In Defense of America


By Bronwen Maddox

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The world has turned against the United States. Anti-American sentiments have swept the globe. Foreign leaders, pundits, and ordinary people decry the United States, at best proclaiming their heartbreak that the American values they once admired have vanished, and at worst condemning America as a criminal state beyond redemption. The invasion of Iraq, America’s refusal to sign the Kyoto accords, detention without trial in Guantanamo and torture in Abu Ghraib, the spread of American movies and fast food into every corner of the globe — all have contributed to a feeling that the United States, once a force for good in the world, is abusing its position as the world’s sole superpower.

How wrong they are.

In this provocative, brilliant book, acclaimed foreign affairs columnist Bronwen Maddox shows how critics of America take the best of it for granted and exaggerate the worst. They give the United States too little credit for their own freedom and wealth, and struggle to fend off a monolithic American culture that does not exist. She shows how opponents often unfairly equate American mistakes with moral failings, and how the United States frequently makes its own case badly, even when it is on strong ground. And she reveals a world in danger of fighting to keep the giant at bay, when the harder task is to give America good reason to keep engaged.

Persuasive and important, In Defense of America is essential reading for anyone who cares about our place in the world, and our future.


Copyright © 2008 by Bronwen Maddox

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Little, Brown and Company

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First eBook Edition: July 2008

ISBN: 978-0-316-03598-9

Chapter 1


On September 11, 2001, the United States had the world's sympathy. Within a few years, it had lost it. Iraq is the main reason, along with the conduct of what President Bush calls the "War on Terror." European countries which should be the United States' natural allies now distance themselves. In the Arab world, the United States is simply loathed, with a new confidence that the biggest military power in the world may not be invincible. True, with the violence in Iraq abating, even if temporarily, and with life beyond the Bush administration in sight, some of the overt hostility has faded. But the resentment and opposition to U.S. policies and American culture which had been growing before 9/11 risks becoming the settled political view of a new generation.

The central charge is that the United States has abused its position as the world's only superpower. Critics argue, too, that America has been arrogant and naive in trying to impose its values on countries which do not share them, and has been contemptuous of international laws and treaties carefully laid in place after the Second World War. Many accuse the United States of flooding other countries with its culture and consumer goods, and recoil from the values they believe American society represents: too harsh, too individualistic, and too materialistic.

This book is the case for the defense. My objection to the criticism, pervasive in Europe and, inevitably, at a higher magnitude altogether in the Islamic world, springs most of all from a sense of unfairness. The accusations take the best of the United States for granted while exaggerating the worst, and ignore the complexity forced on America by its size and its constitution. They accuse its presidents of imperial intent, overlooking the constraints put on its leaders by Congress, the courts, and the states. They fear that a monolithic "American culture" is taking over the world when there is no such thing, even within the United States. They blithely dismiss the implications of a world they say they would prefer, with America in retreat.

Even so, why bother to contest the point, other than over the dinner tables of political London, Paris, and Washington? Because more is at stake than point-scoring. For the United States, these anti-American attitudes represent a real cost, even if its leaders do not always act as if they recognize it. For Europe, too, these sentiments are a handicap and a distraction, leading those countries to fight off the influence of a supposed imperial power when the harder task is to persuade it to stay engaged.

Much of the criticism of the United States is well-founded; much of it is not new. American history is hardly short of examples of high-handedness and misjudgment —nor of the antagonism this stirs in the less powerful. But it is clear that the implosion of Soviet socialism and then the attacks of September 11 changed the United States' view of its place in the world, in ways which have increased those historical tendencies. They have provoked a new resentment among those who feel oppressed by the remaining superpower, and those who feel released from depending on its protection against the Soviet giant and so now feel freer to criticize it.

It would be easy to say, as many do, that recent friction with other countries was a handcrafted product of the Bush administration. That is too simple. President Bush has presided over an administration of breathtaking arrogance and misjudgment, and yet much of the tension predated him —and will outlast him. Europe is setting itself up for enormous disappointment if it expects mildness, even meekness, from Bush's successors. Arguably, that tension would have arisen under an administration of any stripe once the United States emerged as the sole superpower. Antony Blinken, adviser to President Clinton and now to Senator Joe Biden, argues that "a new wave of anti-Americanism was inevitable the minute that the Soviet Union fell."1 He is surely right.

