Munich, Germany – Walking into a hotel in Germany recently, I asked the doorman in English if I could use the bathroom. “Please?” he responded. Thinking he had not understood me, I asked where the toilet was. He grimaced, and pointed the way. Two minutes later I emerged from the men’s room, gave the doorman a polite nod of thank you and began out the door when I hear, “Where you come from?!” in broken English.
Startled, I turned around to find the guy standing in a rage directly behind me. “You don’t say please, don’t say thank you,” he cried out, “you must be American!” I started to mumble some weak defense but he brushed me aside with his hand as he yelled out “Rude, arrogant American!!”
The whole incident, though it may simply have been an exaggerated response to a misunderstood gesture of thanks, made me think about the American reputation throughout the world. Though no world traveler, I have spent the past three months studying in Rome, and recently went around various European cities on my two-week vacation. It seems clear from over here that Americans, though generally liked and appreciated, are developing an image of self-centeredness, arrogance and hypocrisy. And this is not just because of rude tourists.
It is not difficult for Europeans to come up with a long list of incidents to point to as evidence of Americans abusing their status as the world’s only superpower. A few recent examples: America’s refusal to pay its U.N. dues, its escalation of tariffs in the so-called “banana war” and the recent acquittal of the U.S. aviator accused of cutting down the cable car in Italy which killed 20 Europeans a year ago.
The timing thus could not have been worse for an American-led strike on Serbia, a country that epitomizes the European sense of national pride and distaste for foreign intervention. Though the governments of NATO all claimed to be a strong united front (and, with some minor exceptions, continue to do so) much of the people in these countries do not want to be involved in what they see as a war of American aggression.
A man in Rome last week walked up to a table, which I was sitting at with two other American friends, and started lambasting Americans for dragging Italy into a war with another European country. Another person in Munich recognized me as an American (which is apparently not difficult to do) and told me how much he hates “Bill the Bomber.” How, he said, could we claim to be humanitarians when we are killing countless Serbian civilians with bombs of questionable military value, and at the same time fighting alongside a group of terrorists [the KLA]? It is not just unfriendly debate, either – a blond haired, blue eyed acquaintance of mine was hospitalized in Athens after a group of anti-Americans chose her as target practice for their firecrackers.
This is not to say that the U.S. should not be fighting for what it views as a humanitarian mission; nor were the anti-American feelings I encountered necessarily reflective of a broad European opinion. It is simply a warning that America must become more cautious and prudent in the international arena, and in Europe especially. With Yugoslavia, for example, if Clinton felt an airstrike would ever be a possibility, he should have coordinated with other NATO governments to educate their countries on the situation months before war ever became a reality. This may have made NATO’s airstrike seem less of a war of American aggression and more of what the U.S. government claims it is, a humanitarian mission to save a group of people and avoid a larger war.
Europe is full of countries and people with a lot of pride. Virtually every country in Western Europe basically ruled the world at one point in time, and now they all play second fiddle to the U.S. This is nothing for Americans to be ashamed of, but neither is it something to abuse. The cable-car decision seems a clear abuse of our status; and its leading the rush into Yugoslavia is seen here as the typical situation of the United States’ resorting to military force to bully the rest of the world around to get what it wants.
Anti-Americanism is developing rapidly in Europe as the U.S. continues to make insensible and self-centered foreign policy decisions. The sentiment comes not so much from the mainstream political parties but from growing minorities of people. It is from these sorts of people that acts of terrorism have originated in the past, and from whom I fear acts of violence against Americans will occur with increasing frequency, if we continue formulating unwise and shortsighted foreign policy.
We elect our government officials to serve our interests, not those of the Europeans or Asians or any other group. Yet at the same time, our government must also understand the dangerous implications – for American citizens at home and abroad – of a policy which actively pursues U.S. interests at the expense or disregard of the rest of the world.
Otherwise, we’ll soon have a lot more to worry about than one angry doorman.