How Real is Anti-Americanism in Latin America?

Photo: WideAngleWandering | Flickr | Creative Commons

American University professor Max Friedman’s new book* offers a refreshingly original account of the sources of “anti-Americanism” in international affairs, with direct implications for U.S.-Latin America policy.  For Friedman, anti-Americanism is defined as a tendency – often ideological – to hate or resent the United States, driven primarily by cultural conflict or a rejection of democracy.  While not denying the existence of anti-Americanism, Friedman’s well-researched argument demonstrates that anti-Americanism is also a self-serving “myth” that U.S. policy makers repeat to each other, and to the U.S. public, in their unilateral pursuit of policy goals.  As the alter ego of American exceptionalism, it is too often a story we tell ourselves about the rest of the world, increasingly to our own detriment.

For Latin America, Friedman emphasizes the U.S. tendency during the Cold War to interpret regional governments as either “pro” or “anti-American,” maintaining a counterproductive “North-South perceptual divide.”  For example, Washington badly mischaracterized Guatemalan governments in 1954 and again in 1963 as communist puppets, despite significant support for the United States, which facilitated two U.S.-backed coups.  The installation of a dictatorship and subversion of democracy led to worldwide condemnation, the alienation of Latin American countries otherwise favorable toward the United States, and accusations of U.S. hypocrisy.  Even today, when the Obama Administration’s Latin America policy appears on auto-pilot, alarmists write about “the axis of anti-Americanism” in the region.  This theme is fueled by Washington’s isolation over its Cuba embargo and counternarcotics approach, its failure to deal effectively with the coup in Honduras in 2009, and its continued emphasis on free-trade zones with decidedly lukewarm governments pursuing other opportunities.

The United States has been slow to realize that its role in the region is diminishing, and Washington policy makers have not appreciated the varying economic, political, and security interests of the different countries in the region and the interplay among them.  These intraregional interests reflect motives or objectives not simply attributable to the U.S.-Latin American relationship.  But too often, as Friedman makes clear, the U.S. has dismissed Latin American concerns as latter day anti-Americanism, a manifestation of pathological hatred, irrationality, jealousy, resentment, illegitimate slander, pride, fear, inferiority, political immaturity, ideological intransigence, or an anti-modern hostility to free society.  And, as Friedman says, this “myth of anti-Americanism” promotes analytic failures and mistaken interpretations about regional conditions; it limits access to useful information from regional counterparts; equates criticism with hostility, and highlights an unwillingness to treat Latin American governments as independent actors; while it justifies faith in the superiority of U.S. thinking. As the U.S. seeks new footing in the region, none of this ultimately serves the national interest.

* Rethinking Anti-Americanism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in American Foreign Relations
by Max Paul Friedman
Cambridge University Press
ISBN-10: 0521683424
ISBN-13: 978-0521683425

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