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How They See Us

Author: Bruce Stokes
December 21, 2002
National Journal


A survey of 38,000 people in 44 countries shows broad support for American values, democracy, entertainment, and technology. But that sentiment is shallow, and a deeper anti-Americanism is emerging in some parts of the world.

On the eve of a possible conflict with Iraq, in the midst of a global war on terrorism, during a time when the United States stands alone as the world's economic and military superpower, signs of resistance to U.S. foreign-policy leadership are growing, as is widespread resentment about the long shadow the-American Goliath casts across the globe. According to a new in-depth survey of 38,000 people in 44 countries, Washington's behavior in the world-its perceived unilateralism and indifference to the poor, its unparalleled influence on other cultures, and its supposed failure to do enough to solve global problems-has largely spawned this discontent. But this anti-Americanism is generally not a wholesale rejection of core American values.

The key distinction between policies and values suggests that the United States can indeed recast its image abroad, if it so chooses. The recent rise of anti-Americanism reflects not what America is, but how it acts, according to the Global Attitudes Survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The poll was conducted worldwide from July through October to gather a baseline trove of information about how the rest of the world thinks about the United States and other topics. Thus the challenge facing the Bush administration is how to pursue U.S. global interests in a manner that the rest of the world finds less offensive-not because America has to be loved by everyone, but because Washington may need help overseas to accomplish its goals. The poll data suggest that America needs more than just an image makeover-it needs a policy makeover. And the poll points to several possible remedies: avoiding "one-size-fits-all" public diplomacy; exercising caution in restricting travel and study in the United States, because people who come here generally go away with a good impression of America; tolerating differing views about democracy and capitalism, especially among allies; and, above all, demonstrating greater willingness to deal cooperatively with the problems that are important to the rest of the world's nations, and not just to Washington.

The survey suggests that Washington has time to undertake a new approach. Most people in the world still like the United States. In 35 of the 42 countries polled on this question, a majority hold a favorable view of America. In 32 nations, the public supports the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Although that snapshot of opinion is somewhat comforting, the moving picture tells a more disturbing story. Two and three years ago, the U.S. State Department asked some of the same questions in surveys in 27 of the countries polled by Pew. Attitudes toward the United States have since soured, somewhat or significantly, in 19 of those countries. This deterioration suggests that the United States has squandered the outpouring of foreign sympathy it received in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Of course, anti-Americanism is not new. Such sentiments have existed for decades in many parts of the world. The people who live in the valley often envy, and resent, the rich family that lives on the hill. But that rich family must also occasionally descend into the valley to do business, to travel, and to pursue its interests. So it ignores the opinions of those in the valley at its own peril.

Uncle Sam's Still OK

The public in most countries holds the United States in pretty high esteem. Among the 38,000 people Pew interviewed, 58 percent say they like the United States. The proportion of people who are pro-American reaches 80 percent in nations as disparate as Guatemala, Honduras, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Philippines, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela. At least 70 percent of those polled in Canada, Great Britain, and Italy, and 60 percent in France and Germany, also have a favorable opinion of the United States. Solid majorities support Washington in many countries of Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia. Of perhaps greatest geopolitical importance, 61 percent of Russians now have a positive opinion of their Cold War adversary, up from 37 percent just a few years ago. This historic development suggests opportunities for international cooperation that were unthinkable only a decade ago, during the administration of President Bush's father.

People the world over particularly like American popular culture-music, movies, and television, for instance-and U.S. science and technology. In Canada and in Western Europe (including even France, where the government has actively tried to discourage the showing of American films and TV sitcoms), two-thirds to three-quarters of those surveyed say they are fans of American culture. The Japanese are similarly accepting of the Hollywood version of America, as are people in most parts of Latin America, Africa, and much of Asia. This includes China, where American music has become very popular among young people despite government efforts to promote Chinese performers. As might be expected, in every country the proportion of people who like American movies, music, and TV is much larger among the young than among older people.

If Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg present an appealing image of America to the world, Bill Gates is even more attractive. Very large numbers of people around the world admire U.S. success in science and technology. In most of the developing world-even in countries where the public otherwise has low regard for things American-solid majorities say it's the gizmos that they like most about the United States. Interestingly, among average people, such technology scores much higher as a symbol of America than do American ideas about democracy or business.

Growing Anti-Americanism

People the world over may like our entertainment, and our science and technology, but in many places, that pro-American sentiment is shallow. Alongside the positive feeling is some deeply rooted and intensely held anti-Americanism, and the evidence suggests that dislike of America is growing. Overall, a third of those surveyed by Pew expressed an unfavorable opinion of the United States, with half of those people saying they felt so intensely.

