Globalization and Anti-Americanism

Anti-American sentiments are rising around the world. American Democrats say that President Bush's policies have squandered America's attractiveness. Republicans reply that America is bound to be resented because of its size and its association with globalization. Anti-Americanism, they say, will persist because some people see America as a cultural threat. I believe that such views lack historical perspective.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, globalization is not homogenizing and Americanizing the cultures of the world. Although the United States is at the forefront of the current information revolution, which is creating many similarities in social and cultural habits (such as television viewing or Internet use) that are attributed to Americanization, correlation is not causation.

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To see why, imagine a country that introduced computers and communications at a rapid rate in a world in which America did not exist. You would still expect major social and cultural changes from such modernization. Of course, because the US exists and is at the forefront of the information revolution, there is a degree of Americanization, but that is likely to diminish over the course of the twenty-first century as technology spreads and local cultures modernize in their own ways.

Historical proof that globalization does not necessarily mean homogenization can be seen in Japan, a country that deliberately isolated itself from earlier waves of globalization. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Japan became the first Asian country to embrace globalization, and to borrow successfully from the world without losing its uniqueness.

During the Meiji Restoration, Japan searched broadly for tools and innovations that would allow it to become a major power rather than a victim of Western imperialism. It sent young people to the West for education. Its delegations scoured the world for ideas in science, technology, and industry.

In the political realm, Meiji reformers were well aware of Anglo-American ideas and institutions, but deliberately turned to German models because they were deemed more suitable to a country with an emperor. The lesson that Japan teaches the rest of the world is not simply that an Asian country can compete, but that after a century and a half of globalization, it is possible to adapt while preserving a unique culture.

More fundamentally, the image of a homogenizing America reflects a mistakenly static view of culture. Efforts to portray local cultures as unchanging often reflect reactionary political strategies rather than descriptions of reality. As the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa has put it, those who argue in favor of cultural identity and against globalization, betray a stagnant attitude towards culture that is not borne out by historical fact. Do we know of any cultures that have remained unchanged through time? To find any of them one has to travel to the small, primitive, magico-religious communities made up of people… who due to their primitive condition, become progressively more vulnerable to exploitation and extermination.

Vibrant cultures are constantly changing and borrowing from other cultures - and that borrowing is not always from the US. For example, many more countries turned to Canada than to America as an example for framing constitutions in the aftermath of the Cold War.

Globalization is also a two-edged sword. In some areas, there is not only a backlash against American cultural imports, but an effort to change American culture itself. Capital punishment may now be supported by a majority of Americans, but the death penalty is regarded as an egregious violation of human rights across Europe - indeed, across much of the world.

American environmental attitudes toward climate change or genetic modification of food bring similar criticism. More subtly, America's openness to immigration both enriches and changes American culture.

Finally, globalization and the information revolution may reinforce rather than reduce cultural diversity. Some French commentators express fear that in a world of Internet global marketing, there will no longer be room for a culture that cherishes hundreds of different types of cheese. But on the contrary, the Internet allows dispersed customers to come together in a way that encourages niche markets, including hundreds of Web sites dedicated only to cheese.

The Internet also allows people to establish a more diverse set of political communities. The use of the Welsh language in Britain and Gaelic in Ireland is greater today than fifty years ago. Britain, Belgium, and Spain, among others in Europe, have devolved more power to local regions. The global information age may strengthen rather than weaken local cultures.

Economic and social globalization does produce superficial similarities in T-shirt logos and soft drink brands, but an underlying cultural diversity will remain. American culture is now prominent, and it contributes to America's attractiveness - its "soft power" - in many, but not all, areas. At the same time, immigrants, ideas, and events outside America's borders are changing American culture within the borders of the US.

As globalization spreads technical capabilities, and information technology allows broader participation in global communications, American economic and cultural preponderance may diminish. A little less dominance may mean a little less anxiety about Americanization, fewer complaints about American arrogance, and less intensity in the anti-American backlash. The US may have less control in the future, but it may find itself living in a world somewhat more congenial to its basic values of democracy, free markets, individual liberties, and human rights.