Ten years on, it is clear that the Iraq War fueled a sea-change in international
opinion toward the United States. These movements in foreign sentiment are the
most significant since at least the Vietnam conflict, and hold key present-day
implications for US policy-makers.
Over the course of the past decade, not
one but two cross-cutting meta-narratives have been at work in international
The first is the international growth of
anti-Americanism, driven by Iraq and wider perceptions of excessive US power,
unilateralism and over-reliance on military might. This was an especially strong
impulse from 2003 to 2008 during the Bush administration.
In the run-up
to and aftermath of the Iraq War, favorability towards the United States, which
had spiked upwards after 9/11, went into free-fall in many countries. This and
the accompanying rise of anti-Americanism is important because it has undercut
US soft power and thereby reduced Washington’s ability to promote its interests
overseas, and indeed those of its allies.
History underlines the role
soft power has played in obtaining favorable outcomes for Washington. For
example, successive US administrations used soft resources skillfully after
World War II to encourage other countries into a system of alliances and
institutions, such as NATO, the IMF, the World Bank and the UN. The Cold War was
subsequently won by a strategy that combined soft and hard power.
fall-off in international favorability toward the United States since Iraq has
now been largely arrested, and in most cases, partially reversed. Yet,
significant issues persist.
For instance, in eight of 13 key states that
were surveyed in both 2002 and 2012 by the annual Pew Global Attitudes Project
(Britain, Czech Republic, Germany, Jordan, Mexico, Poland, Russia and Turkey),
significantly fewer people now think favorably of the United States than they
did a decade earlier. This is most clear in the two Muslim-majority
Since 2002, US favorability ratings have halved in NATO ally
Turkey, from 30 percent to 15 percent. The fall in Jordan, another pro-Western
state, has been from 25% to 12 percent.
The election in 2008 of President
Barack Obama, who is more personally popular with foreign publics than Bush,
produced an immediate increase is favorability toward the United States.
However, since Obama took office, there has been a significant decrease in
international approval of US policies, with particular concerns including
reliance on drone strikes in the campaign against terrorism.
China for US policies has dropped from 57% in 2009 to 27%, according to Pew. In
Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Poland, the average reduction is 15
To be sure, significant ups and downs in international
favorability towards the United States are not unprecedented. During the Vietnam
War, anti-Americanism increased markedly. There was also significant overseas
concern about US policy during the early Reagan presidency following increased
tensions with the Soviet Union.
While the United States fully recovered
from these previous episodes, it remains unclear whether this will happen again.
In part, this is because those former rises in anti-Americanism occurred during
an era of rigid bipolarity in which US allies regarded the Soviet Union as by
far the greater danger and tended to give Washington the benefit of any
The post-Cold War world is more fluid and uncertain.
is where the second cross-cutting meta-narrative, which has assumed special
prominence since 2008, is key. Relating to the perceived recent decline of the
United States, it reflects widespread international assessments of the country’s
record in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the global financial crisis which is
commonly perceived to have accelerated the rise of China and the wider
Specifically, there has been sizeable growth in international
opinion that China will or already has surpassed the United States as the
world’s most powerful state. For instance, between 2009 and 2011 alone, there
was an at least 10 or more percentage point increase in public support for this
proposition in Spain, France, Pakistan, Jordan, Israel, Poland and Germany,
according to Pew.
China’s growing prominence has aroused mixed
international reactions: in some cases there is considerable anxiety, but
elsewhere the perceived shift in the global balance of power is welcomed.
Interestingly, numerous Muslim-majority states (where favorability towards the
United States is generally low) are among those who tend to regard China’s rise
In coming years, the interplay between these
crosscutting meta-narratives will be shaped by global events. Even though some
international opinion perceives the United States to be in decline, there are
continuing concerns about how Washington uses its power. The latter could become
especially salient again in the event of US military action against
Conversely, if the United States does not soon stage a strong
economic recovery, as it did following recessions in the early-1980s and
early-1990s when concerns about decline were last voiced, this would fuel
international anxiety about a global leadership vacuum, especially if China’s
rise is perceived to continue unabated.
Whichever way momentum flows, the
post-9/11 decade, from Iraq through the global financial crisis, will be
remembered as an extraordinary period in terms of international opinion
volatility toward the United States. It will take another remarkable event or
combination of developments to witness comparable movements of global sentiment
in coming years.
The author is an associate partner at ReputationInc. He
was formerly a UK government special adviser and senior consultant at Oxford
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