None of the presidential candidates have answered a fundamental question: how can the United States rehabilitate its reputation in the world? It is not, admittedly, a new question. It gains added urgency, however, because the barrier between resentment of American power and resentment of American people is breaking down for the first time in our nation’s history.
In his March 2007 testimony before the House of Representatives (http://pewglobal.org/commentary/display.php?AnalysisID=1019), Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center, noted that “it is no longer just the U.S. as a country that is perceived negatively, but increasingly the American people as well, a sign that anti-American opinions are deepening and becoming more entrenched.”
No one would deny the existence of a values gap between the United States and the global community. Polls demonstrate that the global community is concerned with American levels of nationalism and religiosity and the United States’ tendency to sacrifice social safety nets in the name of progress. The polls also reveal that the world sees Americans as dishonest, avaricious, and even violent. However, these same polls reveal widespread admiration for American science, technology, and popular culture. They also find great respect for Americans’ industriousness and inventiveness. One would find approximately the same mixed picture during the 1990s.
Anti-Americanism is increasing, however, because Americans, and the values for which they stand, are increasingly being associated with the Bush administration’s foreign policy. According to Kohut, the world community increasingly suspects that the United States is using the war on terrorism as an excuse to project its power ever further. It also believes that America’s preoccupation with terrorism has limited its ability and willingness to contribute to the resolution of global problems like climate change. Finally, many in the global community believe that the United States accords primacy to military force over diplomacy, with the result that even close allies regard it as one of the principal threats to world stability.
Exacerbating this perception is the hostility of influential policy makers, and their intellectual proponents, toward world opinion. Defending the war in Iraq, Jonah Goldberg, a National Review columnist, argued that “the gripes we hear today are the predictable complaints of people who grew pretty comfortable in the shadow of a sleeping giant. The giant was rudely awoken. And if the resultant harsh light of day is unpleasant or inconvenient to you, too frick’n bad. The United States is taking care of business and we’ve got nothing to apologize for.” Goldberg’s colleague, Michael A. Ledeen, offered this policy prescription: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”
Growing opposition to American people coincides with increasing suspicion of democratic capitalism. I issue this statement with qualifications, of course. As of 2005, 64 percent of the world’s countries were electoral democracies, and, if present trends persist, the world’s major powers will continue to be democracies.
However, rising powers will not have to embrace democracy to wield important influence. In particular, China’s success in combining single-party rule and capitalist economics has buoyed the hopes of autocratic powers — most importantly, Russia. Other examples abound. Central Asian and Eastern European countries are picking up where the Soviet Union left off. Closer to home, Latin America and South America are beginning to break their ties to Washington.
Keeping with these trends, the global community seems poised to embrace a world in which another power supplants the United States. In 2005, the Program on International Policy Attitudes and GlobeScan surveyed 23 countries on the optimal structure of global governance: 20 believed that it would be “mainly positive” if the European Union acquired greater influence than the United States in world affairs. In 2007, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and WorldPublicOpinion.org surveyed 13 countries on China’s ascendance: majorities in all but one believed that it would be “mostly positive” or “equally positive and negative” if China’s economy were to become as large as America’s.
Why should we care what other countries think? Recent years should answer that question. They can choose not to contribute to the welfare of Afghanistan and Iraq, which are emerging as fundamentalist states at the heart of the Middle East. They can revert to protectionism and establish bilateral pacts, thereby enfeebling the system of multilateral trade governance on which our economy’s health depends. They can send their students to colleges and universities outside of the United States, thereby weakening our innovative edifice. They can prevent us from influencing Iran and North Korea, two of the world’s most dangerous regimes. The list goes on.
World opinion is like a friend. Its responsiveness scales with the respect that it receives. It does not expect to get its way all of the time or even most of the time, but it will turn sour, even hostile, if it is continually ignored. While it is confident in its views, it is willing to listen and change. Under the Bush administration, we have turned our back on our most dependable friend, the one who helped us attain, and once embraced, our unrivaled position of power.
As we look forward to 2008, we should ask — are we going to lead in the 21st century? If the answer is yes, who are we going to elect to redeem our image?