Falling back into favor

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“Anyone who is popular is bound to be disliked,” Yogi Berra once observed. By his definition, the United States is very popular these days.

Since 2002, “the image of the United States has declined in most parts of the world,” according to the latest Pew Global Attitudes survey. “Favorable ratings of America are lower in 26 of 33 countries for which trends are available.” The numbers have dropped even among many of our traditional allies. For example, 13 percent of Britons now hold a “very unfavorable” view of the United States.

Such findings always generate much gnashing of teeth. But instead of pointing the finger at the usual suspects, let’s consider a few ways we can boost our reputation.

Asia, which I recently visited, offers one solution. We remain popular there; 58 percent of South Koreans have a positive view of the U.S. — a number exceeded in Japan and India. But even in Asia, we’re in danger of pushing our allies away.

One distancing issue is free trade. In April, Korean and American negotiators shook hands on an agreement that would be the biggest trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement. The new agreement was designed to open South Korea’s markets and reduce that country’s growing dependence on trade with China. Meanwhile, it would lock in critical Korean economic reforms, possibly even giving it a competitive advantage over regional rivals China and Japan. So far, so good.

But U.S. officials didn’t leave well enough alone. In June they reopened talks in an attempt to add stricter environmental and labor guidelines being pushed by congressional Democrats. Worse, the new talks went forward under pressure — any deal had to be finalized before June 30, when President Bush’s Trade Promotion Authority expired.

At the last moment, the Koreans yielded. So, if lawmakers in both countries approve it, this trade deal should pay big dividends. But our behavior still made a bad impression. The Korean negotiators won’t soon forget the U.S. was ready to put an entire agreement at risk to squeeze out a few more concessions.

The U.S. also needs to do a better job of welcoming our allies. Almost 100,000 Korean students study here, for example. But it’s not as simple as it ought to be for them to visit. They must wait in long lines to obtain visas, a step most citizens of friendly countries (Britain, France, Germany, etc.) avoid because of the popular Visa Waiver program.

South Korea doesn’t qualify for Visa Waiver because it falls short on a technicality. President Bush is said to be considering adding it to the program, as long as Seoul is willing to deploy an electronic passport system and increase its cooperation with American law enforcement officials. We also should expand the program by welcoming Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and, if they qualify, the Baltic States.

Finally, look to North Korea. The U.S. assured our allies we would do whatever was necessary to prevent Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons. Yet we recently released some $25 million in frozen North Korean funds. We should have held on to that money until North Korea shut down its nuclear reactor. The reactor reportedly was shut down but all we have is a promise it will remain so.

Winning a global popularity contest may not top our list of priorities. But if we can enhance our reputation through a few simple steps — such as keeping our word and not treating our friends as if they’re suspects — why not take them?

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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