It might seem odd that a country would need a defense, particularly one made by someone who was born in America but has chosen to live in Britain. But the United States is comically bad at making its own case. It is hardly casual about the promotion of its own interests and its physical defense of the realm. It spends $500 billion a year on its military defense, ten times Britain's defense budget and more than the combined total spent by the next ten countries, ranked by military budget. But to a degree that baffles its potential allies, it repeatedly picks fights, snubs overtures, and offers its critics more ammunition. The Bush administration has fitfully sent out emissaries when some rebuff has suggested that it might need to polish its image, but it has picked these representatives badly. At one point, the president dispatched Karen Hughes, his adviser and confidante from his days as governor of Texas, to repair the damage to the United States' reputation abroad, a miscasting that provoked derision in Arab capitals. In persisting after 9/11 with the appointment of William Farish as ambassador to the UK, someone so shy of speaking in public that he turned down more than a dozen requests to be on the BBC's main radio news program, the administration deprived itself of an advocate at a time when it most needed one.

Other provocations for this book have been professional. I was the Washington bureau chief for The Times of London during the second Clinton administration, foreign editor in London from the Kosovo war onward for a couple of years, and now write a daily commentary on foreign news. I am grateful to work for a newspaper which edits out any use of "American" that implies three hundred million people might think the same thing (although for ease of reading here, I have often used "America" to refer to the United States). I have also drawn on my previous work as an investment analyst of media and telecommunications in London and New York, at a time when public attacks on many huge U.S. corporations —critics often accusing them of overbearing behavior —were not matched by those companies' financial strengths or hopes of longevity.

As motivation for this book, there has also been, on a more personal note, the abrasion of ill-founded comment about the United States, if you live in London, as I do, and are even halfway sympathetic to things American. Usually it is amusing but occasionally sharply irritating; the United States is now efficiently exporting the polarization of its own politics into any discussion of America abroad.

I come from an Anglo-American family, many of us holding both nationalities, and we have spent much time weaving together both worlds: my American mother felt with delight, on arriving in London more than forty years ago, that she had come to the country which she felt was home, while my British father, a scientist, would have loved for the family to have been in the United States for more of the years of the Space Race and the discovery of plate tectonics.

That has left me, in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, sometimes speechless at how strong people's opinions are about the United States when they may have experienced so little of it: the sheer size, compared to any European country, the differences between the states, even the romance and surprise of it. My Welsh grandmother, making her first trip to the States in 1970, said, as we went for a cookout in the woods in Maryland, "I never expected it to be so beautiful."

In the first year of the Iraq war, my struggles to get my young daughter American as well as British citizenship met with bemusement. "Why would you want to do that to a young child?" said one friend. Another, a distinguished British economist, rejected the offer of a gift of salmon from Seattle's famous waterfront market, telling me that the "ones from Scotland are better." The great wild rivers of the Pacific Northwest produce incomparably better fish than do the disease-ridden, artificially colored pens off the Scottish coast, but my argument got no purchase against the belief that American equaled indigestible. Or, in other contexts, simply gluttonous; British newspapers regularly list every item of the White House Thanksgiving dinner as if it were the daily fare of every American, and portray European obesity as just another unwanted export from the United States.

A Foreign Place

I'm not deaf, I should say, to the sense which many in Europe have of the United States as an alien place —and vice versa —and the reliable pleasure the catalog of differences gives to each side. There is a long tradition of measuring the political width of the Atlantic, generally pronouncing, with gloom, that it is getting wider. In Britain and continental Europe, this practice, which supports an entire branch of political science, draws on a long history of anti-Americanism; on the American side, of delight in its own difference. One of the questions I raise in chapter 3, on American values, is why the United States seems such a foreign place to countries which share its fundamental values.

Globalization has only emphasized the thousand ways in which the United States preserves its separateness: the paper a different size from other countries' standards, so that faxes from abroad are sliced off at the bottom; the 120-volt electric supply shared by only Canada, Latin America, and Libya; the pronunciation of "Moscow" and "Kosovo" unrecognizable to the natives; the dishwashers and fridges proudly so large when the engineering efforts of Japanese and European manufacturers for decades have been to shoehorn appliances into the shrinking kitchens of a crowded world.

