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Anti-American sentiment in Europe has fallen since the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Russell A. Berman argues that this trend reflects American disengagement with the continent rather than a genuine change in attitudes among Europeans. Although Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is unlikely to significantly reengage with Europe, anti-Americanism could yet experience a revival if the United States takes a harder line in Russia or the Middle East. Moreover, the recent protests against the United States within the Islamic world illustrate the potential for European Muslims to facilitate anti-American sentiment.

The murder of US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, on September 11, 2012, and the wave of anti-American demonstrations sweeping through the Muslim world represent a severe blow to the foreign policy of the Obama administration. Since his Cairo speech of June 4, 2009, Obama has consistently attempted to signal receptivity toward Muslim interests in order to mitigate the hostility toward the US that had developed in the region over decades. That outreach agenda also explains the passive role the US played during the Arab spring: although the Obama administration declared its support for democratization, it stayed on the sidelines, neither helping friends nor trying to undermine foes. Similarly, during the Libya crisis of 2011, the US became involved only because of the French and British insistence on stopping the massacre and overthrowing Gaddafi. As the phrase went, the US led, at best, “from behind,” letting others take the lead. Obama foreign policy has tried to reduce the US footprint in order to offer less of a target for animosity and anti-Americanism.

This year’s turmoil put an end to that illusion. Hostility to the US runs deep. Obama has not been able to overcome a history of animosity and mistrust in the Muslim world that stretches from North Africa to South Asia. However that Muslim world also stretches into Europe, which was touched by a wave of demonstrations, neither as large nor as violent as in Benghazi and Cairo, but equally driven by animus against the US. The ostensible casus belli, the film The Innocence of Muslims, was attacked consistently as an American product: these have been anti-American demonstrations. In Göteborg, in Sweden, protestors marched through the streets, decrying “Islamophobia,” following a woman, dressed as a soldier draped in an American and Israeli flag, while pretending to shoot the crowd. In Anvers, in Belgium, crowds shouted denunciations of the US and burned an American flag. And in Paris, more than two hundred people took part in a demonstration in front of the American Embassy.

In the wake of globalization and the growth of immigrant communities in the European metropoles, anti-American sentiment from North Africa and South Asia has become a European phenomenon. Just as the new anti-Semitism in Europe draws significantly on immigrant populations with Islamist sympathies, so too is a new dimension of European anti-Americanism emerging, exacerbated by the failure of integration policies: immigrants living in Europe’s satellite cities or urban slums, where unemployment is high, represent fertile ground for extremism. This amounts to a new potential for anti-American politics in Europe. The grievances in the Middle East are deep and will not be resolved quickly. They have the capacity to nourish a politics of resentment and hostility toward the United States well into the future. This Muslim anti-Americanism may become the new face of Europe.

Traditional anti-Americanism in Europe has been largely dormant during the Obama administration, in part simply because Obama is not George W. Bush, who had been the target of considerable personal animosity. More importantly however Europeans have had few grounds for anti-Americanism under Obama because he has asked so little of them. His ill-timed announcement of an exit date from Afghanistan provided ISAF allies the welcome opportunity to rush for the exits. Reducing the missile shield in Eastern Europe ratcheted down tensions with Putin’s Moscow (although it has raised other concerns in Poland and the Czech Republic, that “new Europe,” with a different perspective on the US than the west European capitals). And while Washington might have played a constructive role in the European debt crisis, it preferred not to, further reducing its political role in Europe. As the US “pivots” toward Asia, there is even less American presence against which anti-American Europeans might protest. Distance makes the heart grow fonder.

Yet one should recognize this apparent peace between Europe and Obama’s Washington for what it is. It is not a peace of cooperation, of new initiatives, or bold visions. On the contrary, there is no substantive alliance between Washington and the EU on fiscal policy, environment or security. On the contrary, the placid trans-Atlantic relations only reflect a profound disengagement. Under Obama the US is less involved in Europe than at any time since before the First World War. Obama is just not very interested in foreign policy, and to the extent that he does look overseas, he looks to the Pacific, as the world’s political-economic center of gravity seems to shift to China.

It is unlikely that a Romney administration would significantly reengage with Europe—even though Romney, unlike Obama, has spent considerable time in Europe.  Nonetheless, anti-Americanism, a constant potential but never a necessity in European politics, could arise in three distinct scenarios:

First: As the repressive and aggressive aspects of Putinism have grown, Obama has explicitly refrained from confrontation. Romney however might push back against an aggressive Russia. An anti-American response might then emerge in western (but not eastern) Europe, especially among that part of the left still nostalgic for the world before 1989.

Second: Romney might take a stronger stance in defense of western interests in the Middle East, whether in Afghanistan, vis-à-vis Iran, or elsewhere. In that case watch for European anti-American voices to rally in support of non-democratic Islamists.

Third: Anti-americanism is a card that European politicians can play to their advantage in certain circumstances. Gerhard Schröder won his 2002 election by running against “amerikanische Verhältnisse”. Sooner or later today’s German Social Democrats will decide on whom they are going to sacrifice to run against Angela Merkel, and facing growing immigrant voters, they may opt to trot out anti-American rhetoric: every vote counts, no matter how it’s earned. And throughout the crisis-ridden Eurozone, politicians will be tempted to blame their economic misery on machinations in Manhattan. Anti-Americanism is not a constant in European politics, but it is a constant potential for the politician who needs some extra help.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Author

Russell A. Berman – Stanford University
Russell Berman is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, with appointments in Comparative Literature and German Studies and courtesy appointments at FSI and the Hoover Institution. He is an expert on German literature and culture and on cultural relations between Europe and the United States. Most recently, he has published research on the cultural phenomenon of anti-Americanism. He is currently chair of the Department of Comparative Literature and previously served as associate dean and as director of Stanford’s Overseas Studies Program. His most recent books are Freedom Or Terror: Europe Faces Jihad (Hoover Press, 2010) and Religion and the Critique of Modernity (Telos, 2010).