Thursday, May 18, 2006

Mommy, They Don't Like Me

Am I the only one unconvinced that in the long run this sort of thing truly matters?

In increasing numbers, people around the globe resent American power and wealth and reject specific actions like the occupation of Iraq and the campaign against democratically elected Palestinian leaders, in-depth international polling shows.

Analysts say America's image problem is pervasive, deep and perhaps permanent, an inevitable outcome of being the world's only superpower.

But there is worse news. In the past, while Europeans, Asians and Arabs might have disliked American policies or specific U.S. leaders, they liked and admired Americans themselves.

Polls now show an ominous turn. Majorities around the world think Americans are greedy, violent and rude, and fewer than half in countries like Poland, Spain, Canada, China and Russia think Americans are honest.

I'm not knocking the Pew Global Attitudes Project or saying that there's no value in this endeavour or useful information to be derived. But the fact is that the result of this poll is based on interviews over four years with 93,000 people, which is less than the population of Davenport, Iowa, where I live (and much less than that of the whole Quad Cities metro area). As a point of reference, today's world population is 6,516,672,231. In addition, those people represent just 50 out of the world's 191 (192? 193?) countries, whichever number doesn't include scattered territories, colonies and whatnot.

Does this really tell us anything that we can't already surmise? Whether one thinks we should turn our entire course around on a dime and/or remake our culture or not, should what other people think of Americans as a people be a deciding or even a major factor?

Popularity as a driver of analysis, decision-making and even behavior is a hinky thing, and I'm frankly skeptical and suspicious of people, much less countries, who believe otherwise outside of marketing consumer products and celebrities. Speaking strictly in the abstract, if a person or country does the wrong thing or things, but achieves popular standing, is everything then hunky-dory? If that person or country does the right thing or things, but is shunned in the process, where does the error really lie?

More from the article:

No question this is bad news, but put it into perspective, urged Richard Solomon, a veteran diplomat and negotiator who is president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federally funded think tank.

"It's an attractive aspect of our culture that we worry about what other people think," Solomon said. "The French couldn't care less if they make people unhappy."

Much of the enmity aimed at the United States is because Americans have tackled difficult jobs like removing Saddam Hussein from power, Solomon said, while the Germans and French took a pass.

"One of the costs we bear for taking on these responsibilities is that people get nervous when they see an 800-round gorilla willing to jump.

"But being liked is important," he added, because public support goes either "to us or to the bad guys."

That last statement strikes me as rather shallow, because I think it's at least a bit more complex than that. As to the reference to the attitude of the French, I would say this: If you believe that, in fact, we should be concerned about our popularity and make changes on the basis of that, then you surely must disapprove of the implied stance of the French in dismissing what others think and going their own way. Otherwise, aren't you trying to have it both ways? How does that work, exactly?

Here's my favorite quote from the article:

"In my judgment, you're going to see a lot of this hostility disappear only when various countries really feel they need friendly relations with the United States, probably for their own security," said Solomon. "It will probably take some major event for that to take place."

Now we're down to it: in the end, it's all about them, essentially what we ourselves are accused of, with some justification, for good and for ill.

Heh. So human. So true. So old news.