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What The World Thinks In 2002
How Global Publics View: Their Lives, Their Countries, The World, America

What the world thinks in 2002 is a report released by the Pew Research Center For The People And The Press on December 4, 2002, as part of the Pew Global Attitudes Project. It may be considered biased since it is an American institute, but any report on human attitudes will be biased unless it has been written by mice or Martians. This one is probably one of the most rigourous attempts ever made to catch the state of the people's opinions around the world on a wide variety of issues. It is based on 44 national surveys that involved interviews with more than 38,000 people.

You can read it at http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=165. Here are a few interesting results.

1. What the world thinks about the United States

"In general, antipathy toward the U.S. is shaped more by what it does in the international arena than by what it stands for politically and economically."

Disclaimer: whenever I say "The American" below, I mean "the majority of the real U.S. citizens", not "the U.S. citizens who read Everything2," because the latter often seem to think in a more "international" way than the former.

The survey shows that, while the American think that their foreign policy brings or tries to bring harmony and democracy to other nations, the rest of the world has a more cynical point of view. For example, why does the U.S. government want to use force against Iraq? Most of the American people think that the governement's main motivation is that Saddam is a threat, a view shared by very few Russians (a little more in France, and even more in Britain). Control of Iraqi oil by the U.S. is considered as the real motivation by a minority of the American, but the vast majority of the Russians (same number in France, less than 50% in Britain).

Apparently, the American tend to believe what their leaders say, while the foreigners tend to believe what their newspapers say. It doesn't mean that the American are more stupid than other people. 45 years ago, a similar poll about the French colonial policy in the 1950s would probably have brought the same divide between French and international public opinions.

Which may bring us to a general theory:

  • on internal issues, on the contrary, there is usually a divide between the people and the government, but also, in a less expected way, between the people and the newspapers.

For example, in many Muslim countries, an important minority of people, and sometimes a majority, think that suicide bombings are justified (73% in Lebanon, 33% in Pakistan, 27% in Indonesia...). However, few mainstream newspapers actually consider suicide bombings as a legimitate way of action. While they often share the opposition of the people to Israel, they don't approve terrorism explicitly, and neither do their governements.

However, the *public opinion on the United States as a whole* is rather positive in Europe. It has slightly decreased in the past years, except in Russia and France. Today 63% of the French, 61% of the German and 75% of the British have a favorable opinion of the United States. In the Middle East, the majority is usually against the U.S. In Egypt, only 6% of the people say they are favorable to the U.S., but the right of speech is quite limited in that country (some questions were not allowed), so its results should be considered with care.

Surprisingly, in all European countries, more than two-thirds of the people support Bush's war on terrorism. At the same time, a large majority of people say that the US do not consider the interests of other countries in their foreign policy. As a matter of fact, the more the people think that the US is unilateralist (76% in France), the more they support the "war on terrorism" (75% in the same country)! That's not what I feel when I speak with people around me in Paris, but, after all, a survey wouldn't interest me if I didn't learn something from it...

Some questions are probably ill-understood by the surveyed people. For example, when asked about the "American ideas about democracy", less than 50% of the people say they like them. But the US democracy is, in my opinion, one of the best things the US has ever made. The balance of power, the stability of the system, the protection of rights exist in the US to a degree rarely achieved in any other country, especially over such a long period of time. The people who don't like the American idea of democracy probably don't know it, or, on the contrary, they are American citizens who know nothing but it. Maybe the interviewees thought the question was about the US foreign policy or proselytism.

As expected, US technology and popular culture are widely adopted all around the world. However, many people fear the spread of american ideas and customs. It may seem contradictory or hypocritical. I think we can understand it in the following way:

  • the people buy American products and love them -> their culture is (half-)American,
  • but they still feel they belong to their own nation -> their culture is (half-)non-American.

2. What the world thinks on everything else

The report is not limited to how the world considers the United States, although it's obviously the most well-publicised part. I will only consider a few issues.

Opinions on what is important in the world today differ vastly from one continent to another. For example, the European consider that the greatest danger in the world today is religious and ethnic hatred. The United States and Japan mention nuclear weapons instead. But African countries consider AIDS as the greatest danger today. Of course, these trends reflect the national context: recent immigration is important in Europe, and the fear of "weapons of mass destruction" in the US can be measured by the fact that they received an abbreviation (WMD]). The poll shows, by the way, that African people are more well-informed about AIDS than what Western newspapers usually say. It also shows that, while the newspapers tell us about all these problems, it's not enough to give us a right sense of proportion: everybody should consider AIDS as the greatest danger in the world, for Africa today and for Asia tomorrow.

Is Saddam a danger? Of course, an overwhelming majority thinks so in the U.S. and in Britain: 84% and 85%. But, the more you get close to Iraq, the less the people are afraid of it. In France, a country that has been the target of islamist terrorism on a much smaller, but more often repeated scale than the U.S., only 67% of the people consider Saddam as a danger. In Russia, the number is 55%, and less than 50% in Turkey.

The report also considers many other issues, such as global satisfaction, well-being, national problems, optimism, difficulty to afford food, opinion about the military and government, etc.

I'll finish with short facts:

  • Most people, in every country, love the Army!
  • 78% of the people in Ivory Coast love their government! It raises some doubts about the polls. If the people are so satisfied, why does the September 19, 2002 uprising still last several months later?
  • The majority of the American, and the majority of the (assumingly anti-clerical) French love their religious leaders, but only 47% of the people in Jordan love them and 51% in Lebanon, not to speak about the 32% in Turkey. A frightening fact is that the two countries who have the greatest respect for their priests are Kenya (92%) and Indonesia (89%), which have been the target of important islamist or anti-israeli terrorist attacks recently. Will the next attack take place in Senegal or Uganda (also 89%)? The number for Nigeria, where many people have been killed because in the name of God recently, is 84%...
  • Read the sections about Africa: Western countries tend to treat Africa as a block, but there is often more difference between the opinions of two African countries than between the opinions of the U.S. and other Western countries.

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