Statistics Don't Say Everything; Foreign Criticism of U.S. Foreign Policy Distorts Reality

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 4, 2003 | Go to article overview

Statistics Don't Say Everything; Foreign Criticism of U.S. Foreign Policy Distorts Reality


Byline: John W. Walko, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In a recent TV interview, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright seemed to suggest that current world disapproval of America is unprecedented. Further, she suggested that this dissension within the United States and within the Western world exists because we now lack a common enemy formerly provided by the Soviet Union.

Sensational claims that we are at some new level of one thing or another make lively news copy. However, the claim of unprecedented opposition and the premise of prior unity appear to be exercises in rewriting history. These revisions omit the thousands of domestic and international protesters against U.S. policy in Vietnam. They also omit the legions of domestic and European peace protesters and anti-nuclear protesters in the later 1970s and through the 1980s.

Who can forget the 1980s European street demonstrators wearing death masks and demanding the removal of U.S. missiles? Who can forget the deep and rancorous U.S.-European schisms over topics such as arms control, trade with Cuba, the Soviet gas pipeline to Western Europe and the U.S. bombing of Libya in the 1980s war on terrorism? Who can forget those here and abroad who argued that the Soviet Union was not so bad and their visceral reaction against President Ronald Reagan's characterization of the Soviet sphere as an evil empire? Who can forget France's withdrawal from NATO command in 1966, which exiled NATO HQ to Belgium or France's 1965-68 "Gold War" to undermine the U.S. dollar?

The latest flutter about global anti-Americanism followed the release of the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project for cross-national public opinion surveys (and chaired, incidentally, by Mrs. Albright). Pew's accompanying report claimed that the dire effects of unpopular U.S. policy range from alienating allies to undermining both the war on terrorism and "the pillars of the post-World War II era the U.N. and the North Atlantic alliance."

However, both the cause and significance of foreign opinion are open to dispute. First, one could claim that it was not U.S. policy but European opposition to U.S. policy that damaged post-WWII "pillars." Further, it is not clear that today's rift threatens the "North Atlantic alliance" more than when France refused U.S. F-111 fighter-bomber overflights for the Libya strike in 1986 or when France evicted NATO headquarters in 1966.

Second, scientific surveys did not exist prior to 1935, and regular non-U.S. polling did not occur until decades later. Therefore, it is difficult to assert that any level of current national opinion is unprecedented because there is an irremediable lack of past data. You can poll today's public as often as you like, but no matter how many funding grants you get, you can never poll the 19th-century American public on its reaction to the 1861-67 French invasion and occupation of Mexico.

Further, public opinion can be volatile over the short term, especially when driven by high-profile headlines. To use Pew's own data as an example, from March to May of this year, the proportion of French with a favorable view of the U.S. increased roughly fifty percent, from 31 percent to 43 percent. Over the same period, the proportion of Italians with a positive view of the U.S. roughly doubled from 34 percent to 60 percent. …

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