Slow Anti-Americanism
Social Movements and Symbolic Politics in Central Asia
Edward Schatz



In December 2006, ten years before Donald Trump’s election as US president sent shockwaves across the globe, Central Asia seemed to face a test of anti-Americanism. Zachary Hatfield, a member of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing of the United States Air Force, had shot and killed Aleksandr Ivanov, a local truck driver, outside the US Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan. Although Hatfield was legally immune from prosecution, loud voices in Kyrgyzstani civil society called for him to stand trial locally. When Hatfield departed Kyrgyzstan in March 2007, still-louder voices demanded his extradition. The niceties of bilateral relations for the moment prevailed, and the popular outcry gradually subsided.

Things seemed to change when early in 2009 Kyrgyzstan’s president Kurmanbek Bakiev announced at a press conference in Moscow his decision to close Manas. Bakiev cited inadequate compensation for the base, and, as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty reported it, “‘negative feelings’ among the population, who ‘justifiably’ question[ed] the rationale for the U.S. presence.”1 The decision left the Obama administration scrambling to find substitute refueling and resupply arrangements for NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan.

What happened in Kyrgyzstan? On the surface, the decision to close the base seemed buoyed by a rising tide of popular anti-American sentiment. Likewise, a 2005 decision to shutter the Karshi-Khanabad base in neighboring Uzbekistan seemed the product of similar societal forces. Yet, closer inspection reveals that anti-Americanism’s causal role was unclear, and subsequent events would call it further into question. Whatever “negative feelings” had troubled the population of Kyrgyzstan, they soon lost political steam. On 25 June 2009, the Kyrgyzstani parliament rubber-stamped a bilateral deal to keep Manas open. It seemed a startling reversal, with pro-American sentiments apparently winning the day.

What should we make of the zigzagging politics of the Manas case? Did the base remain open because of popular opinion or in spite of it? The reality is that anti-American popular opinion—especially in an authoritarian context with enormous incentives for strategic cooperation with the US—often has little direct, short-term impact on bilateral relations. Yet popular sentiment is not irrelevant. As this book demonstrates, social movements can use images of the United States to political effect, altering the shape of domestic politics and in turn affecting the global position of the United States.

In this book, I argue that our usual ways of thinking about anti-Americanism are flawed. Instead, I propose an analytic framework that captures the essential dynamics of what scholars have termed “anti-Americanism” but takes better stock of its trajectories. It is true that popular anti-Americanism did not determine the fate of the Manas Air Base,2 but only a flawed approach would have expected it to do so.3 The framework I advance is based not on “high politics” or “geopolitics,” but on what might be termed the “slow politics” of anti-Americanism.

The idea for this research first emerged in 1998 when I was in the midst of dissertation fieldwork in Central Asia. Although I had spent much time in former Soviet space since doing a student exchange in 1989, I had not previously encountered ambivalence about the United States. To the contrary, in earlier conversations ex-Soviet citizens had tended to embrace America as worthy of emulation. Now, the change was palpable; ordinary people described mixed feelings about the social, economic, and political tumult they were experiencing—a tumult that they associated with the adoption of an American model.

Yet Central Asians’ ambivalence did not mean that they were indifferent. Quite the contrary: they harbored a range of complex and sometimes contradictory feelings about the United States, but “America” as a symbol remained salient. This struck me as strange. The United States was hegemonic, but it was quite a distant hegemon. Some military-to-military cooperation, some humanitarian aid, and some economic interests brought government, NGO, and business actors to Central Asia, but in the 1990s the American footprint in the region was relatively light. In the meantime, the salience of the United States as symbol easily outpaced its salience as a policy actor on the ground. I had trouble making sense of how the US could be simultaneously remote and relevant, both abstract and germane.

