Lessons from the 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Survey
At a briefing for journalists at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on June 12, 2008, Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut and two outside commentators, columnist David Brooks and editor Moises Naim, described the major findings from the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey of 24 nations and discussed their implications for U.S. foreign policy and the global climate of opinion. In the following edited excerpt from the briefing transcript, ellipses have been omitted to improve readability.
Andrew Kohut, President, Pew Research Center and Director, Pew Global Attitudes Project
David Brooks, columnist, The New York Times1
Moises Naim, editor-in-chief, Foreign Policy2
ANDREW KOHUT: This is the seventh major survey in the six years that we’ve been doing this polling. Over the years, we’ve interviewed nearly 180,000 people in 54 countries. This survey was conducted in 24 countries, with about 25,000 interviews and features attitudes toward the United States, international issues, economic issues, and especially, attitudes toward China, given the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. A subsequent report in this series will deal with opinions in China about issues facing the Chinese people, which will be released in mid-July, and then we will have a small release on issues among Muslim publics scheduled for late July or early August.
But this first release is more in keeping with the general tone of our surveys, dealing with the image of the United States. I guess we’ve been most famous for chronicling the rise of anti-Americanism in this decade, but for the first time, in this poll, we have some encouraging signs about the image of the United States. While the image of the U.S. remains negative or mixed in most of the nations in this survey, we see some increase in the favorability ratings of the U.S. In fact, in 10 of the 21 countries where trends are available, the favorability ratings of the U.S. have gone up – in Asia, South Korea and Indonesia in particular. My guess is that the South Korean opinion of the U.S. in April, when we surveyed there, is quite a bit different than the South Korean opinion today, but that’s just a guess.
To me what’s significant is not that we have increases, small increases, in 10 countries; it’s that we have any increases whatsoever because, over the course of these years, the numbers have been relentless negative – either flat or down. And I think the fact that there are some increases in favorable opinions means that the climate of opinion of the United States is changing. There is not the consistent relentless negativity that we’ve seen over the years and that’s allowed people in some countries, for particular reasons, to have better views of the United States.
No Sea Change. Nonetheless, I want to emphasize that there’s no sea change in views of the U.S. Opinions of the United States in Western Europe are still largely pretty negative. Only a third of the Germans now rate the U.S. favorably, that’s down from nearly 80% back at the beginning of the decade. Only a narrow majority of the British – 53% — now have a favorable view of the U.S.; 8 years ago, 83% did. And opinions about the U.S. remain extremely negative in the Muslim world: 12% favorable in Turkey, 19% in Jordan, 22% in Egypt. I might add that the numbers are up a bit in Turkey; they were 9% last year; now they’ve “surged” to 12%. And more generally in the Muslim countries, not only are opinions of the United States unfavorable, but opinions of the American people are also unfavorable.
More generally, I think this improved climate of opinion about the United States reflects an anticipation of a change in the White House. As his second term ends, confidence in President Bush to doing the right thing with regard to foreign policy, is 65% to 70% negative in most of the countries we surveyed.
Election Watchers. And the poll found many people in this survey, majorities in some countries, saying that they’ve been paying close attention to the American election. In fact, in Japan, 83% of the people we polled said that they were following the election news very or fairly closely, which compares with 80% in the United States. But it’s not only Japan; majorities in several countries – and percentages in the 30s and 40s in a number of other countries – are watching closely. That’s a sizeable number of people to be paying attention to an election in a foreign country.
And, except in countries that are extremely anti-American, the Muslim countries, we find most people saying that they think that the next president will represent a change for the better with respect to foreign policy. In particular, the poll finds very strong positive opinions about Barack Obama. He has great international appeal; just about everywhere, greater numbers expressed confidence in Barack Obama than in John McCain. I think there’s a high set of expectations for Obama, perhaps because he’s associated with the Democratic Party in opposition to Iraq, and perhaps because of his personal appeal, but he seems very, very well-regarded.
Economic Blues. The poll does point to one problem lurking for the United States, and it’s not a minor one. That is global economic gloom: In 18 of the 24 countries, majorities of people said that their economy is not going well. In Britain, the percentage saying that the economy is in good shape fell from 69% to 30%; in Turkey, from 46% to 21%. And the implication for the United States is that most of the people in most of these countries say that what happens in the American economy affects their economy, and most go on to say that what’s happening in the American economy is having a bad effect on their economies. That’s obviously not something that’s driving the numbers down now because they’re not going down, but it is a potential problem.
