Posted on January 07, 2002 in Washington Watch

With so much discussion here in the U.S. about “Why do they hate us?”, it might appear that the Middle East was the only region of the world where the U.S. had an “image” problem. A fascinating new study conducted by the Pew Research Center in the U.S., however, presents a more complex picture. The Pew study, part of their “Global Attitudes” project, measured the attitude about the U.S. of opinion leaders from 24 countries in six different regions of the world.

The results are quite remarkable since they show that a rather substantial gap exists between U.S. opinion and the attitudes of most of the rest of the world, on some key questions of foreign policy. There are also a number of interesting areas where a convergence of views can be found.

For example, with regard to the September 11 terrorist attacks and the resultant war on terror, there was universal agreement that “the terrorist attacks and the subsequent war opened a new chapter in world history”. In the U.S., 78% agreed with this statement, only 20% disagreed. In all of the rest of the world, a nearly identical 79% agreed, with 18% disagreeing.

Similarly, there was a convergence of views between the U.S. and world opinion with the statement that the “terrorist attacks are the start of a conflict between the West and al-Qaida, and not a conflict between the West and Islam.”

But when asked whether, in conducting this war, “the U.S. was taking into account the interests of its partners or acting on its own”, the agreement ends. Seventy percent of Americans indicated that they felt that “the U.S. was taking into account the interests of its partners”, only 28% felt that the U.S. was “acting mainly on its own interests”. In the rest of the world the percentages are reversed, with 62% believing the U.S. is acting on its own and only 33% thinking that the U.S. is taking into consideration the view of its partners. And as Chart I establishes, these percentages hold across the board.

Chart 1

  U.S. W. Europe E. Europe Latin America Asia Middle East
U.S. is acting multilaterally 70 34 37 37 25 27
U.S. is acting on its own 28 66 60 61 65 71

A similar gap appears when the opinion leaders were asked “if it turns out that Iraq and Somalia have supported terrorism, should the U.S. and its allies attack them, or should the war be confined to Afghanistan?”. In the U.S., fifty percent agree to attack, thirty-eight percent do not. In the rest of the world, only 29% agree that “the U.S. and its allies should attack” Iraq and Somalia, while 54% do not agree with an expansion of the war effort, even if either country can be shown to have supported terrorism.

Chart II shows the regional breakdown of the responses.

Chart II

  U.S. W. Europe E. Europe Latin America Asia Middle East
Yes, attack Iraq and Somalia 50 32 23 34 27 24
No, confine war to Afghanistan 38 37 74 39 58 66

Responses to this question should give pause to those in the U.S. who are pushing for an immediate expansion of the war, while maintaining that such an expansion would have no impact on world support for the war on terrorism. In fact, the numbers show very little support anywhere in the world for an enlargement of the war.

When the global respondents were asked whether, in their opinion, “ordinary people” in their countries had a favorable or unfavorable view of the U.S., overall 69% indicated a favorable view, as opposed to only 28% who felt that unfavorable views of the U.S. held sway among ordinary people. Strongest support came from Western Europe, while in the Middle East, views were evenly divided.

When asked why people disliked the U.S., the four major reasons, in rank order, were:

  • resentment of U.S. power in the world

  • U.S. policies which have contributed to the growing gap between rich and poor

  • growing power of U.S. multinational corporations

  • U.S. support for Israel

When asked why the U.S. was liked, the major reasons given were:

  • America is the land of opportunity

  • the U.S. has led in scientific and technological innovation

  • American democratic ideals are appealing

Interestingly, when given the option “the U.S. does a lot of good around the world”, fifty-two percent of Americans said that they believed that to be the reason their country was liked, only 21% of the rest of the world agreed.

One final area where significant differences exist between the opinions of the U.S. respondents, and those of the rest of the world, had to do with “whether or not the U.S. has been too supportive of Israel”. Only 35% of Americans agreed that the U.S. had been too supportive, while 45% disagreed. On the other hand, in the rest of the world, seventy-three percent thought the U.S. was too supportive of Israel.

Chart III: Is the U.S. too supportive of Israel?

  U.S. W. Europe E. Europe Latin America Asia Middle East
Yes 35 68 40 78 82 95
No 45 32 47 17 10 5

Because of its limited scope and because it is only a targeted survey of “elites”, opinion leaders, the Pew study should be supplemented by a more far reaching public opinion poll. But even with this limitation, its results do suggest that the U.S. needs to look more closely at the impact that its actions may have on world opinion. It is not merely the Middle East that has concern with U.S. power and policy. The U.S. is respected throughout the world for its values and its accomplishments, but U.S. policy and unilateralism are of concern. As U.S. leaders consider the post-Afghanistan war on terror, the Pew study suggests that they would be wise to consider the impact that such future moves might have on world support-unilateralism has consequences.

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