U.S. Policies Stir More Fear Than Confidence

Times Staff Writer

The white guard shack still stands, but the American GIs have long since departed and there’s a nostalgic cheapness to the postcards, gas masks, helmets and rusted Maxwell House coffee tins. Checkpoint Charlie, the fabled slice of concrete and barbed wire that epitomized the Cold War, seems an innocent artifact in a world awash in new dangers.

“There was a time when World War III could have started right here,” said Juergen Thiel, standing amid bits of the Berlin Wall that sell for less than $20. “That’s all changed.”

International terrorism has given rise to new ground zeros. Much of Europe and the world feel insecure, but a growing number of nations no longer look to the U.S. for leadership and sanctuary. The Bush administration’s unilateralist policies in Iraq and its perceived aloofness have left it less trusted at a time of widening global vulnerability, according to polls and interviews in more than 30 countries.


Osama bin Laden remains on the loose. Videos of hostage beheadings in Iraq flicker across the Internet. The nuclear aspirations of North Korea and Iran are troubling. Many countries feel powerless to stop the onslaught and recognize that the U.S. is the only nation militarily strong enough to serve as a bulwark against increasing dangers. But they also feel powerless to persuade Washington to adopt a more nuanced, multilateral strategy.

One of the sharpest differences between the U.S. and its longtime allies is over the issue of when to use force. A June poll conducted in part by the German Marshall Fund of the United States found that 54% of the Americans surveyed, compared with 28% of the Europeans, believed that military strength would ensure peace. Among Europeans, 73% said the war in Iraq had increased the threat of terrorism.

The disparity represents two dynamics: The world has yet to understand how Sept. 11, 2001, jolted America’s sense of security, and the U.S. has underestimated how much international credibility it sacrificed in the Iraq war.

Analysts suggest that America’s foreign policy wouldn’t significantly change if Sen. John F. Kerry defeats President Bush in November. The division between the men, as seen by much of the world, comes down to style and personality.

Although his policies have yet to be fully articulated, Kerry is considered by much of the international community as the antidote to a bullying Bush administration. Bush’s recent speech at the United Nations, analysts say, reaffirmed that the president was an ideologue with little inclination for building consensus or defusing terrorism by quieter means such as political and economic reforms.

“It is such a great humiliation,” said Viktor A. Kremenyuk of the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow, “for other countries to be in a situation where they have to swallow something they do not like. And the one who makes them swallow this doesn’t even try to put a decent face on this sorry business.”


The citizens of 30 out of 35 countries from different regions, including Germany, Mexico, Italy and Argentina, support Kerry by more than a 2-1 margin over Bush, according to a poll by the Canadian research group GlobeScan and the University of Maryland. The survey also found that on average, 58% of respondents in those countries said the Bush administration made them feel worse about the U.S. versus 19% who said the president’s policies made them feel better.

Writing recently in La Opinion, a conservative Buenos Aires daily, novelist Tomas Eloy Martinez lamented the prospect of a second Bush term. “The world -- which is hostile to Bush with an almost unanimous passion -- would be subjected to another period of rapaciousness, darkness and threats of war.”

Roman newspapers last month quoted Britain’s ambassador to Italy, Ivor Roberts, describing Bush as “the best recruiting sergeant” for the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

America’s superpower status and the world’s security fears have sparked conspiracy theories and made Washington a prism for disenchantment over everything from war to holes in the ozone layer. The grist for much of this is the lack of a significant ideological counterbalance to U.S. power. With Soviet-style communism vanquished, global anxiety is driven not by Moscow but by masked men instigating jihad and cagey regimes such as those in Tehran and Pyongyang.

In an essay, “The Five Stages of Anti-Americanism,” author Judy Colp Rubin says that suspicion of Washington is so widespread that “many Chinese believe the U.S. deliberately started the SARS epidemic. Islamic leaders in three Nigerian states blocked critical polio inoculations for children, denouncing them as a U.S. plot to spread AIDS or infertility among Muslims.”

The U.S. has seen periods of intense anti-Americanism throughout its history. Latin American regimes, for example, have often considered Washington an imperialist troublemaker. In his book “The Sewers of the Empire,” a recent bestseller in Buenos Aires, Spanish writer Santiago Camacho calls the U.S. a sham democracy run by secret societies, multinational corporations and a “ministry of lies” operating out of the White House.


Despite such ill will, however, many capitals acknowledge that no nation besides the U.S. has the resources to combat Al Qaeda, root out weapons of mass destruction and rein in reckless governments. U.S. troops protected Europe and South Korea against communist regimes for decades. And although the international community condemned the invasion of Iraq, the war highlighted the United States’ ability to destroy “rogue” regimes.

“Think about it for a split second,” said Kirill Dolinsky, a postgraduate biology student in Moscow. “The U.S. is paying its own money and exposing its own citizens to lethal danger just to make sure the rest of the world can sleep in peace and quiet, knowing that Saddam’s or North Korea’s missiles won’t land in your courtyard one night.”