China Parallels. We spent a lot of time looking at China because of the upcoming Beijing Olympics. We see China’s favorable ratings slipping further. Since last year, China’s popularity has declined somewhat in nine of 21 countries where trends are available, while increasing in only two countries and remaining basically stable in 10. China’s ratings also fell between 2006 and 2007, so this is a continuation of the trend.
We’re struck by the parallel nature of opinions about China and the United States. The overall favorable scores of the two countries are about the same but there are other similarities as well. Both China and the United States are seen as having a powerful impact on what happens in one’s own country. It’s not always judged as positive. And we also see that both countries are accused of taking a unilateral approach to foreign policy.
Despite all the criticisms of China and concerns about China, there is continued support for the Olympics being held in Beijing. As to timing, the survey was done in April, a period in which there was a great deal of negative publicity for China with respect to Tibet. And it was obviously done well before the earthquake, which might have created a bit of sympathy for China. In any event, you should recognize that that’s the context for this survey.
DAVID BROOKS: One of the headlines I take away from this – if you remember Sally Field won the Academy Award a few years ago and said, you really, really like me – it’s you really, really don’t hate me as much as you used to. So that is a good thing. America’s approval in the world is low, but it is rising.
Agenda Shift. The second headline, to me, is that the Obama effect is real. If you covered the presidential primary campaigns, you noticed that there were maybe, I’d say, 30 American reporters around Barack Obama at any given time, but there were usually about 600 foreign reporters around him. I don’t know why Finnish Broadcasting can afford to send 20 reporters, but there are Finns, there are Brits, there are Nigerians, Japanese. The global interest is big and it’s obviously reflected in this poll.
It seems to me one of the results of this poll is that we are leaving an era in which global opinion was dominated by 9/11, and entering an era in which it is dominated by other stuff. And, I think, the diminution of the Bush administration, the waning of the U.S. fight versus terrorism as the central axis of global affairs, are a bit reflected in this. The looking to something else – whether it is a look to an Obama presidency, a McCain presidency, [or to] a different matrix of issues [that is] determining people’s opinions about the U.S. and other leaders around the world – strikes me as a very important sign that terrorism is declining in saliency. Economics is going up. The fact that now people find reasons to dislike us because we are hurting the world economy is a sign of that. I would point out that we didn’t get credit when the world economy was doing great, but now we get discredit when it is doing badly. But that is just the nature of being a superpower.
Regional Rivalries. I was also struck by the fact that that the U.S. has one of the more anti-trade public opinions in the world. (MR. KOHUT: The most.) The most. That is really astounding for a country that has been the engine of free trade since World War II. But I think – again, to get back to this point – we are into a post-9/11 era. Now the debate is about what this new era is going to look like. We are having that debate in the U.S. A friend of mine named Fareed Zakaria [editor of Newsweek International] thinks we are seeing the rise of the rest, not necessarily a global competition, but the rise of a lot of regional powers. Another friend of mine, [scholar and political commentator] Bob Kagan, thinks we are going to enter an era of 19th century great power rivalry betweem Iran, Russia, China — great regional powers — and the U.S. as a great regional power.
I think you see the effects of that kind of jockeying — the rise of the rest, either in a happy way, as Zacharia prophesizes, or in a much nastier way, as Kagan prophesizes — in these polls. I direct your attention toward the back of the report, where people look at Iran, look at Putin, and look at China, in particular. You see the unpopularity of [Iran President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad in some parts of the world, and the surprisingly high popularity of Ahmadinejad in other parts of the world. In Nigeria, 61% of Muslims say they have a lot of some confidence in Ahmadinejad. [Russian Prime Minister and former president Vladimir] Putin, is not very well-liked in certain parts of the world, but extremely well-liked in Russia.
