The view from there

Editorial Notebook

June 17, 2006|By WILL ENGLUND

Kevin Hartigan runs the South Asia office for Catholic Relief Services, but he was in Baltimore this week checking in with the people at the headquarters building on West Fayette Street. His visit coincided with the release of the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey, which found that anti-American feeling has grown even more pronounced over the past year - something that he and every American living abroad has to contend with.

The survey asked people in 15 countries, including India, all sorts of questions - about threats to peace, the war on terror, the Middle East conflict and the Iranian nuclear program. It also sought opinions about German Chancellor Angela Merkel (very high), British Prime Minister Tony Blair (higher here than there) and of course President Bush (low everywhere but spectacularly so in Turkey). One trenchant question wasn't asked - so Mr. Hartigan, a slim, clean-cut and voluble Minnesotan who spent years working in French-speaking Africa before moving to India, where CRS has been active for a half-century, posed it himself, over lunch. Is the world actually a more dangerous place?

A war breaks out in one spot - but peace blooms somewhere else. For every Sri Lanka, slipping back into conflict, there's an Ivory Coast, putting down guns so everyone can watch the World Cup. Since 2001, Mr. Hartigan suggested, even as the United States has twice gone to war, there hasn't been that much more violence worldwide. Bombs go off and there's fanatical anger to spare, but before all the current trouble, hundreds of thousands of people were getting killed in Yugoslavia and East Timor. Outside Iraq, the worst sorts of terrorist incidents are down, according to the government.

And yet the U.S. presents to the world what Mr. Hartigan calls a picture of "fear and paranoia." The 9/11 attacks were an utter shock to the nation; the response has been rather dramatic. Color-coded terror alerts, embassies like fortresses, a heavy-handed and suspicious visa process - not to mention hysteria about the border and the creation of prisons both known (Guantanamo) and unknown - give the impression that the U.S. is a deeply unfriendly neighbor.

Plenty of people in other countries know that that impression isn't altogether accurate. But this has been a year, the survey shows, when it's starting to feel like a perpetual Monday morning everywhere. Europeans, Asians, Africans - and Americans, too - report deepening pessimism, and maybe people are just more willing to blame the U.S. for whatever ails them. The exception: 81 percent of Chinese think their country is on the right track, and, interestingly, their opinions of America and Americans are rising as well. This is good news, considering the trillions of dollars now in Chinese hands.

Whatever they tell pollsters, people overseas know a whole lot more about America than vice versa. That starts with the news: Fewer Americans, Pew found, knew about the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal than did Germans or French or British or Spanish or Japanese. The same goes for global warming, bird flu and the Palestinian election victory by Hamas.

But there's more to it than that. American travelers abroad have an earnest tendency to explain their country to foreigners, who are convinced they already know all about the place - they read about it in their newspapers and smoke American cigarettes, but most of all they go to the movies! Titanic was a worldwide hit and record-setter in the late 1990s and maybe people felt better about the U.S. on account of it. Revenge of the Sith, the most recent in the Star Wars series, had the biggest overseas grosses of any film released last year, and it may have more accurately conformed to foreigners' recent preconceptions about the American view of the world - but still, they went to see it.

It's better for Americans that people in other countries think they understand the U.S., Mr. Hartigan argued, even if they're sometimes a little off. Familiarity can breed what you'd rather it didn't, but that might nevertheless be preferable to agitated shock and awe. Most people are not up in arms; that's something to keep in mind.

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