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US needs young allies abroad

By Seth Green / November 13, 2002



OXFORD, ENGLAND

'Bush, Cheney, and capitalism are the real axis of evil." "America may not have the resolve to rebuild Iraq." As an American studying in Britain, I'm bombarded daily by criticism of US foreign policy. Some criticisms are the misguided rants of European extremists. Other criticisms are the thoughtful observations of European moderates. During the past year, I've noticed an alarming increase in radical anti-American sentiment. My personal experiences have convinced me that growing American unilateralism has contributed to this radicalism.

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I moved to Britain just two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks last year. The British people were incredibly welcoming. Whenever I mentioned that I had family in New York City, I was greeted with a concerned expression and the question, "Is your family OK?"

Overwhelmingly, the Britons I spoke to supported the US war on terrorism. They, too, were horrified by the ghastly spectacle of Sept. 11. They, too, believed in eradicating terror by force. Occasionally, I'd run into a British student who angrily opposed "American hegemony." But only once last year did I hear a European make a virulent anti-American comment - "Americans deserved Sept. 11" - and his remark was quickly rebutted by fellow Europeans.

As the US has moved from the war on terrorism to a potential war on Iraq, the tide here has turned. Whereas moderate voices once dominated public debate, radical dissent has become increasingly prevalent. Over the past two months, I've heard outlandish statements proliferate: "Americans want to kill innocent Iraqis." "Americans only care about oil and Israel." "America is more dangerous than Iraq."

It would be easy to dismiss these remarks as the insensitivity of juvenile students going through an antiestablishment phase in which they hate anything American. But having seen the extremist sentiment develop here, I can testify that the driving force behind its rapid growth is American unilateralism.

When the debate over Iraq began, moderate voices prevailed. Most Europeans opposed the war, but they did so on reasonable grounds. Europeans were genuinely concerned that the US would remove Saddam Hussein, and then not rebuild Iraq. A popular argument was: "Americans are great at winning wars, but very poor at cleaning them up."

In the past few months, however, sentiment has become more extreme as moderates felt ignored by US foreign policy. A few weeks ago, a demonstration against US foreign policy in London attracted over 150,000 protesters. One British student here observed, "The more Bush has dismissed our opinion, the more impassioned we have become in our support of it."

And Britain is not unique in its rising radicalism. A recent e-mail from an American friend in Moscow tells a similar tale of fading Russian sympathy - from intense Sept. 11 solidarity to antipathy for "this Iraq stuff."

But the rise of radicalism toward American foreign policy is reversible. When that policy disregards European moderates, extremism dominates. By contrast, when it engages moderates, calmer voices prevail. This is evident - at least here at Oxford - in the response to the recent shift in US tone leading up to Friday's unanimous UN vote to authorize strong weapons inspections in Iraq. Over the last week and a half, as the US moved slightly away from its unilateralist tone of the summer (the US would remove Hussein alone if the world wouldn't act) toward embracing European concerns about the casualties of war and the day after war, the mood here has changed palpably. The debate has shifted - in conversations as well as headlines - from knee-jerk skepticism of "American imperialism" to deep scrutiny of Iraq.

Whether Friday's triumph in multilateralism was just a bone the US threw to its allies on the way to its intended war is already a question. The US still appears ready to go to war at the hint of Iraqi noncompliance, while other world leaders seem reluctant to use force at all. Despite the difficulties ahead, the US must maintain dialogue with European moderates.

If America returns to unilateralism, it will be sowing the seeds of its future insecurity. My generation was not around when we won World War II, rebuilt Western Europe, and protected South Korea from communism. Even the fall of the Berlin Wall is a preteen memory. As my generation, now in college, has begun to form opinions of America, it sees a generally unilateralist foreign policy that prioritizes force over diplomacy.

Rightly or wrongly, Oxford University is a breeding ground for future world leaders - it produced many of America's greatest allies, from Tony Blair to Margaret Thatcher. Opinions here are worth watching. When the US began its war on terrorism, moderates at Oxford were with us and extremists were against us. Now, both groups staunchly oppose us, and our unilateralism has led many moderates to become more radical.

The current glimmer of US multilateralism can reverse this frightening development, but if the US fails to sustain Friday's show of international cooperation it will backslide at its own peril. If Oxford students are some of the world's future leaders, and if they are turned against the US during their impressionable college years, who will join us the next time we need to wage a war on terrorism?

Seth Green, a native Floridian, is a Marshall Scholar at New College, Oxford University. He is founder of Americans for Informed Democracy, a group of Americans abroad who seek to raise awareness in the US of world opinions.

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