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18 Jul, 2014

Pew survey finds widespread global opposition to U.S. eavesdropping

July 14, 2014 (Pew Research Centre) – Revelations about the scope of American electronic surveillance efforts have generated headlines around the world over the past year. And a new Pew Research Center survey finds widespread global opposition to U.S. eavesdropping and a decline in the view that the U.S. respects the personal freedoms of its people. But in most countries there is little evidence this opposition has severely harmed America’s overall image. These are among the major findings of a new survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted in 44 countries among 48,643 respondents from March 17 to June 5, 2014.

Excerpts from the report:

In nearly all countries polled, majorities oppose monitoring by the U.S. government of emails and phone calls of foreign leaders or their citizens. In contrast, Americans tilt toward the view that eavesdropping on foreign leaders is an acceptable practice, and they are divided over using this technique on average people in other countries. However, the majority of Americans and others around the world agree that it is acceptable to spy on suspected terrorists, and that it is unacceptable to spy on American citizens.

Another high-profile aspect of America’s recent national security strategy is also widely unpopular: drones. In 39 of 44 countries surveyed, majorities or pluralities oppose U.S. drone strikes targeting extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Moreover, opposition to drone attacks has increased in many nations since last year. Israel, Kenya and the U.S. are the only nations polled where at least half of the public supports drone strikes.

Despite these misgivings about signature American policies, across 43 nations, a median of 65% express a positive opinion about the U.S. And these overall ratings for the U.S. are little changed from 2013.

In spite of the unpopularity of U.S. spying and its use of drones, America also remains more popular globally than China, its principal rival in world affairs. A median of 49% of the publics surveyed hold a positive view of China. And the U.S. is still considered the world’s top economic power, although this is less true today than it was before the Great Recession. However, looking to the future, a median of 50% of those surveyed in both 2013 and 2014, up from 41% last year, see China eventually supplanting America as the dominant world superpower.

But China’s rising power also generates its own anxieties, especially in its immediate neighborhood. In particular, there are strong concerns in Asia that territorial disputes between China and its neighbors will lead to military conflict. More than seven-in-ten in the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and India say this is a concern. And two-thirds of Americans agree, as do 62% in China itself.

The survey also finds that in most nations, young people are more favorable than their elders toward both the U.S. and China.

The Snowden Effect

Disclosures by former National Security Administration (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden about NSA spying revealed the U.S. government’s vast capacity to intercept communications around the world.

The Snowden revelations appear to have damaged one major element of America’s global image: its reputation for protecting individual liberties. In 22 of 36 countries surveyed in both 2013 and 2014, people are significantly less likely to believe the U.S. government respects the personal freedoms of its citizens. In six nations, the decline was 20 percentage points or more.

Still, the U.S. has a relatively strong reputation for respecting personal freedoms compared with the other major nations tested on the survey. A median of 58% believe the American government respects individual liberties, while 56% say this about France, 36% about China, and only 28% say it about the Russian government.

And while the Snowden revelations have harmed aspects of America’s image, overall ratings for the U.S. remain mostly positive. Globally, the U.S. has a higher favorability rating than China. This is especially true in Europe – across the seven European Union nations surveyed, a median of 66% express a favorable opinion of the U.S., while just 39% feel this way about China. The U.S. is also considerably more popular in Latin America, while both countries receive mostly high marks in Asia and Africa.

The Middle East is the clear exception. China’s favorability in the region is not especially high, but is higher than that for the U.S. Anti-Americanism has been common in many Middle Eastern nations throughout the Obama presidency, as was the case during the George W. Bush era. And again this year some of the lowest ratings for the U.S. are found in the region. Only 19% of Turks and 12% of Jordanians offer a favorable opinion of the U.S., and at 10% Egypt gives the U.S. its lowest rating in the survey.