Complicated Unpopularity. I want to complicate this idea in my second major point, which is that even where the U.S. is at its most unpopular, the situation is more complex. I was struck by the fact that despite our general unpopularity, across the surveyed countries, a [median] average of 65% still believe the U.S. government respects personal freedoms. Roughly the same proportion of people believe that of the French government. That is more than twice as high as the number of people who believe that of the Chinese government, twice as high as the Russian government, three times as high as the Saudi government, and six times as high as the Iranian government. So for all the unpopularity of the United States, people around the world still have a basic faith in the American system of government.
I was at an Orioles game a couple of years ago and while we were walking out of the ballpark a Yankees hat was lying on the parking lot ground. Somebody kicked the Yankees hat, and then another person kicked it, and another person kicked it. And pretty soon 30 and 40 people had gathered around this hat just stomping it and kicking it around. If you are the Yankees of the world, you are always going to be hated to some extent — not as much as we are now, but we are never going to be popular. And one of the virtues of being a Jew is that sometimes when people hate you, you know it’s not your fault. [Laughter.] Sometimes some of the things the U.S. has done are obviously going to alienate people, but sometimes it’s not our fault.
So the third thing to be said in this regard is that the practical effect is complicated. In Europe, the U.S. is extremely unpopular. But that doesn’t seem to have affected who gets elected to office: Merkel, Sarkozy, Berlusconi, these are among the most pro-American politicians on the continent. They still managed to get elected. So you can’t draw a straight line between unpopularity and practical political effect. I think that is something that needs to be underlined.
‘Soft Power’ Power. And then my final point — because I am an opinion journalist — is to ask: What is there to do about this? I don’t think either candidate has much of a thought of what to do about it. Barack Obama, simply by his person, obviously, is going to have a big effect on the result — and this study certainly suggests that will happen. But it seems to me the U.S. has to take a break from trying to push political change. Because of the unpopularity of the U.S. that lingers, it is just not going to be something we can do particularly effectively. But as someone who travels around the world a fair bit, it seems to me — and this survey also suggests – that what people still have faith in are America’s underlying ideas, including the idea of government having respect for its citizens. Most important, I think, is that people should have the ability to realize the most of their capacities.
In countries around the world, whether America is popular or unpopular, one thing that is certainly true is that a lot of people want to come to school here. And that is because they believe the United States society tries to make the best use of individuals’ abilities. It seems to me as American politicians think about soft power, that should be the central theme — that every society should make the most of its talents, and that the U.S. should do whatever it can to help societies make the most of their talents.
If you go to China, you meet incredibly smart people in government. That’s because the Chinese have this hyper-SAT testing system, where only the tippy-top smartest people in society get to go into government. That is actually a reasonably impressive system. I’m not sure I would want it for this country, but it does mean talent is rewarded. And championing that sort of reward for talent is non-confrontational, it is non-political. It is something that the U.S. can authentically do, I think, to project soft power and make us even less hated than we are now.
MOISES NAIM: In reading this report I discovered five surprises, two policy implications, and one recommendation for Andy for a set of questions that I think could be very interesting to include in the next iteration of the survey.
Election Benefits. The first surprise is how little it seems to have taken for the world to soften its negative attitudes towards the United States. If it is true that anti-Americanism is abating, then you have to ask yourself, well, what did the United States do in order to change it? What were the policy changes that created these more favored attitudes? Nothing. All that has happened is that President Bush’s term is coming to an end, and the U.S. is holding elections and some surprising candidates have emerged like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And this seems to have been enough to generate renewed sympathy –or at least to help recover some of the lost ground in terms of America’s standing in the world. So that is a surprise. Doing very little, the United States seems to have altered, at least a little bit, the trend toward negativity around the world.
Overrated U.S. Influence. The second surprise is the overestimation of U.S. economic influence. There is no argument that the United States, its policies and its economy, have consequences for the world economy. But there are other factors that the world doesn’t seem to recognize. In reading this, I had a feeling that it was almost as if the world thought that the United States was the only economy that called the shots. And we know that that is not the case. We know, for example, that part of the inflation in food prices that the world is experiencing has to do with the extremely successful boom of economies like India and China. And so it may be that current economic woes, especially the inflationary ones, are not exclusively or only related to the United States. Yet there is little recognition of this fact.
