Why the world loves (and hates) us
Is democracy losing its appeal globally? It’s being asked a lot as a new generation of strongmen takes center stage in Russia, China, Turkey, Egypt, Hungary and the Philippines. They bash our democratic values, and yet our president appears to cheer them on, denigrating the international rules and institutions which could curb their bad behavior. Some fear the American model of democracy is, in the eyes of others, no longer an example worthy of emulation, but quickly becoming an object of derision. Their fears are misplaced.
Let’s start by admitting a critical failure: American efforts to promote democracy abroad have historically yielded flimsy results. This is, in part, because we focus too much on implementing laws and building institutions and largely take for granted the beliefs and values shared among the people who enforce those laws or populate those institutions.
In what might be called the soft bigotry of universalist expectations, our foreign policy leaders assume people everywhere will cherish the same things we do (such as individual liberties, economic opportunity, and pluralism) at the expense of other interests which are not as prioritized by liberal democracies (such as a sense of collective identity, economic stability, or social order).
We fail to heed George Kennan’s warning at the beginning of the Cold War: that we should try “to repress, and if possible to extinguish once and for all, our inveterate tendency to judge others by the extent to which they contrive to be like ourselves.”
But there’s a silver lining. Precisely because our foreign policy community has been fixated on gauging laws and institutions and other big structural variables rather than individuals’ beliefs around the world, we might have exaggerated the rumors of democracy’s demise. Indeed, democracy remains the preferred form of government for so many, and the American variant proves popular in some unlikely places.
Trying to reclaim some of the geopolitical humility Kennan sought, and deciding it was time to stop lecturing and start listening, my organization launched an international survey in eight countries to determine what people in China, Japan, India, Brazil, Germany, Poland, Egypt and Nigeria thought about our political model. We asked for views on American ideas about democracy, which countries had the most admired forms of government, what would make our form of government more attractive, what attributes of democracy they thought most important, and which ones they thought best demonstrated by the U.S. government.
As the Trump administration’s trade war with China and saber-rattling in the Middle East heat up, it’s notable that people in authoritarian regimes such as China and Egypt have more favorable attitudes toward “American ideas of democracy” than people in democratic countries such as Germany and Japan.
In fact, our Chinese respondents were three times more likely to want their system of government to become more like ours than to want it to become less like ours. Egyptians are more than twice as likely to support than oppose “American ideas of democracy” but they are more likely to have a negative than positive view of America itself.
In the eight countries we surveyed, the three statistically significant drivers of negative views of the U.S. were, in descending order of influence: opposition to President Trump, resentment about America’s interventionist foreign policy, and a bleak perspective on the economic disparity between rich and poor here. Support for American ideas of democracy abroad is driven largely by immigration. People who report having had family members or close friends who have lived here in the past five years are significantly more likely to have positive views of American-style democracy. This was the case internationally but particularly pronounced in India, where 70 percent of our respondents knew someone living here. Positive views of the U.S. are also related to the consumption of American movies, music and news.
If our findings in China and Egypt reveal an opportunity for cooperation and mutual understanding at a public level, the picture is quite different in Germany and Japan. Despite our strong alliances with these two countries, the German public is more than twice as likely to have a negative view than a positive view of the U.S. and of American ideas about democracy. The Japanese public also skews negative on each question but is generally indifferent to us, with a majority responding “neutral” on both counts. Americans are mostly oblivious of these dim views. A study from Pew last fall found 70 percent of Americans say the relationship between Germany and America is good while approximately the same percentage of Germans say it is bad. Many foreign policy leaders were caught off guard this week when Angela Merkel recently argued Europe must stand up to China, Russia, and the United States in defending its unique interests.
This is a missed opportunity. If we better appreciate how America’s form of government is perceived abroad, and what drives these perceptions, we could more effectively support democratic cultures. We could pivot away from the traditional strategy of democracy promotion, often pursued with coercive military threats or economic incentives and focused on institutional reforms, to one of democracy attraction, in which we live up to our stated ideals and recommit to modeling a form of government others want to emulate.
Mark Hannah, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation and teaches at New York University. He is the host of the podcast: None Of The Above.
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