Friday, February 27, 2004

Why Do They Hate U.S.?

We are not exactly the flavor of the month in most countries abroad. In fact, we haven't been that popular for a long time, but recently the hatred of the United States as a country has reached a new peak. A survey last spring showed a further decline in the American reputation:

[In 1999-2000], in a State Department survey, 78% of Germans said they had a favorable view of the U.S. That fell to 61% in our 2002 poll – and to 45% in the survey conducted this spring. Opinion of the U.S. in France has followed a similar track: 62% positive in 1999-2000, 63% last year and 43% in the most recent survey.

What is most striking, however, is how anti-Americanism has spread. It is not just limited to Western Europe or the Muslim world. In Brazil, 52% expressed a favorable opinion of the U.S. in 2002; this year, that number dropped to 34%. And in Russia, there has been a 25-point decline in positive opinions of the U.S. over the past year (61% to 36%).

If anything, fear and loathing of the U.S. has intensified in recent months. A Eurobarometer survey conducted among European Union countries in October found that as many people rate the U.S. as a threat to world peace as say that about Iran. Even in the United Kingdom, the United States' most trusted European ally, 55% see the U.S. as a threat to global peace. And in four countries – Greece, Spain, Finland and Sweden – the United States is viewed as the greatest threat to peace, more menacing than Iran or North Korea.

The U.S. image in the Middle East has been dismal for some time. State Department surveys show that, four years ago, just 23% of Jordanians expressed a favorable view of the U.S. What has changed is that these sentiments have now spread to predominantly Muslim countries far outside of the region. Just 15% of Indonesian Muslims look favorably at the U.S. – down from 61% in 2002, there is considerable evidence that the opinion many Muslims have of the United States has gone beyond mere loathing. In this year's Pew survey, majorities in seven of eight predominantly Muslims nations believe the U.S. may someday threaten their country -- including 71% in Turkey and 58% in Lebanon. And Muslims are increasingly hostile to Americans as well as America; in the past, as the 1983 Newsweek survey showed, people did not let their distaste for U.S. policies affect their view of the American people.

Whether this trend is worrying depends on whom one asks. The American neoconservatives don't care, of course: the Empire is strong enough without a single ally, they think, and 'power is to be exercised -never negotiated'. But Americans answering a recent poll about the importance of foreign opinions beg to differ. Three quarters of the respondents felt that the poor American reputation in other countries is a problem, especially in the war against terrorism. I think that it might also prove uncomfortable in many other international fields such as the containment of infectious diseases, environmental protection and global trade, not to mention the unpleasantness it causes the average American tourist abroad. Some signs of these more general problems are already visible:

The Bush administration has suffered a significant loss of leadership already as a result of snubbing its nose at diplomatic relations. Treated as children by clumsy and arrogant U.S. diplomats..., many nations are rebelling with angry rhetoric and contrary policies.
International trade meetings reflect this defiance. The failure of the World Trade Organization talks in Cancun, the implosion of the FTAA in Miami, and the lack of results at the Special Summit of the Americas in Monterrey are evidence of the mounting resistance to U.S.-tailored economic integration. They also reflect a widespread and deepening rejection of the "our way or the highway" diplomacy of the Bush administration.

The causes of American unpopularity elsewhere are many and some of them are likely to be present for a long time. The United States is the only remaining superpower and as such will stay an object of envy and fear for that reason alone. Its general policies affect other countries in ways which are not always taken into account by those who make the policy, and this causes understandable resentment in the affected countries when the results are negative. There will always be a dislike of the U.S. as so much wealthier than the majority of the world, and disagreement about its proper role in the development of the poor countries. American values differ considerably from those in Western Europe; Americans are more religious than any other developed country, most favor capital punishment, and the U.S. currently votes on social issues in the United Nations in a block with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. The military might of the U.S. makes the military budgets of other countries look ridiculous. And the U.S. Middle East policy has been a cause for anger in the Arab world for a long time.

But the current administration has certainly made things much worse than they needed to be. It is Bush that most foreigners fear and loathe, not the American people. He has succeeded in focusing so many negative emotions on one man by acting as an international bully boy. The Europeans, in particular, hate his unilateral policies and the withdrawal of the U.S. from environmental treaties or the attempt to build a global legal court. And the concept of 'pre-emptive defense' causes people sleepless nights all over the world. If Bush intends to globally advertize the neoconservative policy of 'might makes right', he is doing a great job. He recently boasted about being a 'war president' as part of the 2004 election campaign. But how will this boast sound abroad?

Given that the United States is not currently involved in a formal war, the president's bellicose language--"I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy matters with war on my mind"--has set other nations, allies and foes alike, on edge. Around the world, the administration's approach to international affairs has governments and their citizens feeling alienated and apprehensive.

It's all very unfair to all decent and nice Americans who know that they are not the sort of war-hungry, dollar-grasping monsters that the foreigners fear and loathe, and who might not have even voted for Bush in the first place. And now they can't even be sure of a friendly reception on their next vacation trip to somewhere exotic. Most unfair. No wonder that the Bush administration is trying to mend matters by various advertizing campaigns and by attacking those foreign news organizations that portray the most anti-American messages.

But these are vain attempts, because the reason for the anti-American sentiment are largely not in biased reporting or ignorance about what America stands for. Consider this parable to the current U.S. situation:

A small village somewhere has a varied population. Most inhabitants are quite poor, a small number (the minister, the lawyer, the teacher and so on) are relatively well-off, and one family, those who live in the big manor house, are rich. Traditionally, the village has pulled together in solving the common problems of fighting crime, maintaining the roads and caring for the environment, though the shares of each inhabitant in the total costs of these activities have disproportionately fallen to the more affluent.

Then the manor house is sold to a new owner. The village organizes a welcoming party in the village hall and hangs up banners to greet the new owners of the manor. But the new owners refuse to attend the party; instead they inform the rest of the village that they will no longer participate in the maintenance of roads or the prevention of pollution or the police activities. When they are asked about the wisdom of this choice, they point out that they can afford to hire their own defense forces and to maintain adequate nature in their own park. They don't need roads as they commute by private helicopters.

Things go on like that for a time. Then there is a break-in at the manor house: a criminal gang kills some of the owners' family members and burns down part of the building. The village acts as one, sending food and cards and asking how they can help. The owners of the manor house tell the whole village to go out to apprehend the killer, the house is turned into a fortress, and the owners still stay away from all village parties. Slowly the roads fall into disrepair and pollution levels rise. The police force (consisting of one officer) is overstretched by the need to keep looking for the criminal gang that attacked the manor house, and everyday tasks remain undone. Then the manor owners suddenly decide that it might be useful to open the house and garden for a day so that the general riff-raff could see how kind and generous the new owners are. Nobody turns up.

This is very much like the U.S. world standing right now. Unfair? For ordinary Americans, very much so. That's why it is so urgent for all of them to vote in the next elections.