Concerns about growing anti-Americanism around the world are frequently dismissed as the product of envy or the rejection of "American values." During a recent trip to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, I set out to test the premise that millions of people are angry at America, and to understand why.
Although the dominant image of Ethiopia in the United States is that of a famine-wracked and desperately poor country, Addis Ababa is a bustling cosmopolitan city. Home to the African Union, the Economic Commission for Africa and a number of regional U.N. agencies, the capital is populated by representatives of almost every country on earth, and thousands of educated Africans well-versed in international affairs.
Ethiopia is no stranger to terrorism. Al Qaeda was implicated in an assassination attempt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak here in 1995. In the 1990s, self-described jihadists trained in Afghanistan were captured fighting side-by-side with extremist movements in the south of the country. Several of the perpetrators of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings are thought to have escaped from Kenya through Ethiopia. And Ethiopia shares long borders with Sudan, which was home to Osama bin Laden until the mid-1990s, and Somalia, the country that defined the term "failed state" and continues to serve as a transit point for terrorist networks operating in East Africa and across the Red Sea in Yemen.
The Ethiopian government early on lent its support to the war on terrorism mounted by the United States, and later joined the Iraq coalition. Many convey gratitude for the U.S. assistance that is enhancing Ethiopia's capacity to counter terrorism in the region, and many more praise the generosity of the American government and people in providing desperately needed food aid to stave off the latest cycle of famine.
Consistent among the people with whom I have spoken, however, is the belief that America has changed for the worse. The people with whom I have spoken are all educated professionals, working for governments, international institutions, NGOs, the media and private business. They closely monitor world affairs, and speak knowledgeably about the ideological tensions between the State Department and the Department of Defense, the precise positions of each of the Democratic candidates, and the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. All of them have spent time in the United States, and cherish their memories of America and Americans. They are elite opinion-shapers in their own countries, and each has worked, in his or her way, to promote the values that we define as "American" and they passionately believe to be universal. None of them can be described as anti-American.
But they are all angered, dismayed and stunned by what they see as a changed America. They are confounded by Washington's singular yet short-sighted focus on Iraq, confused by what they perceive as its willful arrogance, and alarmed by America's seeming refusal to engage with the rest of the world.
"The main message coming from America," says an Ethiopian woman who is raising funds for famine relief, "is that you're either with us or against us. What that says to us is that if you have a different opinion, or don't agree with America, you're lumped together with the terrorists." Her voice grows steadily louder and more fierce as she adds that "this is offensive, but it also frightens me, because America shouldn't see the world as so simple."
Without exception, everyone I have spoken to conveys the sentiments captured by an American-trained businessman. "For our entire lives," he says, "America has been the hope of the world. No matter how bad it got at home, no matter how hopeless it seemed everywhere else, you always knew that you could go to America, because it opened its arms to the rest of the world. But now, for me" he says, "that idea is shattered. America to me now is exclusive."
"America missed the opportunity to lead the world after the Cold War," a 40-year old Ethiopian developments specialist tells me. "The world is going through a huge transition, and the U.S. should have united the world, but instead America is demanding that the priority for the whole world should be the security of the United States." He points to the assertion by President Bush in his most recent State of the Union address that the war against terrorism began in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. "Terrorism is real, and all of us cried for America after the attacks," he says. "But terrorism is not the exclusive challenge of the U.S., and the U.S. is not the only country that knows anything about extremism, or Islam, or violence."
"I used to think that the Bush administration was just unilateralist," another commentator adds. "Now I think they want to destroy multilateralism – get rid of the U.N., get rid of the World Trade Organization, and just organize the world so it's all on America's terms or nothing."
"The United States has always been hypocritical," adds a West African economist. We have always known that we cannot get away with what the rich oil countries in the Middle East can do. But now," he said, "the U.S. is totally inconsistent. You invade Iraq because it has nuclear weapons which it doesn't have, you ignore North Korea when it has nuclear weapons, and then you congratulate Pakistan for admitting that it has sold nuclear weapons illegally for profit." He went on: "This would be funny if it wasn't so serious."
I asked everyone with whom I spoke if they have given up on America. Without exception, all expressed the hope that the United States would "come to its senses." Many believe that the failure to turn up weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the growing instability there will force Washington to rethink its strategy.
But they also told me that their perception of a changed America is reshaping their own views of the world. "Because America is throwing its weight around," said the development specialist, "and even though we still want good relations with the U.S., we are understanding the need to make our own alliances." He pointed to growing solidarity among developing countries in WTO negotiations and the emerging political and economic alliance between South Africa, India and Brazil as examples of what he believes will be more, and stronger, south-south alliances.
I asked all of my interlocutors what America could do to counter what is perceived as growing anti-Americanism. Their answers were strikingly consistent. "We are not against America," says the economist. "But you are acting as though you are better, and smarter, and more noble than anyone else. If America just listened as much as it talks, half your problems would go away. And then," he said, "you could work with the rest of the world to solve the other half."
Gayle Smith is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.