Proud to be anti-American?

The charge sheet against the United States is long and damning. It refuses to join efforts to stop global warming and continues to burn a disproportionate share of the planet's fossil fuels. Its defence budget, now rising to $400bn annually, accounts for half the world's military spending and it refuses to sign a nuclear test ban treaty. It frustrates attempts to create a credible international criminal court and treats the UN with contempt - sometimes refusing to pay its dues - when that body fails to act according to US interests and preferences. It wages war on other people's territory and intervenes, covertly or overtly, in their affairs, regardless of the democratic credentials of their governments. It flouts all principles of natural justice in dealing with foreign nationals whom it suspects of terrorism. It demands free access to poor countries' markets, yet fiercely protects its own industries - tariffs on steel imports being only the latest (and nothing like the most scandalous) example. The list could be extended.

Many protesters against President Bush's visit to London will say their anger is against the Republican administration, not against America's political class generally, still less its people. In the US itself, the administration has many enemies who demand: "Give us back our country." But the problem goes deeper than that. As Noam Chomsky argues (page 16), US ambitions to dominate the world, and its double standards in international affairs (using the rhetoric of "freedom" when it is in US interests to do so but supporting the most odious and murderous tyrants on other occasions), go back nearly 60 years and have persisted through administrations of all political colours.

America struggles to escape the charge that deep within its culture lies an aggressive and expansionist outlook and a belief that the world and its resources exist for its gratification. This after all is a nation that, while it pretends to have found and conquered a wilderness, largely exterminated a native population and built much of its early prosperity on slaves seized from a continent an ocean away. Today, it consumes more than half the world's goods and services and what it spends on pet food (more than $10bn annually) could easily provide basic health, nutrition and schooling to all those without them. When we complain about multinationals - their looting of natural resources, their bio-piracy, their forced clearances of people from traditional lands, their denial of drugs to the poor - the complaint must be primarily against Americans (or at least against American capitalism), since 185 of the 500 biggest corporations are based in the US.

Critics of America - and there are now almost as many on the right as on the left - may resent being called "anti-American". You can, they point out, deplore Silvio Berlusconi or the corruption and gangsterism of Italian public life without attracting the label "anti-Italian". But America is truly different - a nation that uniquely defines itself through its values and ideals, openly demands that others adopt its "way of life" and firmly believes, in Lincoln's words, that it is "the last, best hope of earth". Even the strengths that we are invited to admire - for example, America's highly democratic governance, under which it holds an average of 250,000 elections a year - compel us to reject sharp contrasts between rulers and ruled. Even its successes - food products that so many want to eat, films that so many want to watch, clothes that so many want to buy - compel us to confront its influence (or cultural and economic imperialism if you like) and take sides. Nobody should apologise for being anti-American; if you don't like what America does, wear the badge with pride.

And yet. Nobody who visits America or meets its people can fail to feel affection for the country. It has a warmth, openness and civic vitality rarely found in Europe. If we abhor the way that President Bush identifies military adventure with the defence of freedom, we should recall that, from Jefferson to Kennedy and beyond, US leaders, drawing on the same rhetorical tradition, have provided some of the most memorable and inspiring words in support of liberal values. Volunteer schemes - including one that provides hospitality to overseas visitors - involve astonishingly high proportions of the population. Social democrats elsewhere might well envy US comprehensive schools, the high proportions who go to university and the affirmative action programmes. Above all, America still welcomes newcomers on a scale that few other countries have ever matched: the rate of immigration in the 1990s was the highest in its history and 33 million people now living in the US were born outside it.

America's friends, therefore, can reasonably argue that it is better to live in America than in most other countries and that we should be glad it, not the Soviet Union, won the cold war. But comparisons are ultimately otiose; there has been nothing like America before. The question is whether a better world - one that offers justice, health, freedom and the basic necessities of food, water, sanitation and shelter to all people - can possibly come about under its leadership. The answer to that must be an enormous negative. Americans offer only one solution to the world: live as we do, according to our economic and social rules. Theirs is indeed an imperialist project, and all the more dangerous because it offers a share of the American dream, not direct exploitation. But the American dream is just that - a dream, far from realised in America itself. Quite simply, the whole world cannot live like the US; the planet could not support it, and it is doubtful that it can continue to support Americans in the manner to which they are accustomed. To those who say there is no alternative to America, the answer is that there can be and there must be.