Then, terrorist attacks on US territory launched a broad—and deeply polarized—public discussion about anti-Americanism. At one pole, some argued that the potential for virulent anti-Americanism was inherent in particular political cultures or in specific civilizational blocks.4 Appearing to capture an essential ideological standoff between the United States (or the West, more generally) and the “Muslim world,” such approaches were seductive. But I also found them frustrating since they mistook description of a particular world-historical moment for explanation. I was not trained as a historian, but even I could see what was missing; any minimal attention to change over time should undermine simplistic depictions of static cultures based on supposedly immutable anti-Western principles.5

At the other pole, we were told that anti-Americanism was just the opposite. It was a reasonable, well considered, and therefore fundamentally justified response of global publics to US military, economic, and cultural dominance; it was a rejection of the “American model.”6 The populations depicted as blinded by irrational anti-Western principles were now recast as deeply sensible. Yet, what do we gain by replacing the madness of the crowd with the rationality of the crowd? The normative question (has US foreign policy had deplorable downstream consequences?) is different from the empirical question (do publics in fact deplore the consequences of US foreign policy?). While US foreign policy moves can shift the attitudes of global publics, most US policy affects attitudes only indirectly and gradually. In sum, when global publics leveled criticism of the US, were they offering well-considered, rational reactions to the United States or were they using the US as a symbol in their own struggles?

Policy debates were no more satisfying. Some argued that the United States should ignore anti-American sentiment as just so much inconsequential “noise.” If sentiment emerges from realms beyond the rational—from deep and unchanging cultures, from essentially static and backward religious dogma, or from fundamental emotions—then devising policy to win the “hearts and minds” of those who are different, intransigent, unreasonable, and emotional is a task that is both too tall and too expensive.7 With equal vehemence, the other side lamented that anti-Americanism has real consequences. As Joseph Nye famously offered, the United States suffers from diminished “soft power,” the power to attract. The consequence was not just moral; it was practical, since declining soft power undermines the US’s ability to exercise power in its harder forms. Its social model, political freedoms, and economic power less attractive than ever, America ceased to be the country with which foreign publics wanted to associate.8 This raised the costs for cooperation and undermined US foreign policy objectives.

Yet, all of this was too polarizing for my tastes. A debate that asked me to choose between an anti-Americanism that was inevitable and therefore insignificant and an anti-Americanism that was avoidable and therefore critical to counteract was a debate that seemed to lead nowhere. The goal of this book is to use fresh material from the Central Asian cases to move beyond the polarities. Doing so will require refocusing our gaze away from high politics and toward the slower-moving, partially occluded, and socially embedded processes that ground how “America” becomes political in Central Asia.9

My thinking about anti-Americanism and Central Asia did not emerge in a vacuum. A haole raised by Canadian parents in the fiftieth of the United States, a Hawaii-raised student studying Soviet and then Central Asian politics and society in Connecticut, Wisconsin, and then Illinois, and an American making his professional and family life in Canada, I found little unusual about residing in liminal space. Maybe this insider-outsider status doomed me to regard the US with a mix of admiration and frustration. All of that is hard to know. What I do know is that an amazing array of friends, family members, colleagues, and students helped to refine, challenge, and advance my thinking. Over a long gestation period, this book benefited from so much constructive input that I am hard-pressed to call it solely my own.

Research began with a generous grant from the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research. Writing two NCEEER working papers allowed me to develop some key ideas. Moreover, the grant supported exceptional research assistance. Anna Gregg and Mark Mills thoughtfully and productively coded data from Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. Chiara Fabrizio conducted several important interviews in Kyrgyzstan for the project. Later, Dillon Byrd, Olga Kesarchuk, Darmen Koktov, and Olga Klymenko provided expert help with aspects of the manuscript. Ben McVicker supplied crucial insights on how to think about the impact of the Soviet-Afghan War. With NCEEER support, a team of Central Asian scholars and friends contributed enormously to this research, though they are in no way responsible for my interpretations. They include Fatima Ahmedova, Gulnara Dadabaeva, Asel Doolotkeldieva, Umeda Gafurova, Armon Jonboboev, Sunatullo Jonboboev, Abdurahim Juraev, Toqjan Kizatova, Alla Kuvatova, Yasmin Lodi, Abdusattor Nuraliev, Nurbek Omuraliev, Irina Shubina, Pavel Shumkin, Abylay Stambayev, and Joomart Sulaimanov.

