly lectures you on your poor manners, bad behavior and the company you keep.

Today, it’s more like living with a bitter spouse, threatening divorce. Since I moved to Oslo, Norway, in 1998, I’ve seen European views toward America evolve from a kind of affectionate condescension to shrill, self-righteous hysteria. Indeed, anti-Americanism sells over here. Entire sections of bookstores in Paris are devoted to windy, Anti-American screeds with catchy titles such as Who Is Killing France?, American Totalitarianism, No Thanks Uncle Sam, A Strange Dictatorship.

Looking for something in English? Will Hutton, a former editor of the Observer, wrote a book describing America’s "democracy" as "an offense to democratic ideals," one that is indifferent to "tenacious endemic racism" with an economy that "rests on an enormous confidence trick." Anti-Americanism has political clout too: Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder won a tight election by promising that Germany would never support a war on Iraq, and Chirac’s approval ratings in France have soared to 85 percent on his "courageous" stance against "American unilateralism."

And they talk about us all the time. In almost every newspaper, news broadcast, magazine or radio show, it doesn't take long before you come across some scathing or patronizing commentary on US culture, politics, or foreign policy. At times, attending a dinner party can feel like an interrogation, where even the most earnest left-leaning Bush-hating expat is confronted with America’s crimes: from slavery to capital punishment, corporate scandals to The Ricki Lake Show.

A few years ago, I was cornered by a Norwegian at a party with a chip on his shoulder about US Cold War crimes in South America. As he rattled on about CIA supported coups, assassinations, right-wing juntas, covert wars and murderous drug-dealing dictators, white flecks of saliva began forming at the corners of his mouth and he started jabbing my chest with an accusatory finger.

I felt terrible. Apart from the export of boy-bands, nothing makes me feel more embarrassed about being an American than US abuses of power. But I couldn’t help wonder why this Norwegian, who didn’t speak Spanish and had never been west of Portugal, was so obsessed with some alleged "CIA wet job" that took place 30 years ago in the jungles of Chile. If I took a French friend of mine to a party in Des Moines, I wouldn’t expect some farmer in a feed cap to start ripping into him about French colonial abuses in Algeria.

Sadly, the Norwegian was no exception. I’ve endured similar lectures from other European experts on US foreign policy in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and parts of Africa (who knew the US helped fund a civil war in Angola?). These are all regions where the US has behaved terribly, and should be held accountable. But why the crimes of US foreign policy in distant lands should be so fascinating to Europeans doesn’t quite make sense. Like any oversized empire, America has been terrorizing citizens of underdeveloped countries since Teddy Roosevelt was in office, but you seldom hear them complaining. I’ve felt more welcome in Havana than I have in Madrid, and I know people who have been to Saigon and swear that the people of Vietnam—a country almost destroyed by an American war that left 1.4 million dead—love Americans.

Last year, most of the lectures I got were about US foreign policy in the Middle East, and they were all about the same: Our lust for oil, unswerving support for Israel, and cozy relationship with the region’s oppressive oligarchies has turned the Middle East into a seething cauldron of hate, suffering and terrorism. Maybe so. But the difference is that over here, most people actually believe Bush will go to war because his Daddy told him to, or because he owes it to his oil buddies in Texas who paid off the Supreme Court to give him the election.

Now it’s Iraq. A war with Iraq may turn out to be the worst idea in the history of bad ideas, but too often, any thoughtful debate on the issue in Europe is drowned out by obsessive rage over US abuses of power. You seldom hear any viable solution to the crisis or what might happen if the US (or the UN) does nothing. I stopped by the "No War Against Iraq" protest march in Oslo on February 15th, but after hearing a few speeches and reading a few angry placards (many written in English), it felt more like an anti-American rally than a peace protest. Curiously, no one made any impassioned calls for Saddam Hussein to disarm or go into exile—and no one thought to burn him in effigy. For some reason, his murderous tyranny is accepted as immutable fact—a product of bad US foreign policy.

So, while angry demonstrations have turned many US embassies around Europe into defensive bunkers, Iraqi embassies are free to go about their business undisturbed. One almost senses a kind of latent sympathy for the besieged Iraqi regime—not for what it is, but for having the guts to defy the world’s last superpower. Even the human shields (many of whom fled Iraq for safer ground before the war) seem more motivated by American hypocrisy than the cause of peace. Consider these remarks from Ken O’Keefe, a former US Marine and human shield organizer in the UK: "The fact is that the world's most powerful nation would be stopped in its imperialist tracks if thousands of Westerners might be killed by its oil lust war."

What could possibly explain all this anger, paranoia and hostility? Some American expats think European resentment is motivated by simple jealousy, or an expression of impotent rage directed against the last superpower. Our European friends tell us it has more to do with America behaving like, well, a jerk. Others say it’s not as bad as it seems—a division exploited by politicians and the media, and that it will all blow over soon. Perhaps, but it feels more like a love affair that has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

One thing I’ve noticed is that once they’re done trashing some aspect of American culture, politics or foreign policy, most Europeans will admit it’s not all bad. And with a little encouragement, you can get some to admit that they admire at least the idea of America—the novelty of its glorious cultural mix that makes, say, New Orleans so different from Chicago, or the endearing sense of optimism expressed in everything from our Bill of Rights to the skyscrapers of New York.

Some glory in the absurd tackiness of it all—Las Vegas, Graceland, Hollywood, Disneyworld, etc., while others are curiously fixated on some particular aspect of American culture, such as jazz, Harley-Davidsons and, in Germany anyway, the vocal stylings of David Hasselhoff. American writers, poets, scientists, entrepreneurs, composers, musicians, artists and filmmakers are widely admired over here, and certainly, young people can’t get enough of our music, movies and television. Older people—those who remember not only the horrors of Nazi occupation but the smoking ruin that was Europe in the summer of 1945—often get a little misty eyed when they remember seeing their first American GI, tossing Hershey bars from the turret of a Sherman tank.

