Why has world opinion of the U.S. changed dramatically since 2000?

Various responses to yesterday's post further illuminate the reasons for the collapse of America's standing in the world.


Glenn Greenwald
July 6, 2007 3:57PM (UTC)

Following up on the post from yesterday regarding the collapse of America's standing in the world, there are responses from several other bloggers which illuminate the key points further still.

To the extent that I used the Pew Global polling data to demonstrate the core falsity of the neoconservative worldview on international public opinion -- namely, that the world is inherently anti-American no matter what we do, because they hate our political values and/or are driven by jealousy -- the point was clearly understood. But there seemed to be less clarity with regard to my attempt to use this data to refute the view among some on the Left that America's behavior in the world under Bush is fundamentally the same as it was for the last several decades. The viewpoint I was critiquing was well articulated by Moon of Alabama's Bernhard in responding to my post last night:

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I agree that the behavior of the U.S. in the world has deteriorated under Bush. But that change is not fundamental.

There is an even simpler answer for the crash of world public opinion about the U.S.: The revolution in information distribution through worldwide TV news and the Internet. . . .

The behaviour of the U.S. has not changed that much. What has changed is the perception of this behavior. This because of new unfiltered and cheap access to information. . . .

The atrocities of the war on Vietnam are not different from those in the war on Iraq. But while the facts of the massacre of My Lai took years to leak into some world knowledge, the pictures of torture at Abu Graibh were seen by hundreds of millions within a few hours. . . .

For the U.S. to go back to political behaviour "before Bush" would therefore not help to change the world wide public opinion. . . . Bombing of pharmaceutical factories in Sudan like Clinton did will not regain the U.S. any good reputation. To publicly reject its inherent urge to imperialism would be a good start.

This is precisely the viewpoint I was describing, critiquing and refuting. Benhard's attempt to explain how it can be that worldwide perceptions of the U.S. have changed drastically since 2000 if our behavior is fundamentally the same is, in my view, completely unconvincing.

This explanation (which was echoed by several commenters and e-mailers yesterday) ascribes an ignorance to people around the world that is more fictitious than anything else. The pre-Internet era was not the Dark Ages. Because the U.S. has been a superpower for decades, people around the world have been well aware of our mistakes, excesses, the instances where we violated our own values, the wars we fought (both overt and covert), and most of the other bad acts in which the country engaged.

Much of the world's geopolitics for the last half of the 20th Century was driven by the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and people around the world were affected by that conflict in countless ways. They were well aware of what the U.S. was doing in the world. The news about the America's conduct may not have been transmitted as immediately as it is now, but it was well known.

Yet despite all of that, much of the world -- majorities in nations around the world -- respected and admired this country and the values it symbolized. That isn't because they were duped into thinking that America was inerrantly Pure Good or because our bad conduct was concealed. Outside of right-wing followers who stupidly equate criticism of the U.S. with hatred for it (even though the opposite is usually true), nobody thought that the U.S. was angelic. No nation or any other group of human beings is.

They maintained favorable views of the U.S. not because they were unaware of its failings, but rather, because the good that the U.S. did in the world outweighed its bad. It is misleadingly one-sided to point to Vietnam or Central American covert wars without simultaneously acknowledging America's role in the defeat of the Nazis, or its opposition to the truly oppressive Communist empire (which suffocated the lives of hundreds of millions of people), and -- I think most importantly -- the political principles and individual liberties embodied by our Constitution and the stable democracy it has secured. World opinion prior to the Bush presidency was so favorable not because people were unaware of America's flaws, but because they were so well-aware of its virtues.

The view that the U.S. has been a net force for evil in the world since the end of World War II and that what George Bush has done is but an extension of the country's values, rather than a perversion of them, is a view that is held by some unknown number of people -- I think a small minority -- but it is a view that one hears with some frequency. Avedon Carol last night wrote:

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Glenn Greenwald has a good piece on a subject I have brought up here from time to time -- the collapse of the world's opinion of America and American democracy. I've had the kind of conversations he's talking about with people from both sides of the spectrum who don't get this, but we were truly loved and admired, even by people who knew we were not always flawless, and now it's a very different story -- and it's under the Bush regime that the story had changed.

And I know that some people on the left, including some of my readers, think it's all to the good that our standing has been so reduced, but I honestly believe that we were an inspiration to other countries that really did try to follow the lead of our ideals and our attempts to live up to them. I've seen the way we were held up as an example -- and I've seen the way the decline of our good example has been held up as "proof" that living up to those ideals is unnecessary. "After all, the Americans are doing it." But it's now gone beyond that; America has become another bad example, an object lesson on the infections of power and corruption.

We no longer have standing to criticize other governments that abuse their people; they laugh at the idea that a nation led by barbarians who launch unprovoked attacks on other countries and kidnap (and torture, and kill) people has any authority to lecture others on morality. No one even knows anymore what we mean by "democracy", or what we are criticizing when we call other governments "corrupt" or "despotic". We once had the power to influence other governments positively to expand freedoms; those days are gone. And I don't think that's a particularly good thing.