It was George W. Bush, when governor of Texas, who spelled out to me most bluntly the foreignness of Europe as seen from the United States. I was interviewing him in May 1998 for The Times and had intended a conversation about whether he might run for president; he turned it into one on the alien morals of Europeans. The catalyst was Texas's execution three months earlier of Karla Faye Tucker for a 1983 murder, controversial internationally because she had become a born-again Christian and repented while in prison. "You Europeans don't get it," he said, arguing that the "death penalty works" in deterring killings.2

The New Distaste for America

The roots of that sense of difference are as old as the United States. But the new antipathy, even if sometimes mixed with ambivalence (or at least a desire to send children to the United States to be educated), is more solid and sour. In Britain, today's teenagers may have little inclination to join the established political parties —as the parties report, with distress —but many sneaked a day off from school, with their parents' quiet support, to attend a demonstration on November 20, 2003 (a Thursday), in London's Trafalgar Square against President Bush and the Iraq war. Police estimated the crowd at more than one hundred thousand, the biggest in London on a weekday, and the climax was the toppling of a statue of President Bush, echoing the fall of Saddam Hussein.

These days, in Britain, to say that you are going to the United States on vacation, not work, invites bewilderment. Even with the plunge of the dollar, how could a bargain-hunting trip to New York compare with the Croatian coast and Prague, which have taken on the glamour that used to be associated with the United States?

My colleague Matthew Parris, a longtime political observer whose Saturday op-ed column in The Times often captures subtle but unmistakable shifts in national mood, put it this way early in January 2007. In a piece headlined "Yes, America's My Friend. Or Is It? Suddenly I'm Not Sure," he said that for his whole life he had defended the belief "that no matter how many American mistakes and wrongs you pile onto the negative side of the scales . . . there is an abiding national soul —a Platonic essence — that is America: and it is good." But for the first time, he said, he was beginning to doubt it.3

The Cost to the United States

For the United States, the entrenchment of these new attitudes represents a real political cost. There are many signs that, whatever the disposition of the next administration, such wariness will persist in countries which have been America's natural allies. In Britain, Tony Blair lost his job, in essence, to the accusation of being America's poodle, and there was no advantage for Gordon Brown, his successor, in seeming too close to the United States, although he did give one strong speech affirming the alliance in April 2008. In continental Europe and Japan, America's solid allies for half a century, politicians must defend themselves against the charge of being too friendly to America.

The Case for the Defense

The case I make for the defense has three parts. First, in chapter 2, on the phenomenon of rising anti-American feeling, and in chapter 3, on American values, I argue that the United States' critics fail to acknowledge the breadth of the values which they hold in common, and which are set out in the founding texts of America. Above all, they ignore the ambition and the success of the American project itself: persuading so many people who are so different from one another to live peaceably together under one government. At a time when Europe's only apparent solution to ethnic conflict is to divide countries into microstates — the perilous choice of Kosovo, the longed for but unlikely fate of Scotland and Belgium — this is a profound contribution to civilization.

Second, in its economy and culture (the target of chapter 4), the critics give too little credit to the benefit to their own well-being from the United States' development of liberal capitalism, capital markets, and competition policy, and the innovation and economic strength America has derived from that. They ignore the differences between their economies and America's, as well as the peculiar costs the Kyoto treaty against global warming would have imposed on America, for example, to the detriment of their own countries' economic growth. They type out their criticism on laptops run by American software, without acknowledging that their lives have been made healthier and longer by the advances of American medicine.

A point I particularly want to make is that for all these achievements, it is easy to overstate American cultural and corporate influence, ignoring the signs of the fragility of these empires, from Coca-Cola to Hollywood, which critics presume are eternal. It is also easy to overlook the constraints America's own federalism imposes on these supposed corporate titans. Indeed, in developing cellular phone coverage and banking across state lines, for example, the United States lagged behind other countries because of the freedom it gave the states to set their own rules.

Third, in foreign policy (chapters 5 and 6), I argue that critics are too easily diverted by the horrendous mistakes of Iraq, the repellent expediency of Guantánamo, and the unconsidered promotion of democracy, and ignore the fact that American foreign policy is still, on the whole, a defense of shared values. They skate over its central role in designing the laws and institutions which have governed the world for half a century. It is too easy now to take the disintegration of the Soviet Union for granted and to resent the preeminence which this has bestowed on the United States without giving it credit for helping bring about that change.

The Indefensible

I have no intention of defending the indefensible: the mistakes the United States has made and the high-handedness with which it has often pursued its aims. Not many in Central America or, now, in the Arab world, with reason, are impelled to take a generous look at the supposed imperatives of its recent foreign adventures. Iraq, as I discuss in chapter 7, was an ugly mistake. America failed to understand the unique conditions of its own democracy and forgot how laborious and painful were its own attempts to write a constitution and organize a federation. There is, of course, no way to make light of misjudgments that have led to the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqis. The best that can be said is that the intention of removing a dictator was compatible with the values on which the United States is founded, although, as is now painfully clear, its unthinking promotion of democracy can produce unexpected and violent effects which may also conflict with its struggles against terrorism.

