Restoring America’s International Reputation

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By Costanza Galastri – When President George Bush took office in 2001, many assumed that his administration would reflect a number of the managerial techniques and approaches he learned at Harvard Business School.  However, over the last eight years, the Bush administration has not followed one important lesson in any of the business management curriculum: corporate reputation.  Numerous international surveys found that the United States’ reputation under the Bush administration has declined precipitously in the eyes of international elites and publics.  A recent congressional report concluded that “US approval ratings have fallen to record lows in nearly every region of the world.”[1]  

The tragic reversal of America’s international reputation is breath-taking.  Throughout much of the last century, other nations viewed the US positively despite the presence of persistent anti-Americanism.  This positive reputation provided the US with valuable political capital throughout the Cold War.  It is very doubtful whether the U.S. could have provided the impetus for forming NATO, confronted the Soviet Union with a united diplomatic front during the Cuban missile crisis, or any of the other elements associated with hegemonic stability had it not had such a positive reputation-one based in part on America’s contribution to world peace through its blood and treasure during the Second World War.  International elites and publics rallied to support the U.S. in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks.  Le Monde famously said that “Nous Sommes Tous Américains”-“We Are All Americans.”[2]  

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 began an inexorable erosion of America’s international reputation.  Over the past five years, numerous international polls have charted the turn of America’s reputation from positive to negative.   A 2006 Harris Interactive survey found that a significant percentage of the British, French, German, Italian, and Spanish interviewees considered the United States as the greatest threat to global stability.[3]  Similarly, a Pew report concluded that, as of 2006, supporters of the US-led war on terrorism had decreased to a minority in Great Britain (49%), France (43%), Germany (47%), and Japan (26%).[4]  More startlingly, support in Spain had decreased from 63% in 2003 to 19% at the time of the survey.  Further, a BBC survey in 2007 of 28,000 people in 27 countries found that the U.S.-along with Israel, Iraq, and North Korea-had a negative influence in the world.[5]  In early 2008, these trends finally began stabilizing somewhat.  A BBC World Service poll found that positive attitude towards the US in general and the role of this country in the world in particular has improved in 11 out of the 23 countries surveyed.[6]  Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether this shift represents a permanent change in foreign attitudes toward the US.

The decline in America’s reputation represents more than just the rejection of an unpopular president by foreign elites and publics.  First, support for the U.S. has declined in many countries due to specific policy positions, beyond the Iraq war, including the repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol, the refusal to join the International Criminal Court, the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the use of renditions.  Second, the US reliance on unilateral, often military, means to pursue policy goals has further alienated many in the international community.  Third, the use of forceful, aggressive rhetoric has contributed to a decline in America’s international reputation.  The recent House subcommittee report observes that “Combine such arrogant rhetoric with the unilateral use of military force, and a refusal to respect international norms on torture and rendition, and the result is the ‘perfect storm’ that has brought down both President Bush’s and America’s international reputation.”[7]

Today, citizens in many countries do not believe that the US either understands or shares their nations’ values.  This negative view of the US offers less “space” for political leaders to support US policy positions while allowing other leaders hostile to US positions plenty of opportunity to inflame their rhetoric.  The decline of America’s reputation has enabled anti-Americanism to become a pervasive aspect of the political dialogue.  These sentiments may not quickly dissipate simply because of a change in US presidential administration.  Indeed, restoring America’s international reputation may require a long-term effort by the next administration, and perhaps even beyond that.  Americans may one day find that the nation’s international reputation proved to be the greatest casualty of this era.  

Finally, there may be some Americans who dismiss discussions about the nation’s international reputation simply as  a misplaced desire “to be liked.”  Granted, there may be times when any nation must take actions contrary to international opinion in order to protect its interests.  However, to do so on a consistent basis isolates the nation from the international community and will only undermine its long-term strategic power and influence. 

[1] House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, The Decline in America’s Reputation: Why?, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, June 11, 2008, p. 6.
[2] Jean-Marie Colombani, “Nous Sommes Tous Américains,”Le Monde, September 12, 2001.
[3] Harris Interactive conducted this poll in June 2007 among 6,169 adults in France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, and the United States.  Harris Interactive, EU Citizens Want Referendum on Treaty, July 2, 2006.
[4]The Pew Research Center. America’s Image in the World: Findings from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. Remarks of Andrew Kohut to the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs; Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, March 14, 2007.
[5] The survey asked participants  to rate 12 countries-Canada, China, France, Great Britain, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, North Korea, Russia, the United States, and Venezuela-as well as the European Union as having a positive or negative influence. BBC World Service, “Israel and Iran Share Most Negative Ratings in Global Poll,” March 6, 2007.
[6]BBC World Service Opinion, “Global Views of USA Improve,” 1 April 2008.
[7] House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight.  The Decline in America’s Reputation: Why?.  Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. 11 June 2008. p. 5.

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Costanza Galastri is a Research Fellow with the Homeland Security program at the Stimson Center.

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