The world may not be ready to forgive George Bush, but it is slowly starting to forgive America. That was the strongest message to emerge from a survey of attitudes in 34 nations toward the world's leading powers released here Wednesday.
"There are a number of reasons to think this is ultimately a turning point [in perceptions of the US]," says Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, which helped conduct the BBC World Service poll of more than 17,000 people.
Previous surveys showed global dismay about US influence in the world, especially its handling of prisoners at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, as well as White House inertia on climate change and Middle East peace.
Since the annual survey was established in 2005, an increasing percentage of respondents have said that America exerts a negative, rather than a positive, influence. But this year, US ratings improved in 11 countries and worsened in only three; on average across the entire survey, 35 percent of people said the US had a positive influence, compared with 31 percent a year ago; the percentage that discerned a negative influence fell to 47 from 52.
Analysts involved in the survey said a number of factors were at play. The US presidential primaries have showcased a less ideological, more approachable America and at the very least raised hopes of a more conciliatory approach to foreign policy once President Bush steps down.
"The image of the US is already being influenced by the prospect of one of the candidates becoming president," says Dr. Kull of PIPA. "All three talk more about multilateralism and cooperation; all express concern about the US image in the world; all express substantial concern about climate change and signal readiness to take action on that front."
He adds that some late-term Bush administration initiatives – the Annapolis conference on the Middle East, cautious noises about climate change action – may also have helped America's stock rise. Another positive has been the fact that "the threat of unilateral action against Iran has diminished in people's minds."
The US picked up good marks in a number of countries, from South Korea to Portugal. The French softened their negative view of America dramatically, while the Americans similarly improved their view of France. Painful memories of "freedom fries" may be receding.
Russia's status: most improved
If America's report card reads "some improvement – could do better," the verdict on Russia is something like "impressive progress – but I wouldn't want to live next door to you." Despite its muscular, even menacing, diplomacy, Russia emerged as the country with the most improved image, though many Europeans are still wary of their vast eastern neighbor.
Experts in Moscow said the world could not help but admire Russia's startling economic renaissance, and may also appreciate that a strong Russia could help restore a multipolar global order.
"There is a perception that having one center of power [the US] has not led to a more stable and balanced world system, and so people see Russia's emergence as a positive thing," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign-policy journal.
Dmitri Trenin, an expert with the independent Carnegie Centre in Moscow, adds that Russia's improving image "is because people abroad see Russia as an independent force that has its own interests in the world. It doesn't interfere in the affairs of other countries and it doesn't let anyone interfere in its own affairs."
Nations' views of themselves
The wide-ranging survey also produced numerous other intriguing, and sometimes counterintuitive, findings: British attitudes toward Russia improved, despite the frosty rhetoric and tit-for-tat antics redolent of the cold-war era that have poisoned bilateral relations of late. Americans think less of the Brits for some reason, perhaps to do with slight strains over the Iraq coalition.
But if Japan has the most self-effacing view of its own global image, China and Russia err in the other direction.
An overwhelming 91 percent of Chinese citizens and 78 percent of Russians say their country is having a positive influence on the world. Where do they get their chutzpah from? Culture and economics, say analysts.
"It's clear that there is a nationalism going on in China and in Russia that doesn't necessarily speak to authoritarianism," says Doug Miller, president of GlobeScan, an international polling firm that also helped conduct the survey. "They are chuffed about themselves, that much is clear. Whether it is problematic is another question."
Oleg Savelyev thinks it is. A researcher with the independent Levada public opinion center in Moscow, which took part in the polling project, he says that public opinion has been manipulated by the authorities. "They control 95 percent of the mass media, information is monopolized, they are manipulating the statistical figures to make people believe that life is better. The influence of propaganda should also be taken into account."
US views of British worsen
Among the more curious survey findings: Americans are getting sniffy about their transatlantic cousins, the British. Why? Most other countries have a favourable view of Britain, elevating the country to fifth spot behind Germany, Japan, the European Union, and France. Yet among Americans, only 45 percent had a positive view of the British, down from 67 percent the previous year. Is it because of all the reality TV shows exported across the pond in recent years?
Analysts think not. One reason may be detectable in the British decision to scale down its involvement in Iraq. Another may be the decision to install a leader who is not Tony Blair. Blair was, after all, far more popular in Washington than in Westminster.
"Our sense is that it may be down to the clear change that Gordon Brown has signaled right from the beginning, when he took over from Tony Blair," says Mr. Miller.
"His announcement of withdrawing troops from Iraq appears to have registered with Americans; whether this is a momentary blip we'll have to wait and see," he adds.
Fred Weir contributed from Moscow.