No defense at all can be made for Guantánamo Bay, the subject of chapter 8. Both the military trials the administration has constructed to try some of the prisoners and the principle of indefinite detention without trial for those not charged are offenses against American principles of justice and equality.

The question is whether this will be so sustained by successive generations and administrations that it comes to seem the settled view of Americans, and must then be taken as representing the values of the country. But at this point, as I argue, we can still hope Guantánamo represents only the worst kind of expediency after the shock of September 11. Europeans tend to comfort themselves by saying that President Bush's successors will be nothing like him, but this is a self-deception which ignores how much his administration drew on the historic themes of American policy. Yet you would have to take a very bleak view of the United States' commitment to its own principles to say that its actions in Iraq and Guantánamo should erase the record of half a century, as well as the prospect that it will continue to uphold quintessentially American principles in the future.

Be Careful What You Wish For

The second tragedy of Iraq, besides the deaths and turmoil inflicted on that country, is that America has been distracted and deterred from engagement in regional problems where it would have had an enormously valuable effect. That is true of the wider Middle East and Iran, and in the incomplete transformation of Eastern and Central Europe. To recoil from American intervention after Iraq is to throw out the best along with the worst.

Those who dream of a more muted America, one "back in its box," and who feel a sense of satisfaction at the dollar's fall, fail to imagine what the world without a strong United States would be like. The threat to the United States is likely to come not from being overtaken but, as I argue in chapter 9, from the challenge by China, Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran to the system of international laws and treaties which the United States helped create, and which they are skeptical has much to offer them.

Those who fear an imperial America skate too easily over challenges to the United States at home, where it will be absorbed in trying to unite a soaring population under its founding principles. Its population, which has just breached the 300 million mark, is projected to rise to 420 million by 2050, half because of people living longer, half because of immigration, most of that Hispanic. No surprise that immigration became a headline issue of the 2008 presidential election campaign. The prospect of social transformation on that scale would be incomprehensible in many European countries. The change, which will leave the United States with the huge advantage of one of the youngest populations in the developed world, will also surely take it into a more introverted phase, as it wrestles with accommodating so many more people, drawing its attention away from Europe and toward itself. Those who wish for less of America's attention may well get just that.

Inevitably, in Europe, this argument will be taken —from the title onward —as a neoconservative tract, and one in the dying days of the movement at that. That isn't what I have meant. Instead, I intend this as a rebalancing, an analysis of what is indeed different about America as well as an assertion of its liberal values.

The word "liberal" perilously changes meaning across the Atlantic. I use it in its classic English sense of asserting the importance of individual rights and freedoms, and the importance of challenging overbearing government. Those principles are too easily forgotten in Europe in the face of terrorist threats, and even in the UK, with its long tradition of that philosophy. As David Miliband, Gordon Brown's foreign secretary, has said, the left has become sheepish and subdued in talking about democratic ideals.4 This is an argument for why the left, as well as the right, can defend America.

For Americans, I intend this book to be three things: It is a portrait of how the United States is seen abroad after Iraq, and of why it is so easily misunderstood. It is an account of the dangers to the United States of the new conception it has of its role since the heady end of the Cold War and the shock of 9/11. It is also, as I suggest in chapter 10, a notion of what Americans might do about it, should they care to try.

Chapter 2


The invasion of Iraq brought to a head a new wave of anti-American feeling around the world. This is true even in Europe, in countries which should be America's allies, and that is mainly what I address here.

Of course, Europe is not alone. But the violent expression of anti-Americanism in the Islamic world is a different phenomenon, even if some of the provocations on which it draws are the same. Arab states' willingness to blame the United States for their own deep disappointment in nationalism and socialism, and for their own devastating failure to develop, has been extensively chronicled, in particular by Bernard Lewis, a renowned authority on the Islamic world, with a pessimistic cast that is hard to counter.1


On Sale
Jul 1, 2008
Page Count
240 pages

Bronwen Maddox

About the Author

Bronwen Maddox is the Chief Foreign Commentator for The Times (London). She is the daughter of Sir John and Brenda Maddox and she lives in the United States.

Learn more about this author