In 1926, a time of peace, Edwin James wrote in The Times Magazine: “Of all the peoples in the world, the Americans are the least loved. That is one way of saying that the United States of America is the most unpopular nation on the face of the earth.”
This should help put into perspective current American concerns about negative international public opinion. The United States’ standing in the world has always been relatively low and that overall negative trend is unaffected by the fact that much of the world celebrated the election of President Obama, or by polls indicating that at least some Europeans are pleased with Mr. Obama’s leadership. Public opinion, it seems, is driven less by current events or decisions than by a deep resentment of America’s powerful status.
This helps explain the negativity (mostly in Western Europe) that James sensed in the 1920s. One informal survey from that time showed that just a few years after the United States helped France to fight a war with Germany, the French people called the United States their least favorite among nations, Germany included. French mobs marched on the United States Embassy and threw rocks at buses carrying American tourists.
Americans were bewildered. Hadn’t the French always loved us, as evidenced by their giving troops and loans to help the American Revolution? And hadn’t we just sent troops and loans to help the French in the war? Why were the French so angry?
The answer is simple: Major world powers attract envy and resentment. Nations, like individuals, would much prefer to be seen as the generous benefactor rather than the dependent beneficiary — especially of a nation that was once far less powerful.
Perhaps demonstrating this point, a curious change occurred in the late 1920s and ’30s. As the United States retreated to a more isolationist stance, Western European public opinion seemed to change for the better. Gallup surveys in 1939 showed that, even as Americans tried to stay aloof from the war in Europe, the French and British public, both by a sizable margin, regarded the United States as their favorite foreign nation.
After we joined Britain and liberated France, public opinion toward the United States swung again. A Gallup survey in 1945 showed a dip in feelings toward America after liberation, with 54 percent of the French expressing disappointment with America. As for Britain, in wartime essays at the end of 1943, George Orwell wrestled with the fact that while British officials were careful to offer nothing but praise for the United States, the British public had developed a very low opinion of the Yanks.
One would think that at least the Marshall Plan, through which the United States offered economic aid to help rebuild Europe after World War II, would have brought some good will. But Europeans seemed to be resentful of these gifts: Secretary of State Dean Acheson was concerned at the time about growing anti-American public opinion in Western Europe.
To be sure, opinion toward the United States today is not overwhelmingly negative, thanks to widespread approval of President Obama. A recent survey from the German Marshall Fund suggested that positive opinion of the United States had skyrocketed in Europe. Likewise, a Pew survey showed that approval of America has jumped to 75 percent in France and 69 percent in Britain. But the comparable figures were 63 percent and 75 percent, respectively, in the second year of George W. Bush’s administration, and we all know where the numbers went from there. It merely may be that new American presidents tend to enjoy a honeymoon in foreign opinion.
Given these mixed signals, which surveys should President Obama pay attention to — the ones that suggest approval of his leadership or the more negative appraisals? The answer is neither. His only concern should be whether favorable public opinion abroad will help him achieve America’s own goals, and there is little evidence that that is the case.
Rather, history suggests that there is only one sure way for President Obama to ensure the popularity of the United States abroad: reduce the power of the United States or simply don’t exercise it — either militarily, economically or even diplomatically. The world simply distrusts the big guy on the block, and the only way to address this is to stop behaving like a superpower. A much better option, of course, would be to pay less attention to foreign opinion surveys and more to our own ideals and interests.