By Marie Cocco
WASHINGTON—Much of the world still likes our movies, and what used to be called American ingenuity—the scientific and technological genius that cures disease and connected the world through the Internet. But there’s not much else to admire about the United States.
The Pew Global Attitudes Project, in an unprecedented poll spanning 47 countries and relying on 45,239 interviews, has again told us what most Americans do not want to hear. The world is pretty well disgusted with us.
Outside of Africa, where the image of the United States remains largely positive, there is deep disagreement with the way in which we conduct our foreign affairs, and an utter lack of confidence in President Bush. More ominous is the growing sentiment that American values—the ideals that politicians love to call our “greatest export” and which we celebrate on Independence Day—are suspect. “In much of the world there is broad and deepening dislike of American values and a global backlash against the spread of American ideas and customs,” the Pew report says.
Since the beginning of the Iraq war, when world opinion of the United States plummeted, our standing abroad has suffered even among our closest Western European allies. The newest Pew study documents anew this disrespect, which has deepened since its last survey and has reached startling lows in such important nations as Britain and Germany. In Turkey—a NATO ally and geographic bridge between Europe and the Middle East—the U.S. receives a favorability rating of only 9 percent.
Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a domestic political argument has flared over whether “they” hate us because they hate our way of life and our freedoms—as Bush often has said—or whether specific American policies, such as unflinching support of Israel and the war in Iraq, are to blame. Now the two seem to have merged in the eyes of the world, and metastasized into a cancer that eats away at our image.
In nearly all the countries surveyed, people are less inclined to say they like American ideas about democracy than they were five years ago. The most precipitous drops in esteem for American democracy came in Venezuela, Turkey and Indonesia. But the disapproval also worsened in France—and even in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, former Soviet bloc countries that were grateful to the United States for the end of the Cold War. American ways of doing business also are viewed negatively, particularly in the advanced industrial nations of Western Europe and Canada.
Somehow our greatest strengths have been transformed into weaknesses.
The Pew report says the diminished respect for American-style democracy may be related to the widespread perception, revealed in the poll, that the United States is inconsistent in promoting it. People in nearly every country said we promote democracy only when it serves American interests and not wherever we can.
The bitterness has taken root despite the sweep of contemporary history, which has boosted both democracy and free markets. “America and the West won the values debate in the 20th century,” says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. Yet-to-be-released data from the broad global survey bear this out, he said.
It’s America’s current expression of its own values that has tarnished them. You cannot say you want transparent and fair elections, then allow your own to be tainted with partisan manipulation of how balloting is conducted and votes are counted. You cannot say you respect the rule of law, and then create a lawless system of detainment for those you choose to hold. You cannot say you oppose torture, but inflict it upon those in your custody.
“There is a question as to whether we are living up to our own values,” says former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who spoke at the presentation of the Pew report.
The United States remains the world’s most powerful country, with the biggest economy and most awesome military. It will always be envied by those with less. But falling from the moral high ground has brought us to a low point. Even as the philosophies that define America—democracy and capitalism—thrive in the marketplace of ideas, the world does not want to buy our current version of them.
The rejection may be temporary. Anti-Americanism has proved transitory in the past. But the animus now is more than an intellectual fad. It’s a national security crisis.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group