'Decent Respect' Might Help Image Woes Abroad
by Jim Lobe
It was in 1776 that a group of British colonists living along the Atlantic seaboard of North America felt compelled to offer a public justification for their "Declaration of Independence" from their mother country out of "a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind."
That justification, a bill of particulars against King George II for a host of offenses, including violations of what would come to be called human rights, was designed to rally British and European public opinion behind the colonists' cause.
As the nation marks that occasion exactly 230 years ago Tuesday, a series of surveys from around the world over the past three years makes clear that contemporary "Mankind" believes that the United States no longer accords its opinions the "decent respect" that those who founded the country believed was its due.
Those surveys suggest that the image of the U.S. as a benign hegemon that takes account of the interests and opinions of the peoples of other nations – consciously cultivated by Washington for more than a century – has been effectively shattered by the unilateralism of the administration of President George W. Bush and particularly its invasion of Iraq.
"One of the reasons that people around the world are so upset with the U.S. is the perception that in the post-World War II era, the U.S. was the champion and leader of an international order based on international law and mutual constraints, when it could have created a form of great-power domination," said Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).
"As the leader and promoter of such a system, the U.S. was expected to set the example for all the rest, but Washington is now perceived as violating the same rules it did so much to establish," according to Kull, who cited Bush's decisions to ignore the United Nations in going to war and the Geneva Conventions in treating detainees in its "global war on terror" as key moves that both defied and outraged public opinion abroad.
Even after 16 months of vigorous efforts by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to reassure U.S. allies and potential rivals, such as Russia and China, that Washington cares about their views and is committed to multilateralism, public opinion abroad has remained stubbornly skeptical, according to former Foreign Affairs editor Fareed Zakaria.
Rice, he wrote in a Newsweek column coincidentally entitled "Why We Don't Get No Respect," has "engineered a broad shift in American diplomacy over the last year, moving policy toward greater multilateralism, cooperation, and common sense on Iran, North Korea, and Iraq, and several other issues."
"And yet it hasn't produced a change in attitudes towards the United States," he went on, citing surveys by the Pew Global Attitudes Project and the Financial Times (FT) released just last month.
The FT poll found that the U.S. under Bush is considered by European public opinion to be more dangerous than either North Korea or Iran.
The Pew survey of 14 foreign countries found that strong pluralities or majorities in all but two nations said that the Iraq war had made the world "more dangerous" and that the U.S. presence in Iraq was "more dangerous" to world peace than the alleged nuclear-arms ambitions of North Korea and Iran.
These findings were broadly consistent with previous surveys, including a Globescan-PIPA poll of 35 countries released in February, and a Pew poll released in June 2005 that found a sharp drop in the belief by respondents in Europe and the Islamic world that Washington took into account the interests of their countries in making its foreign policy decisions compared to the period before the Iraq war.
In yet another Globescan-PIPA poll released in January 2005, large pluralities and majorities of respondents in 18 of 21 countries said they believed Bush's reelection to office would have a negative impact on global peace and security.
What was particularly surprising about the latest Pew poll was the degree to which Washington's image, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, had slipped since the year before, when Rice's campaign to put diplomacy and consultation first had just gotten underway.
In May 2005, Pew had found a rebound in foreign attitudes toward the U.S. compared to its findings in surveys conducted in the year following the Iraq war when foreign views of Washington, and particularly Bush, plunged to the lowest level ever recorded. Most analysts had expected continued, if modest, improvement between 2005 and 2006.
In fact, however, U.S. favorability ratings, as well as support for Washington's "global war on terror," resumed their post-Iraq war decline in both Western Europe and the Islamic world, with particularly steep declines found in Spain, Russia, Indonesia, Jordan, and Turkey.
Zakaria blamed this on a number of factors, including a lag between the general public, particularly in Europe, and governments which, he insisted, have been very appreciative of Rice's – and Bush's – efforts.
Other important factors, he noted, included the continuing presence in the administration of arch-hawks, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, who may be able to constrain Rice's flexibility, especially on Iran and North Korea.
Moreover, according to Zakaria, UN Ambassador John Bolton's confrontational style has been particularly destructive and has contributed to the perception that the administration remains deeply divided and that its new emphasis on diplomacy and multilateralism has been dictated more by necessity than conviction. "In five minutes of posturing in front of a microphone, Bolton undoes five months of careful work by his boss, the secretary of state," he wrote.
In fact, however, the problem lies much deeper – in the belief that the U.S., especially under Bush, still does not accord a decent respect to the views and opinions of other nations, whether it involves the invasion of Iraq and the refusal to apply the Geneva Conventions in the "war on terror" – for which Bush remains unapologetic – or global warming, the International Criminal Court, or the administration's doctrine of preemption.
"[A]n America that does not understand – and makes little effort to understand – why it has become so unpopular abroad is almost certain to find itself both disliked and ineffective in many parts of the world," noted political commentator David Rieff in a reflection on the latest Pew poll and U.S. "exceptionalism" that appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine this weekend.