Do people hate America for its freedoms? Or do they resent American interference?
A new study by the Eurasia Group Foundation suggests the latter. A survey of 5,000 people across ten different countries found that the world is generally positive about American values and culture, but negative about U.S. military intervention.
Respondents were asked a variety of questions about America, including what changes they would like to see in American democracy.
The study found that resentment towards U.S. military interventions was a major driver of anti-American sentiment. So was disapproval of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
“There’s so many assumptions baked into making foreign policy in the United States, so many assumptions about populations outside the U.S. and what these populations think and believe and value,” explained Mark Hannah, one of the authors of the study. “It is important to provide an empirical basis to the work of foreign policymaking.”
Hannah said that he was surprised how “tidily” his results lined up with a pro-restraint worldview.
Egyptian respondents in particular resented U.S. military intervention, with a majority claiming that U.S. military bases in the region threaten Egypt’s independence and only a minority agreeing that U.S. involvement has promoted regional stability.
Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid worldwide, raking in $1.3 billion per year, and the Egyptian military has close ties to the U.S. military.
“I think it’s important to distinguish between official opinion and public opinion in these countries,” Hannah said. “Whether or not you’re in a democracy, to some extent, public opinion is what gives political leaders a license to operate.”
Perhaps most surprisingly, respondents in U.S. treaty allies like Germany and Japan were among the most negative about American democracy, U.S. influence, and America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The findings were interesting, but I’m not 100 percent surprised by all of them,” said Rachel Rizzo, director of programs at the Truman Center and an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “For some people in Germany, this idea that they’ve been constantly harangued by the United States for years obviously is going to result in some sort of negative sentiment.”
She noted that the United States often pushes Europe to be more “forward-leaning” in its foreign policy, but then scolds it for making choices that U.S. policymakers disagree with.
Chinese and Russian respondents were actually more likely to view American democracy favorably than their German and Japanese counterparts. Asked to choose from a list of changes that could make American democracy more attractive, about a third of Russian respondents chose a more restrained foreign policy, more than any other option.
Nigerian, Indian, and Brazilian respondents viewed America most favorably. All of those countries have stronger economic than military ties. People around the world who consume American media or have a connection to their country’s diaspora in America were three times more likely to have pro-American attitudes.
In fact, the vast majority of respondents — around 80 percent — said that a U.S.-led world order would be better than a Chinese-led order for both their country and the world more generally.
The top reasons for supporting a U.S.-led world order were the strength and trustworthiness of America’s economy, followed by the fact that “[m]y country has a history of working closely with the United States.” America’s promotion of democracy and human rights were the third and fourth most common reasons for supporting a U.S.-led world order.
“Our findings show that the reasons people support a U.S.-led world order are not based on democratic values, or human rights, or liberal values necessarily,” said Caroline Gray, one of the study’s authors. “They’re based on America’s ability to help other economies. They’re based on material interests, which has important implications for U.S.-China policy.”
In contrast, the top reasons for supporting a Chinese-led world order were China’s model of national development, followed by the fact that “China does not interfere in the politics of my country” and that “[m]y country has a history of working closely with China.”
A slight majority of respondents wanted their government to look more like the United States. Slightly under 40 percent of respondents wanted their country to have a closer relationship with the United States, as opposed to 25 percent who wanted their country to oppose the United States more.
However, that desire did not necessarily translate to a support for more U.S. military presence. While three quarters of Indian respondents said that U.S.-Indian military cooperation was “positive,” a little over half said that U.S. military bases in and around India would threaten the country’s independence.
“This is where the Chinese get soft power wrong. The Chinese thought that if they show up everywhere and fly the China flag, that’s soft power,” said Price Floyd, a former State Department and Pentagon spokesman. “People judge us by our actions. When the U.S. shows up and does good things that improve their lives, people are supportive.”
Floyd noted that the United States has also made “miscalculations” by creating a “say-do gap,” raising expectations but leaving them unfulfilled. But the Biden administration has learned to avoid this mistake, Floyd claims, by acting first and then advertising the results afterwards.
Overall, the Biden administration is an opportunity to reset the U.S. relationship with the world after four years of a “mercurial” administration, according to Rizzo.
“You have a president whose foreign policy, at least in theory, is driven by this idea that we want to involve the middle class in our policymaking,” she said. “We have a real opportunity to rethink how we, as the global hegemon, act on the global stage. But at the same time, you’re still hamstrung by the foreign policy establishment opinion, which makes it very hard to make any great shifts in foreign policy strategy.”