All the World’s a Stage

May 05, 2008

Simply put, America's image in much of the Muslim world remains abysmal. Iraq, the war on terrorism, American support for Israel and other key features of U.S. foreign policy continue to generate animosity in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere. In many nations considered central to the war on terror, the general public deeply distrusts the United States. Even in countries like Kuwait that have long been considered relatively pro-American, the U.S. image has declined.

On the bright side, America seems to be winning the battle of ideas on some important fronts. First and foremost, support for terrorism has declined dramatically over the last few years in many Muslim countries. Fewer Muslims now consider suicide bombing justifiable, and confidence in Osama bin Laden has waned. Moreover, the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey revealed the extent to which there is broad support for democracy, capitalism and globalization throughout all regions of the world, including Muslim nations. Support for American ideas, however, does not necessarily translate into warm feelings for America. Instead, Muslims believe the United States fails to live up to its rhetoric on democracy, and they tend to blame the United States for the aspects of globalization they do not like.

Much of the resentment the United States faces in Muslim countries is driven by perceptions of American power and fears about how America wields its might. Many Muslims distrust U.S. motives, and they worry that our country's considerable military strength may someday be targeted at them. Even in the realm of culture, many Muslims fear their own traditions may be displaced by creeping Americanization. World events have deepened these fears in recent years, and opposition to U.S. foreign policy has entrenched anti-Americanism.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project has tracked America's declining image throughout much of the world over the last several years. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of people with a favorable view of the United States fell in 26 of the 33 countries where trend data are available. Ratings of the United States are disturbingly low among many of our longtime European allies, and they have dipped in Latin America and other parts of the world as well. The findings are especially dismal in Muslim nations.

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A look at the trend data on these issues suggests that improving America's image problems is not impossible. Yet, the data are equally clear on the enormity of the challenge. Big events and major policies led to the negative trends and depressing numbers we have seen over the last few years, and it will take big events and major policies to significantly move the needle in a positive direction. As long as the United States remains the world's dominant power, there will always be some trepidation about its intentions and actions. Because of the unpopularity of President Bush, a new administration may be given a fresh look by many Muslims in 2009. But regardless of who inherits the White House next, the job of turning around America's image will remain a difficult task.

Read the full report All the World’s a Stage at National Interest Online.

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