Canadian Ian Welsh of the Agonist, in responding to my post from yesterday, pointed to this superb post he wrote on July 4:

I'm not American. I'm Canadian. . . So it's odd then that I write so much about America and I care so much about what happens in America. . . [P]art of it is just that I care about America and the American experiment.

Those of us who didn't grow up in America, but under the sway of America's media, imbibed a very pure form of the American mythos and civic religion. The American Civil Religion, with its secular saints such as Jefferson, Hamilton and Washington and its written Constitutional scripture is also a source of wonderment. Canada has no equivalent, no deep sense of history, no touchstone that is written back to to justify the present. Those words of your founders, those words that resound through history are words that inspire men and women who have never seen America and never will.

The Declaration of Independence spoke to all humans, with its assertion that all men are created equal and have unalienable rights. The US system of government, with its checks and balances, seemed unique and able to take shocks that might topple other democratic forms of government.

The Statue of Liberty, holding its torch aloft in New York's harbor, proclaimed that in America the wretched masses of the world might find a home, hope, liberty and opportunity.

And, of course, there was the US's role in both World War II and the Cold War. When Europe was in chains, America freed it. It may be true that the German army died in the plains of Russia, but without the US, all of Europe would have fallen into the gray pit of Russian rule and despair.

Truly, in the Cold War, America stood astride the word facing off against an evil empire. Reagan was right when he called the USSR evil - it was a totalitarian nightmare, and opposing it; keeping it in check, was the moral thing to do.

None of this is to say that America was always "the good" -- there was Vietnam, there was complicity in various dictatorships; there was a distressing tendency to meddle, especially in Latin America - there were, in short, many places where America fell short of its own ideals.

Yet, in all, America was still the shining city on the hill. Even those who disliked it, when asked "well, what hegemonic nation, past or present, would be preferable to America", were stilled. In truth, as superpowers go, America was about the best one could hope for - power corrupted, but it had not corrupted absolutely. . . .

And then the Bush years happened. George Bush, with the acquiescence of Congress and the consent of the majority of voters, who elected him in 2004, made the US a unilateral actor on the world stage, a country that engaged in pre-emptive war and threatens to use nuclear weapons in a first strike. A nation, moreover, which has repudiated the freedoms that the rest of the world admired it for, has engaged in torture, struck down habeas corpus and openly mocked the Geneva Conventions.

America had become, in the eyes of the world, un-American.

The America we loved - the America which, if it did not always match words to ideals, still seemed to move more in jerks and starts towards those ideals, died, choking, gasping, in front of our very eyes.

And over at FDL, TRex wrote:

The America that the world sees now is not the America that my parents raised me to believe in, not the America that my father and both my grandfathers fought for in Vietnam, Korea, and World War Two. But until we have ousted this criminal administration, that is the America that we are.

The dearly departed Billmon last year observed that the Bush administration has "forfeit(ed) forever its ability to chastise the human rights abuses of others without triggering a global laughing fit."

It is true that the fact that the world greatly respected the United States prior to the Bush administration may not, standing alone, constitute dispositive proof that America's behavior was fundamentally different. But, for reasons I outlined in the Update to yesterday's post, it certainly is strong evidence for that proposition. And I think this all highlights an extremely important though often overlooked point.

So much of the intensity and anger driving the criticisms of the Bush presidency -- certainly my own, and much of what I read (as exemplified above) -- is grounded in a fervent belief in American political values, its political principles and its constitutional framework. The anger comes not from a belief that the U.S. is an evil and corrupt entity, but from the opposite view. It comes from witnessing the all-out assault on these vaunted political principles and values and the complete corruption, close to the destruction, of our country's national character that has made the U.S. such an important and admired presence in the world for so long.

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To believe in America's political values and to observe the importance of its role in the world is not "American exceptionalism." Like all countries, America has erred many times and has been capable of evil. Other countries have critically important virtues that America lacks. As I detail in my book, America has been far too quick to use war as a foreign policy option and has become increasingly imperialistic in precisely the way the Founders so stridently warned against.

But those who focus on America's flaws to the exclusion of its virtues are but the opposite side of the same Manichean coin from the American exceptionalists who believe that we can do no wrong, that America is inherently Good independent of our conduct in the world. What the Pew poll demonstrates is that the face America has shown to the world during the Bush presidency -- at least insofar as the world perceives it, a vitally important metric -- is a fundamentally different one than they saw previously.

In the last six years, America's brutality, unrestrained aggression, and violation of our own professed values have been transformed from destructive aberration into our defining attributes. And the world's population sees that transformation quite clearly and, as a result, their view of America has transformed along with it.

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[In the post yesterday, I pointed to a post by Chris Floyd to exemplify what I said was "a portion of [the argument on the Left I was critiquing], though not its entirety." But -- as Chris rightly pointed out in an e-mail last night -- he does not really subscribe to the view I summarized and by citing only his post as representative of that view, I unintentionally created the impression that he did. My apologies to Chris for my sloppy use of his post to represent a viewpoint it did not actually express and which Chris does not hold.]


Glenn Greenwald

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