The problem is not how Americans practice democracy in their own country, but how they're seen as trying to export it, according to Carroll Doherty, the associate director of the Pew Research Center in Washington, which conducted the survey. He says that the poll's respondents don't trust U.S. motives when President George W. Bush speaks of "spreading democracy."
"The perception is that the United States is taking this [the spread of democracy] on in a unilateral fashion without regard to the interests and needs of the individual countries involved," Doherty says.Democracy, And Oil
"But a big part of it as well is a sort of cynicism about the motives behind the U.S. push for democracy where extraordinarily large percentages in most countries say the U.S. only promotes democracy where it fits its own needs rather than promoting democracy for its own sake," he adds.
Doherty notes that in previous Pew surveys taken overseas, respondents said they believed the United States was interested in bringing democracy only to countries whose resources it needed.
In recent years, Doherty says, many respondents said the United States led an invasion of Iraq not to free its people from a brutal dictator, nor to protect the United States from Al-Qaeda, but to ensure a steady flow of oil to the West. He says that question wasn't included in the current survey, but assumes many foreigners still believe in that motive.
Where does this cynicism come from? Doherty says it's not clear so far whether the negative view of the United States is based on actual U.S. foreign policy or merely perceptions of its policy.
Doherty says he believes it's a bit of both, but the real picture will only be revealed after Bush leaves office in January 2009.
"Is much of this tied to President Bush? Probably some of it is, but the reality is that the policies that are in place now, by and large, are likely to still be in place next year," he says, after the 2008 presidential election.
"One of the major issues is the belief that the United States supports Israel too much. That's not likely to change even with a change of administration," Doherty notes. "So the policies that are in place, in some cases at least, are likely to be in place for quite a while. And the policies do drive a lot of the negativity about the United States around the world."
Despite the poll's grim news for the United States, its conclusions are being accepted by the office of Karen Hughes, the U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, whose job it is promote the U.S. approach to democracy.
Rena Pederson, a special assistant to Hughes, says that the Pew Research Center conducts "very authoritative" surveys, and because of that, she doesn't dispute the findings of this latest poll. In fact, she says, Hughes' office regards the hostility toward the United States as a long-term and "complex" challenge that will take time and great patience to overcome.
"Some people may disagree with our policies -- a lot of people do, a lot of it is tied to Iraq. Some people disapprove of our culture. Some people may have had a bad experience with an [U.S.] airline. Some people may have had a bad experience with an American product," she says. "It's a very complicated problem, which means there's no quick fix, there's no simple fix. And I think that's why you have to work harder to have a mutual dialogue of listening and learning on both sides."
Hughes' office is investing heavily in expanding what Pederson calls "people-to-people programs" that give foreigners a more thorough understanding of the United States, its policies, and its people than is possible by, say, simply watching old U.S. television programs.
"We have this year instituted a new tracking system so that we can see if our programs are working on the ground -- everything from exit interviews with exchange students to focus groups to interviews with people who attend our events, audience measurements -- and what we have found is that people that participate in public-diplomacy programs do emerge with a much more informed and favorable opinion of the U.S.," Pederson says.
For example, Pederson notes that two Europeans who just became their countries' leaders were exchange students in the United States. They are British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Neither man is expected to be as close to Bush as Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, was, but Pederson says both men are staunchly pro-American, which she attributes at least in part because part of their education was in the United States.
Pederson says the State Department's tracking of public-diplomacy programs have found that 87 percent of the participants say the programs gave them a better understanding of the United States and that 73 percent have a more favorable attitude about the country.