Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

At his final news conference yesterday President Bush responded to a question about whether the nation’s image needs repairing given the “damage that Gitmo, that harsh interrogation tactics that  [members of the incoming administration] consider torture, how going to war in Iraq without a UN mandate have damaged America’s moral standing in the world.”  He said:

I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged.  It may be damaged amongst some of the elite, but people still understand America stands for freedom, that America as a country provides such great hope.

If “moral standing” is a synonym for moral authority, we are talking about a rather abstract legal concept, but I found a more concrete definition at Wiktionary:

(of a person, institution, or written work) The quality or characteristic of being respected for having good character or knowledge, especially as a source of guidance or an exemplar of proper conduct.

Anyone who doesn’t recognize that, at present, the rest of the world respects us less, questions our character more, and sees us as a lesser source of guidance is simply refusing to let facts get in the way of their opinions.

The downturn has been well-documented over recent years in research by the Pew Global Attitudes Project.  Last month Pew published a summary of their studies entitled Global Public Opinion in the Bush Years.  In it they present a graph (shown here) that is pretty hard to reconcile with the President’s strong disagreement.  It shows an average drop of 28% in favorability ratings of the U.S. in European countries since 2000.

And the problem is not just in Old Europe or among “some of the elite.”  The Pew surveys were based on data from a total of 175,000 respondents in 54 nations and the Palestinian territories.   So “the U.S. image abroad is suffering almost everywhere.”  The report goes on to explain that

Mounting discontent with U.S. foreign policy over the last eight years has translated into a concern about American power. In the view of much of the world, the United States has played the role of bully in the school yard, throwing its weight around with little regard for others’ interests.

The research shows that there is some truth to the President’s statement in that foreigners still have some hopeful feelings about us:

For many people from all over the world, America is still the land of opportunity. …Most countries surveyed in 2008 give America high marks for its respect for the personal freedoms of its people. … Also, the American people continue to evoke far more positive reviews in many countries than does their country.

But it’s a mistake to think these positive views somehow obviate the negative ones.

Recognizing problems is the first step in taking action to correct them.  I think the new leadership does recognize them, and will be able to capitalize on the hopeful attitudes toward the U.S. also noted in the Pew report in order to begin turning things around.