During many stays in Central Asia, I benefited from the wise counsel, good cheer, exceptional patience, and unsurpassed hospitality of dozens of people. Nurbulat Masanov was a top scholar, productive critic, and extraordinary human being; he is dearly missed. Joomart Sulaimanov challenged all my ideas, while keeping terrific company and buoying my mood. Toqjan Kizatova continually reminded me that passion and commitment are rather universal human traits. Countless others from Central Asia—some of whom I cannot name and others whose names I never knew—provided guidance and shared their worldviews.

I was privileged to be a faculty member at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. At SIUC, Uday Desai was unfailingly supportive of this project. Scott McClurg and Tobin Grant provided expertise on how to conduct a survey experiment and present the resulting data. The relationships developed in Carbondale will last a lifetime. At the University of Toronto, where this book came to fruition, I am deeply grateful to Ronnie Beiner, Randall Hansen, Jeff Kopstein, and Graham White for their ongoing support. The intellectual environment at U of T is nothing short of extraordinary. Robert Austin broadened my geographic and disciplinary horizons, all the while fostering a sense of intellectual humility and unsurpassed comradeship. Jacques Bertrand exemplified analytic clarity and unfailing good sense. Lucan Way has been my co-traveler since before this book was conceived, and my work always benefits by having him in the audience. Additional critical (in both senses of the word) feedback came from Diana Fu, Lilach Gilady, Seva Gunitsky, Phil Triadafilopoulos, and Linda White. Kristin Cavoukian, Sude Beltan, and Lama Mourad all wrote terrific PhD dissertations that shaped my thinking.

Outside U of T, an array of scholars supplied insightful critiques from across the continent and beyond. These include Jane Desmond, Jorge Domínguez, Virginia Domínguez, Payam Foroughi, Roger Haydon, Pauline Jones, Larry Markowitz, Eric McGlinchey, Ellen Lust-Okar, Scott Radnitz, Bryn Rosenfeld, John Schoeberlein, Quintan Wiktorowicz, and Saulesh Yessenova.

Thanks to International Studies Quarterly for permission to publish material that originally appeared as Edward Schatz and Renan Levine, “Framing, Public Diplomacy, and Anti-Americanism in Central Asia,” International Studies Quarterly 54, vol. 3 (September 2010): 855–69. Renan Levine did not just run the statistical analysis and help to interpret the results; his creative intellect was crucial to our undertaking. Thanks also to the University of Illinois Press for permission to publish material that originally appeared as Edward Schatz, “Understanding Anti-Americanism in Central Asia,” in Global Perspectives on the United States: Pro-Americanism, Anti-Americanism, and the Discourses Between, ed. Virginia R. Domínguez and Jane C. Desmond (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 131–51.

Finally, thanks go to the superb team at Stanford University Press. Jessica Ling and Caroline McKusick were an absolute pleasure to work with. Barbara Armentrout provided truly exceptional copyediting that strengthened my voice. None of this would have been possible without Alan Harvey’s incisive and unfailingly good judgment. To him, as well as to the anonymous reviewers who provided the kind of thoroughgoing critiques that a scholar can only hope for, I am deeply thankful.

When I was a child and then an adolescent, the dinnertime debates about politics that Irwin Schatz mischievously fostered and Barbara Schatz heroically tolerated were always rooted in a healthy skepticism about received wisdom that I share with my three brothers. That tradition has continued with my own family. I dedicate this book to Julian, Micah, and Noah—each exceptional and each critical-minded—and especially to my life-partner, Lara, who always nurtures independence of mind and critical inquiry, even as she supports the sometimes-crazy choices that a scholarly life entails. For that and everything else she does, I am forever and lovingly grateful.