Pro-American foreigners aren't plentiful
By ANNE APPLEBAUM
So familiar are the numbers, and so often have we heard them analyzed, that the recent release of a new poll on international anti-Americanism caused barely a ripple. Once again the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed that most Frenchmen have a highly unfavorable view of the United States, that the Spanish prefer China to America, and that Canadian opinion of the United States has sunk dramatically.
And once again the polls told only half of the story. Even the most damning polls always show that some percentage of even the most anti-American countries remains pro-American. According to the new poll, some 43 percent of the French, 41 percent of Germans, 42 percent of Chinese and 42 percent of Lebanese say they like us. Maybe it's time to ask: Who are they?
When pro- and anti-American sentiments are broken down by age, income and education -- I did so recently using polling data from the Program on International Policy Attitudes, supplied by Foreign Policy magazine -- patterns do emerge. It turns out, for example, that in Poland, which is generally pro-American, people ages 30 to 44 are even more likely to support America than their compatriots. This is the group whose lives would have been most directly affected by the experience of the Solidarity movement and martial law -- events that occurred when they were in their teens and twenties -- and who have the clearest memories of American support for the Polish underground.
In some more anti-American countries, such as Canada, Britain, Italy and Australia, people older than 60 have far more positive feelings about the United States than their children and grandchildren. This generation, of course, had positive experiences of U.S. cooperation or occupation during World War II. Surely there's a lesson here: Although anti-Americanism is often described as if it were mere fashion, or some sort of contagious virus, America's behavior overseas, whether support for anti-Communist movements or allied cooperation, does matter. People feel more positive about the United States when their personal experience is positive.
However, the polls also make clear that direct political experience isn't the only factor that shapes foreigners' perceptions of the United States. Advertising executives understand ordinary women who read magazines filled with photographs of clothes they could never afford: They call such women "aspirational." Clearly there are classes of people who might also be called aspirational. They are upwardly mobile, or would like to be. They tend to be pro-American, too.
In Britain, for example, 57.6 percent of those whose incomes are low believe the United States has a mainly positive influence in the world, while only 37.1 percent of those with high incomes believe the same. Breaking down the answers by education, a similar pattern emerges. In South Korea, 69.2 percent of those with low education think the United States is a positive influence, while only 45.8 percent of those with a high education agree. That trend repeats itself across Europe and in many other developed countries. Those on their way up are pro-American. Those who have arrived, and perhaps feel threatened by those eager to do the same, are much less so.
In developing countries, the pattern is sometimes reversed. Indians are much more likely to be pro-American if they are not only younger but also wealthier and better educated; because India has only recently been open to foreign investment, younger Indians have had the experience of working with Americans, whereas their parents have not. The poor in India are still untouched by globalization, but the middle and upper-middle classes -- those who see for themselves a role in the English-speaking, American-dominated international economy -- are aspirational, and therefore pro-American. Some 69 percent of Indians with high incomes think the United States is a mainly positive influence in the world, and only 29 percent of those with low incomes agree.
This same phenomenon may also account for the persistence of a surprising degree of popular pro-Americanism in such places as Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil and the Philippines. They're getting wealthier -- like Americans -- but aren't yet so rich as to feel directly competitive.
These pro-Americans may not be a majority, either in the world or in their own countries. However, neither are they insignificant. Pro-Americans will vote for pro-American politicians, who sometimes win, even in Europe. They will also purchase American products, make deals with American companies, and vacation in the United States if we give them visas. They're worth cultivating with presidential speeches or diplomatic visits, because their numbers may even grow if their economies expand, if their markets grow freer, if they begin to see the global economy as a promise and not a threat.
Before Americans brush off the opinion of the "foreigners" as unworthy of attention, they should remember that whole chunks of the world have a natural affinity for them and, if they are diligent, always will. Happy Fourth of July.
X Applebaum is a member of The Washington Post's editorial page staff. A longer version of this article appears in the July/August issue of Foreign Policy magazine.