After a month in the UK, I get the sense that Britons feel America has grown up too fast for its own good; its muscles are larger than its brain. Culturally, economically, and militarily, America carries tremendous weight, but doesn’t know how to wield it effectively -- for its own interests or for the benefit of others.
The good of this that is we believe we can accomplish anything, spurring innovation and making us work hard. But confidence can easily slip into arrogance. The notion that Americans are exceptional, having founded a city on a hill, particularly irks Britons, who remind me they abolished slavery first. Omnipresent American flags and recurrent politicians’ calls for God to bless America blend faith and politics in a way that violates our founding principles, I'm told. Certain Muslim communities are particularly wary of American religiosity.
But it’s not just Bush that’s the problem. Ever since World War II the British have been anxious about America's might. The U.S. rebuilt Europe and destroyed Nagasaki with little global resistance, after all. Today, America remains such a heavyweight that any change in the direction of its foreign policies can lead to big reverberations abroad.
Resentment toward America's blunted foreign policies also magnifies Britons' criticisms of U.S. domestic policies. America is often accused of ignoring its own poor and disadvantaged -- it certainly doesn't live up to the British tradition of universal health care. Incidents like the abominable emergency response to Hurricane Katrina reinforce this perception of a rich, indifferent American state run above the heads and wishes of its citizens. "Why don't Americans demand better?" Britons ask me.
To many Britons, America's global mission for democracy seems particularly misguided and they complain of being dragged along unwittingly. "We're just an aircraft carrier for America," complains Peter Underwood, who lives on a canal boat. Multilateralism and European issues are becoming increasingly important here. Running around the world, and for that matter running the world, seem outdated.
Yet some like Tony Blair continue to advocate a strong UK role in taking on international responsibilities with America. Many conservative citizens, especially those I met around Lancaster, fully support a U.S.-UK alliance willing to tackle global problems. The "war on terror" is foremost on their minds. The fight must be taken to the enemy, they say. From hunger to terror, the global is local like never before.
But even among those who think America and England need to address global problems, few (save Niall Ferguson) believe America needs more power at its disposal to do so. Most here think it already has too much.
They also argue that might alone -- cultural, economic or military -- won't enable the U.S. to govern or change the world. The latter alone certainly isn't enough. America must instead collaborate with other nations. To do so in good faith, it must see itself with a bit more humility, look outward while questioning itself inwardly, and envision a multipolar world.