It's love, all right, but a love poisoned by betrayal. What they can’t seem to get around is the vast gulf between what America promises and what it delivers. When speaking of America, I’ve noticed that many Europeans tend to preface such terms as free press, democracy, freedom, equality, liberty and justice with the words "so-called". On one occasion, an Italian I met (who evidently spent time in LA), went so far as to use air-quotes when he referred to me as an "American," as if to distinguish me, I guess, from some Apache tribal elder. I’ve had Europeans quote me parts of the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights to highlight some hypocrisy of American life, as if to say, "How can you say that, and do that?"

But Americans are born with this contradiction. We are weaned on this seeming hypocrisy until we are old enough to reconcile the thrilling power of the ideas on which America is based with the reality of our daily lives. I often have to remind Europeans that despite all that talk of liberty and justice, many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves and wanted to restrict the vote to white men who owned land. For all our lofty ideals, free market capitalism, the great engine of American wealth, is built on the assumption that human nature is selfish, greedy and ruthless.

America was founded on this uneasy mix of barbaric violence and utopian vision, vicious greed and remarkable acts of charity, hopelessness and opportunity. America’s global dominance may rely in part on its cynical use of power, but the wellspring of its unprecedented influence can be summarized by the revolutionary ideas on which our country was founded, beginning with the inspiring if fanciful notion that "all men are created equal."

This ability to live with contradictions is why, for example, an American can listen to Bruce Springsteen’s rock anthem "Born in the USA"—one of the most savage indictments of America ever written—and feel patriotic. It is why we love our democracy even as the few that bother to vote regard our elected officials as sleazy liars and cheats. It is why so many of our national heroes—from Martin Luther King Jr. to Cesar Chavez, Jesse Owens to Susan B. Anthony—triumphed not because of, but in spite of America. Greatness in America can almost be defined as anti-American, because being anti is American.

No decade in American history has been unmarked by some horrific crime or marvelous achievement. There is no Golden Age of American democracy—we’ve never fully lived up to our principles, but we can’t live without them. We cheated before, during, and after our wedding, but we meant every word we said at the altar. As Earl Warren, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (and a Norwegian American) once wrote, "To be an American is not a matter of blood; it is a matter of an idea—and history is the image of that idea."

I try to make the case that on balance America means well and often does do the right thing. I challenge Europeans to imagine the 20th century without America, and to ask them if they’re really ready to take on the next hundred years alone. I argue that, as empires go, America isn’t that bad; that living with McDonald’s, Bush, and boy bands is a small price to pay for the luxury of self-determination. Indeed, it should be noted that the "other Europe"—those former satellites of the Soviet Union that have more recent memories of oppression—tend to hold more charitable views about America than their neighbors to the west.

I tell them that America is not their enemy, but according to a poll published in Le Figaro a year ago, just under one third of the participants answered USA when asked "Who are the principal enemies of France in the world?" More recently, I read in the British tabloid, The Independent, that the loss of the space Shuttle Columbia "is likely to mark a further stage in coming to terms with the limits of human endeavour. ... If that contributes to a subtle adjustment to the American psyche, it is likely to be for the better. There can be no harm, in the present world situation, in the US coming to terms with the idea of limits to its power." Amazing. Even an accident where seven astronauts die on a mission to help build the International Space Station is "for the better"—a lesson to teach America about the limits of power.

As bad as things are, the hard feelings between Europe and America will eventually fade. For all our differences, Europe and America take shelter under the same tattered umbrella of "western civilization," and share too many economic, cultural, and ideological ties to ever be truly free of one another. It is a bad marriage that, despite the determined efforts of Bush and Rummy, Chirac and Schroeder, European anti-war demonstrators and flag- waving American isolationists, can never be dissolved.

Yet this relationship is likely to get worse before it gets better. Now that the war has started, America has crossed from threatening war to the real thing. While everyone hopes it won’t last long and civilian casualties will be kept to a minimum, one gets the sense that many Europeans are waiting for some wholesale disaster to vindicate their cause. Such a disaster was notably absent in Afghanistan, a conflict that also drew dire warnings of Armageddon from many Europeans. Still, the view that neo-imperialist American foreign policy explains the events of 9/11 is common over here.

This kind of thinking, reinforced by the Bush administration’s appallingly tone-deaf diplomacy, means that Europeans are likely to blame American action in Iraq for any and all terrorist attacks, wherever they occur, as long as US troops remain in the Gulf. And unless America has found out how to wage war without killing civilians, causing a humanitarian crisis, or triggering the deployment of WMDs, Europeans aren’t likely to warm to America’s nation-building ambitions either. In short, they are waiting for us to fall on our ass.

But not everyone in Europe thinks that way. Whenever I get tired of the lectures, the flag burning, and "big oil" conspiracy theories, I go down to my local grocer and have a chat with Hamid. Hamid fled Tehran with his then-pregnant wife after the 1979 Revolution, where he was threatened with imprisonment for the crime of playing traditional, non-secular music at Iranian weddings. He is certainly critical of US foreign policy in the region, but he sees America as part of the solution, not the problem. While a devout Shia Muslim who detests war, he hopes for action in Iraq because he believes that a US-supported democracy in Baghdad will put pressure on Iran’s mullahs to implement democratic reforms—an important step that might lead to real and lasting change in the region. "My people are suffering," he says. "And only America can save them."

When was the last time you heard anyone say that?