by Antonia Marie Sheppard
Bronwen Maddox. In Defence of America. Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, London, 2009. ISBN 978-0715637920 Pp. 208. Paperback.
In 2013, a parody Twitter account of the American actor Bill Murray (@BillMurray) caused global confusion, after tweeting:
I’m sick of people saying America is ‘the stupidest country in the world’. Personally, I think Europe is the stupidest country in the world.
Perhaps a comment on the American education system; this confusion twinned with frustration offers an amusing illustration of just one internationally recognised stereotype of the United States.
It is precisely this stereotypical, ‘unfair’ portrayal of the United States which Bronwen Maddox, former Foreign Editor of The Times, seeks to challenge in her book, In Defence of America. Her central charge is that the global perception of the United States as a neoimperialist hegemon, characterised by the breath-taking arrogance and misjudgements of its leaders is a misrepresentation deserving of a retrial. While acknowledging that the US is ‘comically’ bad at making a case for itself, Maddox attempts to re-caricature these ‘fat, trigger-happy, Christian fundamentalists’ into more appealing allies. Through an analysis of shared values, capitalist successes, the promotion of democratic principles, and the invasion of Iraq, Maddox argues that anti-Americanism is ill-founded and outdated in our globalised world. However, plagued by illogical methodology, sweeping generalisations, and a by-product of audience alienation, Maddox’s myopic perspective does not withstand scrutiny.
Hailing from an Anglo-American background, Maddox presents herself as an objective commentator. Unfortunately, this does not translate in practice. Portraying the United States as a victim, Maddox adopts the position of attorney, presumably in a case regarding defamation of character. The legitimacy of this stance is questionable. The United States does not need an apologist when it has chosen to exert its power on the global stage, nor does it have any evidence for victimisation, following its position as the predominant author of Western geopolitics. Furthermore, the employment of the English definition of the term ‘liberal’ is paradoxical. By imposing British language etic upon a study of America, does erroneous methodology not mark this interpretation void? The case would likely be thrown out in court.
Despite this, Maddox’s argument that anti-Americanism was inevitable following the fall of the Soviet Union is commendable. After half a century of Cold War animosity, the bipolar nature of the international system collapsed, and the Eastern power bloc that the West had united against disappeared. The primal urge to ‘know your enemy’ meant that this void needed to be filled. Who better to unite against than arguably the most powerful hegemon in history? Fuelled by a combination of American triumphalism and a reignition of nationalism, Western Europeans were free to vocally criticise the United States, without having to depend upon them for defence against the Soviet Union. It was from this freedom that anti-Americanism flourished. However, the United States has not helped its case. The growth of anti-Americanism is not surprising after George W. Bush’s reduction of global politics to a contest of good versus evil; the ‘good’ guys have since perpetrated around 1,000 civilian deaths in Pakistan alone. Defence of the International Liberal Order by illiberal means (see D. Stokes, American hegemony and the future of the Liberal International Order) has undermined America’s virtuous persona on the international stage, and preceded its retreat to isolationism.
Moreover, the charge that America is essentially benevolent is an unpopular opinion. Simply reaffirming that idealism is a ‘guiding inspiration’ of all American policy is an idealistic and distorted representation of the land of the free’s foreign interventions, which lacks a basic foundation in history. The argument that the United States should be applauded for ‘three decades of democracy spreading’ fundamentally ignores the nationalist aims for global hegemony that dictated the Cold War. More recently, the Bush doctrine’s call to impose democracy on the Middle East was not only a selfish pursuit of national security, but disregarded the national interests of the occupied countries. It is these national interests, under the guise of idealism, that continue to define the foreign policy of the United States today.
While America might have been the victim of anti-Americanism in 1991, their conduct in Iraq, and more recently under the Trump administration, continues to alienate international perception. Much like European opinion of America, the perspective of this book has not aged well.
Furthermore, the characterisation of the European powers as the ‘losers’ from American dominance does little to serve Maddox’s argument that America does not deserve misrepresentation, but rather perpetuates her hypocritical perception of European stereotypes. Any Englishmen and women reading this will likely relish in the French-bashing of the book, sticking two fingers up at the French, as though on the fields of Agincourt. Maddox’s argument that any political affinity with the United States in France is like signing your own warrant for the guillotine reads as ill-informed prejudice. With American ratings of France reaching a record-high of 87 per cent in 2016, and Obama’s paralleling of himself and Francois Hollande as the ‘Jefferson and Lafayette’ of our time (a duo portrayed as the personification of Franco-American amity, despite the two men having no contact during the Revolutionary years (see Tom Chaffin’s Revolutionary Brothers: Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Friendship That Helped Forge Two Nations)), it is difficult to defend this projection of anti-Americanism against reality. While the French may be angry about Trump’s lack of common decency, following his cancelation of a centenary visit to the French battlefields due to a spot of rain, it is hardly likely that this antipathy, as Maddox argues, originates from the Treaty of Versailles.
Maddox’s incapability to garner sympathy from her target audience continues. The implication that Britain’s lack of a constitution is due to the recognition that ‘the best words have already been taken’, is not only a matter of opinion, but functions counterproductively to further alienate those she attempts to ‘defend’ America against. Additionally, while attempting to challenge the Anglican perception of the United States’ role as the world’s policeman, Maddox does not just succeed in undermining its legitimacy, but accidentally illustrates (rather effectively) the destructive authority that the ‘world’s policeman’ has exercised this side of the millennium. One is provoked to wonder why US armed forces are rarely subject to scrutiny for their actions, with accountability being an ‘orphan’, to paraphrase JFK. Who gave them license to kill? Therefore, by recognising the position of Europeans as mere agents, under the authority of this stand-alone superpower, one is ironically left to stomach the bitter taste of American exceptionalism.
Littered with generalisations and double-standards, In Defence of America ironically struggles to defend its central argument throughout. If this book was three pages, or three volumes, it could have the potential to do the central argument some justice. Ultimately, this book would be suitable for the general readership, due to its accessibility of language and concise length. It is essential reading for anyone seeking to have an intelligent debate regarding America’s changing relationship with Europe within global politics. Nevertheless, readers of this book should take every sentence with a pinch of salt. It would be wrong to suggest that it is not worth reading – it is – but purely as an exercise in futility, or for the sole function of criticism. Moreover, a word of warning to any fellow Europeans who wish to read this book, a catch-22 presents itself: if this book is not agreeable with yourself, is this as a result of your own anti-American bias?
Antonia Marie Sheppard is an MA Intelligence and International Security student at King’s College London. Specialising in counter-terrorism and deradicalisation, Antonia is a member of the ‘MPOWER Project (NY), conducting research into radicalisation and prevention through intervention. Her research focuses on the UK-USA presence in Cyprus and more specifically at Ayios Nikolaos, the largest GCHQ base outside of the UK.