Not surprisingly, given current affairs, the strongest anti-American sentiments were found in predominantly Muslim societies in the Middle East and elsewhere. In Pakistan, Washington's regional ally in the war against Al Qaeda, seven in 10 people have an unfavorable view of the United States. More important, six of those seven say their sentiment is "very unfavorable." Similarly deep animosity is found in Turkey, which would be Washington's principal Muslim military partner in a possible war with Iraq. Five out of 10 Turks dislike the United States, and four of those five say their resentment is deeply felt.

Other important players on the international stage harbor significant anti-American sentiments. In Argentina-which has looked in vain to Washington for greater help in its current economic crisis-just one person in three voices a favorable opinion of the United States. In Brazil, where disagreements over access to U.S. markets for Brazilian goods are a long-standing issue, only a bare majority has a favorable opinion of America. And despite their dependence on the American military for their security, two in five South Koreans dislike the United States.

Finally, pro-Americanism has declined in the past few years in all parts of the world. Support for America is down 17 percentage points in Germany and 8 points in Great Britain. It declined in three of the six Eastern European nations surveyed and in seven of the eight Latin American countries polled. And the number of people giving the United States a positive rating has dropped by 22 points in Turkey and 13 points in Pakistan.

It may be, as some Bush administration officials have suggested, that the decline in support for the United States found by Pew is a statistical aberration, a return to long-term beliefs after a peak in public support for America at the end of the 1990s. But the fact remains that one-third of the people around the world dislike the United States. And among those who

like America, most are lukewarm in their support. This loss of popularity is occurring as Washington wages a war on terrorism that requires the help and cooperation of America's longtime allies and newfound friends.

What's the Beef?

The survey suggests that antipathy toward the United States is shaped primarily by what America does. There is a widespread perception, held by a majority or a plurality of the public in 24 of 42 nations surveyed, that the United States often acts unilaterally and fails to take into account the interests of its friends and allies in making international policy decisions. Notably, this sentiment exists in every NATO nation except Germany, and in every Eastern European country about to become a NATO member that Pew surveyed. And German sentiment may have worsened. The poll was conducted before German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and President Bush had their the vocal disagreement over military action in Iraq. Only in Africa do most people see America as a collegial superpower.

Nevertheless, support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism is fairly widespread and deep in 31 of the 42 nations surveyed on this question. In fact, some of those who are most critical of U.S. unilateralism-the French and the Russians-are also the most supportive of cracking down on terrorists, possibly because of their own domestic terrorism concerns. Only in the Middle East- especially in Jordan and Egypt-does the public have strong reservations about the war on terrorism. Seven out of 10 South Koreans also oppose the anti-terrorism effort, perhaps out of fear that it will trigger a war with North Korea-a member of President Bush's "axis of evil."

The confrontation with Iraq has renewed charges of American unilateralism and apparently intensified concerns about U.S. behavior on the world stage. In France, Germany, and Russia-all prospective Washington allies in a new war on Baghdad-sizable majorities oppose the use of military force to end Saddam Hussein's rule. Even the British public is split on the issue. Moreover, U.S. allies question American priorities in the Middle East; they want Washington to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian problem before taking on Iraq. And they are skeptical of U.S. motives. Three-quarters of the public in Russia and in France, and more than half in Germany, see the war as a U.S. effort to grab control of Iraqi oil, not simply to topple Saddam.

Most worrisome, 83 percent of Turks oppose allowing U.S. forces to use bases in their country, a NATO ally, to wage war on Iraq. Further, 53 percent of Turkish respondents believe that Washington's anti-Saddam campaign is part of a war against unfriendly Muslim countries and not an effort to bolster peace. Such sentiments in the streets and bazaars may be inconsequential if an Iraq war is quick and clean. If it is prolonged and dirty, the Turkish public's doubts about the United States may prove a severe test for Ankara's new pro-Islamic government.

Most Americans think their country reaches out to the rest of the world to help solve problems and promote economic development, but few people abroad agree. In Latin America, Asia, and Africa, people by and large are critical of U.S. actions toward the world's poor. Such sentiment is not confined to poor countries. In Germany and France, seven out of 10 people complain that U.S. policies increase the gap between rich and poor countries. And majorities in Britain, France, and Italy think that Washington does too little to help solve the world's problems.

Of the various ingredients to anti-Americanism that Pew probed, Washington's perceived unilateral approach to international problems and the U.S.-led war on terrorism play the strongest roles in shaping opinions toward the United States.

The Values Paradox

On more-fundamental aspects of American democracy and culture, the poll found ambivalent and often contradictory feelings. In 34 of the 42 nations asked about these issues, half or more of their publics object to the spread of American ideas and customs. For example, people in every European country surveyed except Bulgaria resent the Americanization of their societies. Even in Great Britain, America's cultural antecedent, only two in five respondents said they like the ongoing spread of things American. Americanization meets with particular objection in predominantly Muslim countries, where large majorities oppose it.