Part of the Japanese-U.S. relationship is based on such anxiety. Tokyo fears a nuclear strike by North Korea’s unpredictable leader, Kim Jong II. The regime in Pyongyang threatened recently to turn Japan into a “nuclear sea of fire” if Washington were to move against Kim. The Japanese consider U.S. military and diplomatic clout crucial to stemming the threat.

Others question the intent of U.S. military power and suggest that Bush’s rhetoric of a world under siege is an exaggeration when weighed against history. North Korea is a significant danger, Europeans say, but Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, although lethal, have not approached the destructive scale of an Adolf Hitler or fomented anything like World War II, in which 50 million people perished.

“Europe has become safer,” said Peter Rudolf, an analyst with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and a child of the Cold War. “There are terrorist threats, but when I grew up we lived under the shadow of destruction in Germany. The American role as a protector or as a pacifier is a role of the past.”

The European Union wants to strengthen the continent’s role in world affairs -- some say to complement, others suggest to contain, U.S. ambitions. Seventy-one percent of Europeans polled by the German Marshall Fund believe that the EU should become a superpower. However, such aspirations appear unlikely to become reality: 47% withdrew their support for the idea if it would mean higher military spending.


The notion that the U.S. is the “world’s policeman” by default angers many and illuminates animosities from regions long suspicious of U.S. policy. Seventy-two percent of Mexicans surveyed by Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas rejected the idea that Washington should be the sole law-and-order power.

“I believe the U.S. poses a greater risk to Egypt and the Islamic world than terrorism,” said Tarek Refaat, a software engineer from Cairo. “If we have to have a global policeman, it should be the United Nations, not the U.S. What good does America do for me as a global policeman? I might need this global policeman to protect me if Egypt is attacked by Israel. And you think America will rush to protect Egypt from the Israelis, their strongest allies?”

Galina Babayan, a Moscow mathematics professor, offered this assessment: “It would be more appropriate to compare the U.S. not with a global policeman, but with an ill-natured teenager sent back to the first grade. He is bigger and stronger than anybody else. He bullies everyone around him. But he is slow on the uptake.”

From cafes to parliaments, the U.S. mystifies and Bush angers. Many see America as a country that professes a deep belief in religion but unsheathes its sword too quickly, a land that claims moral authority but violates international charters, a nation saddled with the images of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and the inability to calm a seething Iraq. But it is also admired as a land of possibility, economic opportunity and unparalleled personal freedom.

The other day, stopping on his way home from the Beijing subway, Huang Jie mused about the disparate images of the U.S.

“When I’m with my friends,” the 32-year-old investment manager said, “we will sometimes talk about [the U.S.] and we’d really like to be like America, to see China develop as America. But politically we are not satisfied with America, especially the Iraq war. It’s not good for America, in order to achieve its own interests, to harm other people. Even when China becomes a superpower, we would not like to see it behave as America behaves.”


Wang Jisi, a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party official, said the American people don’t comprehend the world. “They don’t travel, and they don’t talk to foreigners.... And they don’t read any foreign-language materials, so it is not very difficult for people to deceive them, to give them some propaganda [to] inflame ideological and nationalist feelings.”

Thousands of miles away, at Checkpoint Charlie, tourists snapped photos of the guard shack and wandered through the Cold War museum. Cafes dotted the once-barren Friedrichstrasse. Turkish vendors sold old East German helmets and gas masks beneath a huge poster of an American soldier.

“The U.S. can’t be the world policeman anymore,” said Erika Thiel, standing with her son, Juergen, remembering when U.S. boots echoed through the streets. “Muslims don’t want to be watched over, and sovereign nations want to be independent from the U.S. shadow.”

Christian Schulz crossed the street and headed away from the guard shack.

“Before Sept. 11, America was not seen as an aggressor,” he said. “But since Sept. 11 and the break in the U.S. economy, people look at America as no longer a man who can fix all problems. Look at Iraq -- soldiers are dying every day. I think these days it’s more dangerous to be affiliated with the U.S.”


Times staff writers Barbara Demick in Seoul, Bruce Wallace in Tokyo, Ralph Frammolino in Beijing, Hector Tobar in Buenos Aires, Reed Johnson in Mexico City, Claire Rocher and Sebastian Rotella in Paris, Tracy Wilkinson in Rome, Alexei V. Kuznetsov in Moscow, Hossam Hamalawy in Cairo and Carol J. Williams in Miami contributed to this report.


Means and ends When asked whether war is sometimes necessary to achieve justice, residents of 10 nations are far less likely to agree than are Americans. The percentage of those who agree:


U.S.: 82% Britain: 69% Netherlands: 53% Turkey: 50% Poland: 47% Portugal: 38% Slovakia: 37% Italy: 35% France: 33% Germany: 31% Spain: 25%

Source: German Marshall Fund of the United States