Why Don’t They Like Us as Much as They Used To?

The United States has lost its aura of competence. That’s a problem.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

“Why do they hate us?” Much ink has been spilled over the last few years in attempts to answer that question. By contrast, not enough attention has been paid to what is, in some ways, a more perplexing conundrum: “Why don’t they like us as much as they used to?”

The “they” in this latter question is our very, very closest allies. By this, I don’t mean France or even Canada, democracies that are part of the Western alliance but have never particularly warmed to the idea of U.S. leadership, whether political or cultural. The French have always been huffy about NATO and downright nasty about Hollywood; the Canadians have actually formed their entire national identity around being “not-Americans.” No, the more interesting question is why support for U.S. leadership has declined among our traditional friends: Britain, Poland, Germany, Italy, Holland.

And it has declined—drastically. Since 2002, according to the newest edition of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends survey, support for “U.S. leadership in world affairs”—that’s whether they want to follow our political lead, not whether they think we’re nice—has plunged by 30 percentage points in Germany, 26 percentage points in Italy, 24 percentage points in Poland, 23 percentage points in Holland, and 22 percentage points in Britain. More generally speaking, support for U.S. leadership, which was at 64 percent across Europe in 2002, is now at 36 percent, though that figure includes the stroppier countries, too.

I realize, of course, that there have been a million of these polls in recent years, and I also realize that they sometimes hide as much as they conceal. A couple of years ago, I wrote about one set of data that broke down these numbers by education and income. As it turned out, there were strong pockets of “pro-Americanism,” even in the most “anti-American” countries. In Europe, for example, it turned out that the upwardly mobile felt more warmly about American power than the establishment. Generally speaking, people confuse “anti-Americanism” with “anti-global capitalism,” those who dislike one generally disliking the other, as well.

Yet these latest numbers appear, according to Ron Asmus of the German Marshall Fund, to apply across the board. They also look particularly grim when compared with other famous historical low points. Even in 1982, when British and German cities were convulsed with anti-Reagan, anti-Trident missile, anti-Cold War demonstrations, support for U.S. leadership across the continent was far higher than it is now.

Most curious of all, though, is the fact that our friends’ faith in us has weakened just as their perceptions of potential threats are growing ever more similar to ours. True, more Europeans worry about global warming than we do, but the difference (85 percent vs. 70 percent) is not as great as one would think. And we all worry about everything else—international terrorism, a nuclear Iran, global epidemics—in almost equal measure.

This last point strikes me as most interesting, for it indicates that what our closest friends really dislike is not our traditional pushiness, our violent movies, or even our current president (though they don’t like him much, either), but our incompetence. A full third blame the perceived decline of the transatlantic alliance on the “mismanagement of Iraq.” Not the invasion of Iraq—the “mismanagement” of Iraq. Which makes sense. If you’re really worried about Iran, do you want to put your faith in the United States, the country that bungled Iraq? If you really care about Islamic fundamentalism, do you want to be led by the country that, distracted by Iraq, failed to predict the return of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

There are other factors too, of course. As I (and many others) have written before, we’ve been bad at looking after our allies over the past five years, bad at thanking them or compensating them for military contributions to Iraq, bad at maintaining very basic pieces of public diplomacy, like student-exchange programs. Still, NATO will not fall apart just because our president has been rude to his German counterpart or a few Britons don’t get scholarships. NATO will fall apart, however, if its American leaders are perceived as inept. And even if the surge works, even if the roadside bombs vanish, inept is a word that will always be used about the Iraqi invasion.

And yes, it does matter. There was, in fact, a “coalition of the willing” in Iraq, at least to start with. There wouldn’t be now, even though both the French and German leaders are more positive about the United States than their predecessors, even though most of our allies worry more about the Middle East than ever. Countries that would once have supported U.S. foreign policy on principle, simply out of solidarity or friendship, will now have to be cajoled, or paid, to join us. Count that—along with the lives of soldiers and civilians, the dollars and equipment—as another cost of the war. No one wants to be on the losing team.