America - Andrew Stephen finds Americans too smug

Americans truly believe in the manifest destiny of their country. "In God We Trust", it says on thei

It is hard to be caught in the crossfire of the current polarising anti- and pro-American propaganda wars: ever since 20 September, when President Bush made his "you're either with us or you're against us" proclamation, I have found it difficult to live and work and play among Americans. If I wear my conjoined Union Jack/Stars and Stripes lapel badge, it makes life slightly easier, reminding Americans that the Brits are about as good a bunch of allies as they have. But if you dare to suggest that the US is behaving anything other than faultlessly, you will be greeted not so much with hostility but with blank incomprehension: a huge and potentially dangerous gulf of misunderstanding is developing between the US and the rest of the world.

Added to this, somehow I always feel an acute sense of melancholy on America's most patriotic days. This month, it was Independence Day. On 3 July, we had "The Last Post" for victims of 11 September, followed by the national festivities next day. What always strikes me on such occasions is Americans' absurd, unknowing sense of self-importance, a self-congratulatory smugness so surrealistically theatrical that they don't realise the extent to which it turns off foreigners. Americans truly believe in the manifest destiny of this country as it was first expressed (and described here not long ago) in the 19th century; the very words "In God We Trust" on American coins says it all - a belief that the country has the automatic imprimatur of no less a entity than God.

We should not, therefore, be surprised that the US has rejected the very notion of the International Criminal Court sitting in possible judgement of US soldiers - even though the US itself negotiated the court's procedures, giving itself a permanent, free get-out via a UN Security Council veto. I was asked the other day in a BBC interview what people here think of the American refusal to accede to the ICC, and its further threatened walkout from Bosnia. I replied that I doubted whether one in a hundred Americans even know about this; the horrors of 11 September, Americans seem collectively to feel, have granted them a completely free hand to do as they wish and to flout the laws and views of the rest of the world.

If we view a rogue state as one that ignores international laws and conventions, then the US is, indeed, in danger of becoming a rogue superpower. Because it has enormous military superiority, Americans believe they have military omnipotence, an invincibility that enables them to behave as they wish. What is so striking about all this is how un-American it actually is: having painfully wrought a constitution that provides workable checks and balances domestically, all such reverence for fairness and democracy is thrown out of the window when it comes to international relations.

Free trade? Yep, that's an absolutely vital hallmark of the American way of life. But with the rest of the world? No: impose agricultural government subsidies to scupper foreign competition, capitalist or otherwise. Restrict and tax prohibitively the importing of steel and lumber, so that industry in the US can receive artificial government support, which blows away belief in the free market system. The Kyoto protocol to protect the environment? To hell with that: it would play havoc with American industry, even though this country - with 5 per cent of the world's population - already uses 25 per cent of its energy resources.

The polarisation that I described earlier is, therefore, evolving into two Americas: a country that abides scrupulously to its democratic tenets at home, while overseas it calls for the overthrow of the democratically elected Palestinian leader and simultaneously keeps numerous sheikhs and unelected thugs in money and power. Due process and the rule of law remain central to domestic America; for the rest of the world, they are infinitely discardable if it is perceived to be in America's interests. This is necessary, say Americans with tortuous reasoning, to preserve freedoms at home.

Perhaps this best explains why an Anglo-American life is currently full of challenges, interlaced with a feeling of being pulled in different directions at the same time. Henry Kissinger, in his latest book on US foreign policy, writes that "America's ultimate challenge is to transfer its power into a moral consensus, promoting its values not by imposition but by their willing acceptance".

This is precisely what is not happening under the Bush administration, which is thereby playing into the hands of anti-American sentiments everywhere. It may not matter when it just angers the keyboard colonels of Britain, say. But when the goodwill of overwhelmingly Muslim countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia are needlessly forfeited by American triumphalism, it starts to be serious and to threaten international stability. Melancholy times, indeed.