Core American beliefs about democracy fared better in the poll. Majorities or pluralities in three-quarters of the countries surveyed say they like U.S. ideas about democracy. Africans, in particular, are overwhelmingly supportive. But there was a surprising degree of doubt expressed by the people who probably know the American political system the best: Two in five Canadians, as well as Britons, question U.S.-style democracy.

Differences between America's more classically liberal democracy and European-style social democracies may explain such views. The American political process does not offer its citizens the same social safety net traditionally offered in Europe. And in six of the 10 European countries surveyed, people who think the government should guarantee that no one is in need are more likely to dislike American democracy. Statistical analysis also shows that objections to American ideas about democracy play a significant role in shaping Europeans' broader negative views of the United States.

Majorities or pluralities of the public in nearly two-thirds of the nations polled admire American business practices. These include every country in Africa, five of the six nations in Eastern Europe, and five of the eight in Asia and Latin America.

Ironically, people in those countries and regions that have the most contact with American corporate culture-in Canada, Japan, and Western Europe-are most likely to disapprove of U.S. business ideals. Not surprisingly, people in those economies that currently have significant differences with the United States-in Argentina and Brazil-and in the Islamic Middle East are critical of U.S. business practices as well.

Such criticism appears rooted in general opposition to America's more laissez-faire brand of capitalism. Those surveyed who disagree with the premise that people are better off in a free-market economy are also likely to object to the American way of doing business. They question an American corporate culture that works 24/7, that puts shareholder value above worker and community concerns, and that spawns scandals, such as the Enron collapse, the Arthur Andersen accounting abuses, and the high-tech stock market bubble.

Policy Implications

Historically, few people have ever liked a hegemonic power, be it Rome of 2,000 years ago, Britain of 200 years ago, or the United States of today. So a realistic goal for the Bush administration is not getting everyone to love the United States, but finding ways to minimize foreign animosity toward U.S. actions and values, especially when that hostility gets in the way of America's pursuit of its own self-interest.

One surprising finding of the Pew survey was how confident foreigners are in their judgments of the United States. Just a decade ago, a far greater portion of the world's people said they didn't know enough about American business practices or democracy to judge them. In many regions, people now think they know the United States well, and they have firm opinions about what they know. Such certainty makes American public diplomacy-the selling of U.S. policies and values-all the harder, for an obvious reason: It is much more difficult to change a person's strongly held opinion than it is to influence a fence-sitter.

U.S. policy makers should also probably not draw too much comfort from the broad support the survey found in much of the developing world for U.S. ideas about democracy and business. It is fine that people in strife-torn Ivory Coast see American-style government and business as their salvation. But their sentiments may be more a testimony to the bankruptcy of their indigenous governing and business cultures than they are an endorsement of American values they have only read about. The Pew survey data suggest concentrating U.S. public-diplomacy efforts in Africa and Asia, where opinions are not as firmly held as they may be elsewhere.

At the same time, public diplomacy shouldn't take Canada, Western Europe, or Japan for granted. Indeed, the questioning of core American beliefs about democracy and business by America's neighbors and longtime allies-the people who know the United States best-is disturbing. The continuing appeal of social democracy and social market practices in Western and Eastern Europe serves as a reminder that American-style politics and capitalism are not universally embraced. U.S. public diplomacy is unlikely to succeed in these areas if it looks like American triumphalism. Actions, not propaganda, will more likely sway those peoples.

The survey showed a strong correlation between travel to, or communication with, the United States and positive attitudes toward America. That finding suggests that America may pay a long-term price for recent restrictions imposed on U.S. visas and study in the United States because of terrorism fears. Limitations on traditional U.S. openness need to be narrowly targeted to minimize their long-term harm to America's image abroad.

Finally, the dichotomy between foreign support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism and allied opposition to a possible war against Iraq suggests that Washington needs to define foreign-policy objectives in a manner that others can embrace. People across the globe see terrorism as a widespread threat, and they broadly support its eradication. Yet many people view a war with Iraq as a parochial American interest. Multilateral coalitions may not be sus- tainable if the United States repeatedly insists that allied governments must side with Washington against the wishes of their own people.

At the end of the day, the United States cannot be expected to sell short its national interest simply to keep others happy. After all, anti-Americanism is a problem to be managed, not solved. The task is especially daunting, in view of the Pew survey's core finding-anti-Americanism is rising. The survey, however, also shows a way out. By better understanding why people resent the United States, Washington can better pursue American self-interest without fanning the flames of hatred toward America.