Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Perceptions of the U.S.

The Pew Center, in its typical brilliant fashion, has a new report out on global attitudes about the U.S. There's even a cool slide show here with audio by director Andrew Kohut in which he describes "a revival of America's global image in many parts of the world." I strongly recommend giving it a watch and listen. Also, there's a cool map where you can roll over countries, then click for specific numbers. Much fun.

The cause for this improvement in attitudes toward the U.S.? Barack Obama.

Western Europe and Canada is where we see the biggest image gains, but positive shifts are also seen in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. "The needle moved very little" in Muslim countries, however. I suppose it's good that at least the U.S. ratings didn't drop further. Then again, we probably hit a basement.

You see huge differences when comparing confidence in Obama versus George W. Bush from earlier surveys, supporting an Obama effect.

Should we care? Some people obviously don't. If people are pissed at us, so goes the reasoning, we must be doing something right. And we're the U.S., dammit, so screw 'em.

But what people know about the U.S. is important and negative feelings toward the country makes it even more difficult to pursue certain policies. It's like presidential politics. Strong support equals political capital that you can spend as needed, so in foreign affairs it helps for international public opinion to be somewhat positive toward the U.S., which frees leaders of those countries to work with us. Think of it as political cover to get what the U.S. wants done in other countries.

Who hates the U.S.? Lowest favorability ratings in 2009 are Turkey (14%), Palestinian Territory (15%), and Pakistan (16%). Highest come from Kenya (90%), Nigeria (79%), and South Korea (78%).

My favorite statistical blip? In Jordan the U.S. had a 1% favorability rating in 2003, otherwise over ten years the numbers were in the double digits. That's either weird data or some event soured attitudes about the U.S. that year.

There's also an interesting table in which people were asked if the U.S. would do the right thing in world affairs. The Pew folks show us the change from 2008 (Bush) to 2009 (Obama). Mostly huge improvements except, tellingly, Israel (-1%). No doubt this reflects nervousness on the part of Israel about Obama and his administration's approach to issues there, especially negotiations about a two-state solution. Something to watch this year.

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