In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the Pew Research Center and several other major survey organizations have conducted a number of international polls. These surveys have been illuminating, showing a vast opinion gulf between the American public and people elsewhere. Yet they also reveal, surprisingly, the ways in which the United States is admired around the world.
The overseas polls have contributed to our understanding of the post-9/11 global environment, but they tell only part of the story. The Pew Global Attitudes project will attempt to develop a fuller, more detailed picture of international opinion not merely toward the U.S. and the war on terrorism, but in how people assess their lives, their futures, and the impact of the rapid pace of global economic, social and technological change. The project will conduct interviews with 30,000 people in 40 countries over the next two years.
Here’s what we have learned so far from these international surveys:
Policy Not Culture
Why do so many people in the Middle East and elsewhere dislike the United States? One surprise from the recent surveys is that anti-American sentiment is not driven by hostility toward U.S. culture or resentment of American multinationals. The Pew Research Center’s survey last November of political, cultural and business leaders in 24 countries showed that most influentials viewed American culture as at most a minor reason for this hostility. The main sources of friction are unrivaled American power and policies that have widened divisions between rich and poor. Zogby International’s 10-nation survey in March contained similar findings: majorities in eight predominantly Muslim nations and 75% of those in Iran had favorable impressions of American movies and television. More than seven-in-ten respondents in those nations took an unfavorable view of U.S. policies toward Arab nations.
The New Rome
Too big, too powerful, too willing to go it alone in the world. Those widespread perceptions have eroded support for the U.S. abroad, undermined sympathy for Americans in the wake of 9/11, and provoked a desire among many to create more distance from the United States. In the Pew poll of influentials, solid majorities in every region said at least many people in their countries believed it was good for Americans to know what it is like to feel vulnerable. And Pew’s survey of publics in Western Europe showed there is now broad support for Europe taking a more independent approach to diplomatic and security matters.
Public antagonism toward the United States in the Middle East and the rest of of the Islamic world is so great that about the most the Bush administration can hope for is to not increase this anger. Gallup’s March poll of nine predominantly Muslim nations showed that the United States is seen by most people in those countries as arrogant, untrustworthy and easily provoked. Nearly nine-in-ten respondents in Kuwait and Pakistan and solid majorities in Indonesia, Iran and Lebanon said they didn’t believe reports than Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks.
American policies in the Middle East not only are widely unpopular in that region, but in Europe as well. Pew’s recent survey in Western Europe found people in France, Germany and Italy to be broadly critical of U.S. policies in the Middle East. Equally important, Europeans express much more support for the Palestinians than do Americans. The Zogby International survey focused more specifically on opinions of U.S. policy toward the Palestinians; overwhelming majorities in predominantly Muslim nations, and 74% of those in France, expressed unfavorable views of that policy.
America’s Overlooked Strengths
The United States is widely admired for its technological capability, educational system and, perhaps most of all, its enduring image as a land of opportunity. In the Pew poll of global influentials, solid majorities in every region cited the latter as a main reason why people in their countries like the United States. Zogby found broad acceptance of American- made products in Muslim countries, and that U.S. education is viewed favorably by about eight-in-ten in Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Indonesia.
Trade is seen as a boring but important issue by most Americans, but it is a source of deep concern to people elsewhere. President Bush’s recent decision to slap tariffs on imports of foreign steel won approval at home (though a relatively large proportion, 24%, had no opinion). In Western Europe, however, it generated more opposition than any of Bush’s policies, including his widely criticized Mideast policy. By at least three-to-one, people in Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy disapproved of the tariffs. Objections to U.S. trade policy are rooted in broader opposition to American and Western economic policy. Gallup’s survey of Muslim nations showed that a relatively small minority (no more than a quarter in any nation) believe that the United States and other Western nations generally care about poorer nations. Yet the vast majority of Americans 78% see the United States and other Western nations as concerned about impoverished countries.
The Current War
Gallup’s survey of predominantly Muslim nations found that majorities in each viewed the war in Afghanistan as unjustified. In Western Europe, by contrast, there is considerable support for the idea that the United States was justified in taking military action against terrorism. Yet more than 60% of respondents in all four Western European nations surveyed by Pew felt the United States was acting mainly in its own interests and not taking the allies’ concerns into account in conducting the war. Moreover, there is little sense among Western Europeans, whose own worries about terrorism are on par with Americans’, feel any safer because of the war on terrorism.
And The Next?
There is, as one might expect, little Arab or Muslim support for making Iraq the next front in that war. In fact, among the predominantly Muslim nations surveyed by Zogby, majorities favored lifting economic sanctions against Baghdad. In Western Europe, there is more support for a strike against Iraq. Europeans are surprisingly responsive to the idea of using force to end Saddam Hussein’s rule if it is proven he is developing weapons of mass destruction.