A country’s brand is a valued commodity, especially when that nation is the world’s largest economic and strategic power. And, in 2014, America’s image remains strong in much of the world. Despite anger with Washington over U.S. spying on both foreign leaders and foreign nationals, widespread opposition to U.S. drone strikes, disagreements about what to do in the Middle East and other recurring tensions, most surveyed publics around the world still hold a favorable view of the United States. Young people, in particular, in many nations have an especially positive opinion of America. Overall, attitudes toward the U.S. are largely unchanged from 2013.

A global median of 65% voice an affirmative opinion about America. This includes a median of 74% in Africa, 66% in Western Europe, 66% in Asia, 65% in Latin America, but just 30% in the Middle East.

For nearly a decade and a half the U.S. global image has been on a roller coaster ride. At the beginning of the century America was seen favorably by majorities in most of the countries where comparable public opinion data are available. Over the next few years the bottom fell out of U.S. approval numbers, amid widespread opposition to the war in Iraq and other aspects of U.S. foreign policy. America’s image began to rally in some nations and to soar by the end of the decade following the election of Barack Obama, at least in Europe and parts of Asia and Latin America. After slipping a bit again in the first years of this decade, brand U.S. has stabilized and even recovered in a few nations in 2014.

Currently, majorities in 30 of 43 nations express a favorable opinion of the United States. This includes majorities in five of seven European nations, where 78% of Italians, 75% of the French and 73% of Poles voice positive views of Uncle Sam.

There is no evidence of a rise of anti-Americanism in most of Western Europe, home to great animosity toward Washington in the middle of the last decade. Only in Germany, where U.S. favorability is down 13 points since 2009, has the positive image of the United States slipped significantly. And, despite this slippage, roughly half of Germans (51%) still see America in a positive light.

U.S. Drone Strikes Increasingly Opposed

Since beginning its war on terrorism more than a decade ago, the U.S. government has launched several hundred missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and elsewhere. The vast majority of these drone strikes have been carried out by the Obama administration. Such attacks are extremely unpopular.

In 37 of the 44 countries surveyed in 2014 by the Pew Research Center, half or more of the public disapproves of American drone strikes. This includes 26 where strong majorities of seven-in-ten or more are critical of this signature U.S. military action.

Israel (65%), Kenya (53%) and the U.S. (52%) are the only countries where at least half back the use of drones against suspected terrorists. Among those opposed are the publics of major NATO allies such as Spain (86%), Turkey (83%), France (72%), Germany (67%) and the United Kingdom (59%), all of which have experienced terrorist attacks on their own soil. Fully 82% in Japan, America’s principal Asian ally, are against the use of drones, as are 75% in South Korea, another major Washington regional security partner.

U.S. Seen as Respecting Freedoms

The image of the United States has been tarnished by Snowden’s revelations about National Security Agency monitoring of communications around the world, especially in Europe and Latin America.

Admiration for America’s respect for the personal freedoms of its own people has gone down significantly in 22 of 36 nations where there is comparable data for 2013 and 2014. NSA actions have particularly hurt the U.S. reputation in Brazil, where belief that Uncle Sam respects Americans’ freedoms is down 25 percentage points, and in Germany, where it is down 23 points. Washington listened in on the phone conversations of both the Brazilian and German leaders. Drops of 20 points or more are also found in El Salvador, Pakistan, Argentina, Spain and Russia.

And Americans themselves have lost some faith in their own government’s safeguards for civil liberties. The share of the U.S. public that says Washington respects personal freedoms has declined from 69% in 2013 to 63% in 2014.

Nevertheless, half or more of the public in 33 of 44 nations surveyed still think that Washington safeguards Americans’ freedoms. The U.S. image as a protector of personal liberties remains quite strong in a number of Asian nations: South Korea (91%), Philippines (87%), Japan (84%) and Vietnam (75%); and also in the Middle East: Lebanon (84%) and Israel (75%).

And in many societies, the younger generation is much more likely than their elders to see the U.S. as a defender of domestic liberties. This is particularly true in Uganda, where there is a 20-point generation gap on this measure, and Russia with a 19-point difference.

Click here to download the full report.