Brussels Journal:

How can America improve its image abroad? Answers to this question are being bandied by all of the presidential hopefuls. Hillary Clinton says she would “send a message heard across the world: The era of cowboy diplomacy is over.” John McCain promises to “immediately close Guantanamo Bay.” Ron Paul and Barack Obama both say they would withdraw American troops from Iraq.

Implicit is the notion that George W Bush has tarnished America’s reputation in the world, and that reversing some of his more contentious policies will make the United States popular again. If only it were that simple.

Although polls do indeed show that President Bush has brought anti-Americanism to the surface in many parts of the world, the roots of enmity toward America reach far deeper than one man and his policies. The problem of anti-Americanism will not go away just because Americans elect a new president.

Contrary to much of today’s conventional wisdom, anti-Americanism is not a recent phenomenon. In Europe, for example, anti-Americanism is as old as the United States itself. In fact, anti-Americanism is so established on the Old Continent that there are now as many different brands of anti-Americanism as there are European countries.

Take Spain, for example, where anti-Americanism goes back to the Spanish-American War, which in 1898 drove the final nail into the coffin of the Spanish empire and ended its colonial exploitation of Cuba. Many Spaniards also resent America’s support for General Francisco Franco (1892-1975), who in his day was popular with the Americans because of his strong anti-Communist credentials.

In Germany, anti-Americanism is an exercise in moral relativism. Germans desperately want their country to be perceived as a “normal” country, and its elites are using anti-Americanism as a political tool to absolve themselves and their parents of the crimes of World War II. They routinely equate the US invasion of Iraq with the Holocaust, for example, as a psychological ruse to make themselves feel better about their sordid past.

In France, anti-Americanism is an inferiority complex masquerading as a superiority complex. France is the birthplace of anti-Americanism (the first act of which has been traced to a French lawyer in the late 1700s), and bashing the United States is an inexpensive way to indulge France’s fantasies of past greatness and splendor.

As political realists like Thucydides (c 460-395 BC) might have predicted, anti-Americanism is also a visceral reaction against the current distribution of global power. America commands a level of economic, military and cultural influence that leaves many around the world envious, resentful and even angry and afraid. Indeed, most purveyors of anti-Americanism will continue to bash America until the United States is balanced or replaced (by those same anti-Americans, of course) as the dominant actor on the global stage.