US effort to rehab image falls short

Global wariness of America persists, despite US efforts to mend fences with allies.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In Europe for two days, President Bush will lay out a full agenda on Iran, aid to Iraq, and farm subsidies in world trade. But he'll also confront a European public that has such a poor view of America that in some countries, the United States is seen as the biggest threat to global stability today – surpassing Iran.

Views like this have figured in Helle Maasbol's family. For the three years she has lived in the US, she's not been able to entice her mom back home in Denmark to pay a visit.

"Her image of the States was going downhill for a while, but it was the war in Iraq that was the real blow," says the wife of a World Bank economist and mother of two girls – all of whom are now moving back to Europe. "I told her often about the wonderful people we've met in America, but she said she wouldn't come as long as the president was George Bush."

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Indeed, the US image abroad has continued to deteriorate, despite a concerted effort by the Bush administration to turn things around by mending fences with key allies, taking concrete steps to make diplomacy work, and expanding public-diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and other regions.

At the beginning of his second term, Mr. Bush set out to improve America's relations with the world by extending a more diplomatic hand to international partners, taking more multilateral positions on security concerns like Iran, and naming trusted aide Karen Hughes to help fix the US image abroad. But recent surveys show that public opinion about America continues to fall in countries as diverse as Spain, Turkey, Russia, and Indonesia. And the repercussions of the decline are not just touchy-feely image issues, experts say.

Low public esteem for the US makes it more difficult for governments to unabashedly side with the US on international issues, while less attraction to America can mean a smaller slice of the global tourism pie for the US.

"We lose out on jobs when foreigners don't travel here as much. We lose out on billions of dollars in spending, but we also lose the goodwill we know comes from people getting to know Americans," says Roger Dow, president of the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA).

Noting that he discussed that impact recently with Ms. Hughes, Mr. Dow says, "I asked her, 'What would it be worth to you to have 8 million people going home to say, "You know, they're not so bad." ' You have to figure that into the diplomacy equation."

Eight million is the number of additional visitors the US would greet if it increased its share of the international travel pie by just 1 percent. In 2002, the US reaped 9 percent of international travel, but today the number is down to 6 percent. Each percentage drop represents 150,000 jobs and $15 billion in spending, according to the TIA.

Of course, anti-Americanism is not the only explanation for falling numbers of foreign visitors – any more than disdain for the Stars and Stripes was invented by Bush. Many experts tie the tourism phenomenon to America's place as the world's only superpower, and the resentment that people have long felt toward the power they believe must be responsible when events turn negative.

But others say that US policy under Bush – from the war in Iraq to rejection of the Kyoto accords on greenhouse gases – is responsible for the new spike in anti-US sentiment. "I don't believe the figures we're seeing will change much so long as this president is in office," says Simon Serfaty, an expert in US-Europe relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

Results of a new global attitudes survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center show that a country's image of Americans is at least several percentage points higher than the same country's image of America as a nation. Bush's numbers are below both of those categories.

Another poll published this week by the Harris group shows that Europeans generally pick the US as the world's biggest threat to global security over Iran. This was true even in Britain, although Germans and Italians rank the US below Iran.

Ms. Maasbol finds this evolution sad and troubling, especially since she remembers as a little girl hearing "only good things" about America and its role in World War II – yes, even from her mom. "People say Iraq has made things worse for everybody in the world, and that it has brought out the bad side in America with things like the prisoner abuse," she says.

When Bush meets Wednesday with European leaders in Austria, he will hear calls for the closing of the Pentagon's detention facility in Guantánamo, Cuba. Bush is attending the annual US-European Union summit. From there he travels to Budapest, Hungary, where he will give a speech Thursday.

Mr. Serfaty of CSIS says the prisoner-abuse issue and the case of Guantánamo are particularly poignant for Europeans because they suggest an America making the same kinds of mistakes that Europe made in its colonial past.

"Europeans are saying, 'Don't use your power to do what we used to do,' " he says, which was to commit widespread rights abuses in African and Asian colonies while claiming to improve the world. He adds, however, that the European perspective "demonstrates how there is no understanding over there of how 9/11 has changed mentalities in this nation."

Particularly troubling for the US may be indications that America is slipping even in places where it is lavishing new attention. Opinion of America dropped 15 points in India compared with last year – despite a Bush visit to India in March and his calling for a new strategic partnership between the two countries.

There are some bright spots for the US. The Pew survey found that America's image improved among French youth, for example. "Feelings about America were bad in 2003 at the start of the war, but you don't see that so much among the young people anymore," says Swann Gros, a 17-year-old Parisian on his first visit to America this summer. Demonstrating an awareness of current events, he says the French know that Bush "is not so popular with Americans now – just as the French don't so much like Jacques Chirac."

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