China/India Hype. My third surprise is how upbeat everybody is about China and India. These feelings are reasonable, justified, and worthy of applause and hope. And yet, how easy it is to forget that these are, in many ways, still highly vulnerable countries These are not countries without problems and one has to be careful not to celebrate too much, because whenever there is a boom we have painfully learned to be careful and expect that something is likely to go wrong. It is very hard for countries to grow 10% or 11% per year without tripping; without something happening that impairs that growth. And if those large and important countries suffer a growth-impairing accident, the spillover of the economic woes into their politics and social turmoil are almost guaranteed — and that will, of course, have ripple effects around the world
Globalized Politics. The fourth surprise was already mentioned by both Andy and David, and this is that the world loves Obama. If the election was held today in the world, according to these surveys, Obama would win by large margins almost everywhere. And again, this is interesting because, as well know, the reality is that those expressing positive views toward Obama around the world are unlikely to know him well or have a clear view of the policies he proposes. What drives them is Obama’s’ exceptional personality and his very unique personal story. Obviously, the fact that someone with that story and that skin color can become the president of the United States is a powerful — and positive — surprise for the world.
This enthusiasm for Obama — and also the extreme attention the world is paying to the election (and it is fascinating to see people in other countries trying to understand what a caucus is and how they work — things that we in the U.S. don’t even understand well) — these speak to the globalization of politics. Whenever we talk about globalization, what comes to mind is trade, and investment, the internet, and all that. Well, there is a very powerful globalization of politics taking place and perhaps you could even argue that political globalization is transforming the world in different ways than economic globalization is.
Just imagine some young, aspiring politicians in countries that don’t have as free a system watching the process through which Barack Obama became the candidate of the Democratic Party in this country. That has to spark imaginations and generate all sorts of expectations, demands, and hopes for populations and for politicians around the world. The process of contagion — which I think is a positive contagion — in which politics gets transmitted and certain political norms and practices are impossible to escape — is a very powerful and perhaps transformative one.
Underrated Globalization. The fifth surprise is one that David also mentioned. That is the paradox that the country that benefits most from economic globalization increasingly doubts its value. Page 7 of the report notes that support for international trade continues to decline in the United States — 53% of Americans now say that trade is good for the country, down from 59% last year and 78% in 2002.
If you go around and ask other countries who benefits most from trade, their reaction is clearly that the United States is one of the largest beneficiaries of the current system of trade and investment in the world. And, yet almost half of American citizens don’t think that’s true.
Demand for U.S. Reengagement. So those are my five surprises. The policy implication is that I believe that this survey, in combination with others, shows that there is a very interesting alignment both around the globe and in the United States demanding reengagement of the United States with the world. Even in countries with large anti-American majorities, you can detect a certain yearning for American leadership. Not the U.S. leadership that invades other countries preemptively, that bullies allies, prefers unilateralism and disdains international organizations, or the America of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but the America that rallies other countries, that supplies the funds for initiatives that are needed for a better functioning world and that without American leadership, without American funding, without American energy in mobilizing wills, will not happen.3
So there is a demand elsewhere for America’s role and there is also demand in the United States’ political system for something to be done differently in terms of what the United States should do and how should it stand in the world. Many Americans are embarrassed by the way many erstwhile friends of the U. S. now think of the country. This brings me to my final point, which is the information that I miss in this report and would be very interested to see in future ones.
Danger of Double Standards. David talked about soft power and the importance of the United States gaining influence through the deployment of its soft power. That is a valid point. But it is important to keep in mind that on the other side of the coin — the flip side of soft power — are the double standards that stain the reputation of the United States abroad. The United States, for example, that champions human rights and pushes other countries to respect them and then experiences Abu Ghraib and defends Guantanamo or declares that the Geneva conventions are obsolete. The country that keeps an embargo on Cuba but has a positive and thriving relationship with Vietnam and its communist government. The country that want others to play by the rules and respect international law and then flaunts them. The country that defends and promotes democracy in some countries and defends and promotes dictators in others.
If you go around the world and you ask people why they dislike the United States, what one often gets is a litany of denunciations related to these double standards: Americans ask others to do certain things and to adopt certain policies that they are not willing to uphold, defend and implement in their own country. That issue, I think, is at the core of a lot of anti-American sentiment and it would be wonderful to have more exploration of those views in future surveys.