A Small Improvement in U.S. Popularity Abroad

Polling suggests that the next president, Democrat or Republican, may lift sagging views of America.

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A Kosovo-Albanian waves an Albanian and a American flag during the celebration of Kosovo's expected declaration of independence on February 16, 2008.

By SHARE

For the first time in years, foreign attitudes toward the United States are showing a slight turnaround from their long downward slide. The broad finding, sure to be welcomed by Washington policymakers now accustomed to mounting anti-Americanism abroad, comes from a BBC World Service poll of people in 34 countries released on Tuesday night.

The improvement, though modest, is probably good news for the next U.S. presidential administration, whether led by John McCain, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton. While overseas popular attitudes about the U.S. do not directly make policy, they can partially shape the mood of bilateral relations, and the unpopularity of the Bush administration has made it difficult for foreign leaders to cooperate with Washington on a range of issues.

Each of the three presidential candidates promises a break from the Bush administration's approach to foreign policy, which has drawn criticism abroad for being excessively militarized and unilateralist.

The BBC poll shows a bettering of views of the United States in 11 of the 23 countries that were surveyed a year earlier, with the average share of those taking a positive view of the United States rising from 31 percent last year to 35 percent now. By comparison, in 2005, 38 percent of people polled overseas had positive views; then the figure declined to 32 percent in 2006 and further to 28 percent in 2007.

Improved views of the United States appeared in 11 countries, with negative perspectives easing most notably in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. The Middle East, where the U.S. presence in Iraq and support for Israel are widely unpopular, tended to show less change.

The improvement in the polls, perhaps, represents a reaction to a changed style in President Bush's second-term foreign policy, which has emphasized restoring traditional ties and seeking more consultation with allies. It has also seen U.S. policy shifts in the direction of those held by other countries on the twin nuclear challenges of Iran and North Korea—shifts that have revealed a growing administration proclivity to rely on negotiations. Even on an issue like global climate change, the administration in the second term has taken a more accommodating approach to international talks on restraining greenhouse gas pollution.

Another possible factor in the polling: global anticipation of a new administration. The Democratic nomination contest, which will bring either a woman or an African-American to the fore of presidential politics for the first time, has excited considerable interest overseas. And the apparent Republican nominee, John McCain, has been stressing the need to reach out to other countries and act in concert when possible—an approach more reminiscent of the first President Bush.

Whoever wins the presidential race, the inevitability of change seems to be warming attitudes overseas. Says one participating pollster, Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, "It may be that as the U.S. approaches a new presidential election, views of the U.S. are being mitigated by hope that a new administration will move away from the foreign policies that have been so unpopular in the world."