Few nations spend as much time as do Americans worrying about how the world perceives them. In the history of great powers or imperial powers, the American concern with likeability is unmatched. Did the Romans, the Ottoman Turks, or the Soviets worry about popularity ratings? Today, does it bother the Chinese that their system of government is widely regarded as repressive? Certainly not to the extent that it really bothers Americans to be unpopular in the world. Americans are highly vulnerable when it comes to public perceptions in other countries. This may be in part because they like their foreign policy to have a moral dimension. It is also one of the consequences of being a democracy, founded by men who thought it necessary to show a "decent respect for the opinions of mankind."
Accordingly, the plunge taken in public opinion of the United States internationally over the past four years have hurt. Mostly, of course, it has been a serious problem where anti-Americanism has turned into terrorist action, among murderous radicals and their supporters in Arab and Muslim countries. Anti-Americanism elsewhere -- in Russia, in Europe or in Latin America -- should also be a cause for concern, but mostly because it lends itself to political manipulation. Both kinds are serious problems that need to be addressed without delay when a new undersecretary state for of public diplomacy is appointed. Regrettably, this is a position that in the first Bush term became a revolving door with little stability.
Sometimes, however, it takes a great upheaval to produce an opportunity. The post-Christmas tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean gave Americans the opportunity to show compassion and solidarity with the victims of the disaster. To the Bush administration's credit it seized the moment. American actions, which involved giving on the scale almost a billion dollars of both public and private funding and extensive U.S. military rescue and reconstruction efforts, have paid off in the shape of improving attitudes towards the United States.
Last week at the Heritage Foundation, the non-profit group Terror Free Tomorrow published the results of the first post-tsunami public opinion poll of Indonesian attitudes towards the United States and the war of terror. The results were, as the group's president Kenneth Ballen noted, nothing less than amazing. "This is a stunning turnaround for the United States in the war against terrorism," he said. "It is a the first major shift in Muslim public opinion since Sept. 11."
The poll was conducted in the first week of February by a respected Indonesian polling company, Lembaga Survei Indonesia, and is based on interviews with 1,200 adults. Among its most significant findings is a great surge in favorable views of the United States, with 65 percent of respondents having a positive view today, especially in the under-30 age category. People who oppose the U.S. anti-terrorism efforts today account for 36 percent, down from 72 percent two years ago. Support for Osama bin Laden has tanked. In 2003, 58 percent said they backed Osama bin Laden. Today that figure has declined to 23 percent today.
Now it could easily be argued that people will love you if you give them money, and in the case of Indonesia a lot of money. Yet, more than the money, the U.S. reaction after the tsunami disaster was a sign that this country cared about the plight of people half a world away. That is the message Indonesians received.
Compare this to opinions in other Muslim countries. According to the Pew Study of Global Attitudes, as of the fall of 2004, in Pakistan, Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey, anti-Americanism was shown to be pervasive. Osama bin Laden was viewed favorably by large percentages in Pakistan (65 percent), Jordan (55 percent) and Morocco (45 percent). Even in Turkey 31 percent say that suicide attacks against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq are justifiable. We need to know a lot more about how to change these attitudes.
Terror Free Tomorrow, which advocates thorough opinion polling throughout the Muslim world to identify specifics and trends in anti-American sentiment, chose Indonesia precisely because it is the largest Muslim nation in the world. It is also a new democracy, which makes opinion polling a lot easier. If we are to engage in effective public diplomacy, that kind of information is invaluable, and we need lots more of it. With democratic trends sweeping the Arab world, now is a good time to get started.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies of the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times