- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2003

In a recent TV interview, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright seemed to suggest that current world disapproval of America is unprecedented. Further, she suggested that this dissension within the United States and within the Western world exists because we now lack a common enemy formerly provided by the Soviet Union.

Sensational claims that we are at some new level of one thing or another make lively news copy. However, the claim of unprecedented opposition and the premise of prior unity appear to be exercises in rewriting history. These revisions omit the thousands of domestic and international protesters against U.S. policy in Vietnam. They also omit the legions of domestic and European peace protesters and anti-nuclear protesters in the later 1970s and through the 1980s.

Who can forget the 1980s European street demonstrators wearing death masks and demanding the removal of U.S. missiles? Who can forget the deep and rancorous U.S.-European schisms over topics such as arms control, trade with Cuba, the Soviet gas pipeline to Western Europe and the U.S. bombing of Libya in the 1980s war on terrorism? Who can forget those here and abroad who argued that the Soviet Union was not so bad and their visceral reaction against President Ronald Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet sphere as an evil empire? Who can forget France’s withdrawal from NATO command in 1966, which exiled NATO HQ to Belgium or France’s 1965-68 “Gold War” to undermine the U.S. dollar?

The latest flutter about global anti-Americanism followed the release of the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project for cross-national public opinion surveys (and chaired, incidentally, by Mrs. Albright). Pew’s accompanying report claimed that the dire effects of unpopular U.S. policy range from alienating allies to undermining both the war on terrorism and “the pillars of the post-World War II era — the U.N. and the North Atlantic alliance.”

However, both the cause and significance of foreign opinion are open to dispute. First, one could claim that it was not U.S. policy but European opposition to U.S. policy that damaged post-WWII “pillars.” Further, it is not clear that today’s rift threatens the “North Atlantic alliance” more than when France refused U.S. F-111 fighter-bomber overflights for the Libya strike in 1986 or when France evicted NATO headquarters in 1966.

Second, scientific surveys did not exist prior to 1935, and regular non-U.S. polling did not occur until decades later. Therefore, it is difficult to assert that any level of current national opinion is unprecedented because there is an irremediable lack of past data.You canpoll today’s publicas often as you like, but no matter how many funding grants you get, you can never pollthe 19th-century American public on its reaction to the 1861-67 French invasion and occupation of Mexico.

Further, public opinion can be volatile over the short term, especially when driven by high-profile headlines. To use Pew’s own data as an example, from March to May of this year, the proportion of French with a favorable view of the U.S. increased roughly fifty percent, from 31 percent to 43 percent. Over the same period, the proportion of Italians with a positive view of the U.S. roughly doubled from 34 percent to 60 percent. In other words, French opinion already had recovered to over two-thirds of its 1999-2000 level and Italian opinion had recovered to over three-fourths of its 1999-2000 level. Put simply, it is premature to make proclamations of permanent realignments.

The relative standing of countries appears more durable. For instance, Americans’ current opinion in favor of Britain over France seems fairly consistent over the decades. According to the Roper Center’s Public Perspective, an April 1983 Harris poll recorded that 57 percent of American respondents considered Britain a close ally and only 34 percent considered Britain “friendly but not a close ally.” However, 1983 American opinion of France was a mirror image with only 23 percent considering France a close ally but57 percent considering France friendly butnot close. Further, whereas only 5 percent of American respondents labeled Britain as unfriendly or an enemy, almost three times as many, 14 percent, said so of France. The British advantage in American affection generally is consistent through the whole of modern polling history.

This sentiment appears among American policy-makers over decades as well. For instance, President Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, also felt vexed by France. As I note in my book, The Balance of Empires, Acheson wrote of an incident half a century ago, “[British Foreign Minister] Anthony Eden exploded in a most satisfying and spectacular pyrotechnical display, accompanied by animadversions upon French national deficiencies. In one telling sentence, he observed that no sooner did a crisis occur than some damned Frenchman went to bed.” Even an old American book on the 18th-century American Revolutionary War commented that investigation of American military fiascos often revealed that the French were involved somehow. The Franco-American love-hate relationship, at least, is hardly new.

Reacting to the ongoing European stereotype of American diplomacy as adolescent or incompetent, a reader of my Balance of Empires wrote me that he was astonished by the sophisticated American foreign policy as early as 1952. Once again, however, American skill at balance-of-power politics goes back even farther. Perhaps the only astonishing part is that Europeans question American foreign policy skills so much. After all, it is the United States which has achieved the “world’s only superpower” status while European foreign policy skills have resulted in Europe’s second-tier power status.

At any rate, the difficulties with France, an absence of domestic or international unanimity and even bitter foreign complaints about U.S. policy are neither new nor surprising. Criticisms of dominant powers appear inevitable, as I seem to recall British and German disapproval of Roman dominance, followed by British disapproval of Spanish and French dominance, and then French and German disapproval of later British dominance. In international relations, there is not much new under the sun. There are only recurrent behaviors which people choose to forget.

John W. Walko is an International Relations professor who has worked at the Roper Center for Public Opinion.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide