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The Pew Global Attitudes Project: Giving World Publics a Greater Voice

When the Pew Global Attitudes Project was conceived, the original plan was to measure attitudes around the world toward globalization and democratic values in a single major survey. In June 2001, The Pew Charitable Trusts committed $3.8 million to The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, an opinion research organization we have funded since 1995, to carry out this ground-breaking work. This initiative was in keeping with the Trusts’ long-standing commitment to informing the public on a range of important issues through independent, non-partisan research and polling.

When the grant was made, no one realized the full scope and impact the project would have. Well before the survey was ready to go into the field, the terrorists struck the United States on 9/11, and the war on terrorism began. Andy Kohut, who directs the Pew Research Center, responded by reordering priorities to include survey questions about the war on terrorism and America’s standing in the rest of the world. 

The Pew Global Attitudes Project released the results in two stages: What the World Thinks in 2002, issued in December 2002, and Views of a Changing World, released in June 2003. The surveys were based on 66,000 interviews in 49 nations and the Palestinian Authority. The reports found widespread acceptance of globalization, particularly in the developing world, and strong support across cultures for democratic values, including in the Middle East. But much of the media’s attention focused on the increasing antipathy toward America’s policies abroad—especially in Europe and the Muslim world. Anger about the Iraq war appeared to be the principal factor in driving up this level of opposition.

In February of this year, on the eve of the first anniversary of the start of the war, The Pew Research Center went back into the field for a follow-up survey in nine countries, including the United States. The survey set out to determine whether the passage of time since the fall of Saddam Hussein had moderated negative views about America in Europe and the Muslim world. The results, published in the Center’s latest report, A Year After the Iraq War, were sobering, suggesting an ever-growing divide between this country and its post-war allies. 

What follows is an excerpt from this study. It is the most recent set of findings from a project that has expanded its original charge to give world publics a greater voice on a host of important issues that transcend national borders. In a drastically changed world, we now view global polling as an ongoing mission.

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A Year After the Iraq War: Excerpts

A year after the war in Iraq, discontent with America and its policies has intensified rather than diminished. Opinion of the United States (US) in France and Germany is at least as negative now as at the war’s conclusion, and British views are decidedly more critical. Perceptions of American unilateralism remain widespread in European and Muslim nations, and the war in Iraq has undermined America’s credibility abroad. Doubts about the motives behind the US-led war on terrorism abound, and a growing percentage of Europeans want foreign policy and security arrangements independent from the United States. Across Europe, there is considerable support for the European Union to become as powerful as the United States.

In the predominantly Muslim countries surveyed, anger toward the United States remains pervasive, although the level of hatred has eased somewhat and support for the war on terrorism has inched up. Osama bin Laden, however, is viewed favorably by large percentages in Pakistan (65 percent), Jordan (55 percent) and Morocco (45 percent). Even in Turkey, where bin Laden is highly unpopular, as many as 31 percent say that suicide attacks against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq are justifiable. Majorities in all four Muslim nations surveyed doubt the sincerity of the war on terrorism. Instead, most say it is an effort to control Mideast oil and to dominate the world.

There has been little change in opinion about the war in Iraq—except in Great Britain, where support for the decision to go to war has plummeted from 61 percent last May to 43 percent in the current survey. In contrast, 60 percent of Americans continue to back the war. Among the coalition of the “unwilling,” large majorities in Germany, France and Russia still believe their countries made the right decision in not taking part in the war. Moreover, there is broad agreement in nearly all of the countries surveyed—the US being a notable exception—that the war in Iraq hurt, rather than helped, the war on terrorism.

In the four predominantly Muslim countries surveyed, opposition to the war remains nearly universal. Moreover, while large majorities in Western European countries opposed to the war say Saddam Hussein’s ouster will improve the lot of the Iraqi people, those in Muslim countries are less confident. In Jordan, no less than 70 percent of survey respondents think the Iraqis will be worse off with Hussein gone.

This is the latest in a series of international surveys by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. It was conducted from late February to early March in the United States and eight other countries, with fieldwork under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International.[1] The survey finds a significant point of agreement in opinion on Iraq’s future. Overwhelming majorities in all countries surveyed say it will take longer than a year to establish a stable government in Iraq. But there are deep differences about whether the US or the United Nations (UN) would do the best job of helping Iraqis to form such a government. The UN is the clear choice of people in Western Europe and Turkey; Americans are divided over this issue. However, roughly half of Jordanians and a third of Moroccans volunteered that neither the US nor the UN could do best in this regard.

Americans have a far different view of the war’s impact—on the war on terrorism and the global standing of the US—than do people in the other surveyed countries. Generally, Americans think the war helped in the fight against terrorism, illustrated the power of the US military, and revealed America to be trustworthy and supportive of democracy around the world. These notions are not shared elsewhere. Majorities in Germany, Turkey and France—and half of the British and Russians—believe the conflict in Iraq undermined the war on terrorism. At least half the respondents in the eight other countries view the US as less trustworthy as a consequence of the war. For the most part, even US military prowess is not seen in a better light as a result of the war in Iraq.

A growing number in Western Europe also think that the United States is overreacting to the threat of terrorism. Only in Great Britain and Russia do large majorities believe that the US is right to be so concerned about terrorism. Many people in France (57 percent) and Germany (49 percent) have come to agree with the widespread view in the Muslim countries surveyed that America is exaggerating the terrorist threat.

Nevertheless, support for the US-led war on terrorism has increased dramatically among Russians, despite their generally critical opinion of US policies. More than seven-in-ten Russians (73 percent) currently back the war on terrorism, up from 51 percent last May. Since the end of the Iraq war, there also have been gains in support for the US anti-terrorism campaign in Turkey (from 22 percent to 37 percent) and Morocco (nine percent to 28 percent). On the other hand, backing for the war against terrorism has again slipped in France and Germany; only about half of the public in each country favors the US-led effort.

Publics in the surveyed countries other than the United States express considerable skepticism of America’s motives in its global struggle against terrorism. Solid majorities in France and Germany believe the US is conducting a war on terrorism in order to control Mideast oil and dominate the world. People in Muslim nations who doubt the sincerity of American anti-terror efforts see a wider range of ulterior motives, including helping Israel and targeting unfriendly Muslim governments and groups.

Large majorities in almost every country surveyed think that America and British leaders lied when they claimed, prior to the Iraq war, that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction. On balance, people in the United States and Great Britain disagree. Still, about three-in-ten in the US (31 percent) and four-in-ten in Great Britain (41 percent) say leaders of the two countries lied to provide a rationale for the war.

In that regard, opinions of both President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are negative. Large majorities in every country, except for the US, hold an unfavorable opinion of Bush. Blair is rated favorably only by a narrow majority in Great Britain but fully three-quarters of Americans. In contrast, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is viewed positively in nearly all nine countries surveyed, with Jordan and Morocco as prominent exceptions.

The United Nations itself engenders varied reactions around the world. Just 55 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the world body. This is the lowest rating the UN has achieved in 14 years of Pew Research Center surveys. People in Russia and the Western European countries have a considerably more favorable view of the UN. But large majorities in Jordan and Morocco hold negative views of both the UN and the man who leads it.

Majorities in the Western European countries surveyed believe their own government should obtain UN approval before dealing with an international threat. That idea is much more problematic for Americans, and on this issue Russians and people in Muslim countries are much closer to Americans than they are to Western Europeans.

Despite that small piece of common ground, however, there is still considerable hostility toward the US in the Muslim countries surveyed. Substantial numbers in each of these countries has a negative view of the US. Overwhelming majorities in Jordan and Morocco believe suicide attacks against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq are justifiable. As a point of comparison, slightly more people in those two countries say the same about Palestinian suicide attacks against Israelis.

About half of Pakistanis also say suicide attacks on Americans in Iraq—and against Israelis in the Palestinian conflict—are justifiable. Fewer respondents in Turkey agree, but slightly more Turks view suicide attacks on Americans in Iraq as justifiable as say the same about Palestinian attacks on Israelis (31 percent vs. 24 percent).

Other Findings

  • Despite concerns about rising anti-Semitism in Europe, there are no indications that anti-Jewish sentiment has increased over the past decade. Favorable ratings of Jews are actually higher now in France, Germany and Russia then they were in 1991. Nonetheless, Jews are better liked in the US than in Germany and Russia. As is the case with Americans, Europeans hold much more negative views of Muslims than of Jews.
  • The survey finds, however, that Christians get much lower ratings in predominantly Muslim countries than do Muslims in mostly Christian countries. Majorities in Morocco (73 percent), Pakistan (62 percent) and Turkey (52 percent) express negative views of Christians.
  • The adage that people in other nations may dislike America, but nonetheless want to move there is borne out in Russia, Turkey and Morocco. Roughly half of the respondents in those three countries say people who have moved to the US have a better life.
  • But one of the largest gaps between Americans and Europeans concerns the question of whether people who move to the US have a better life. Americans overwhelmingly believe this to be the case—88 percent say people who move to the US from other countries have a better life. By contrast, just 14 percent of Germans, 24 percent of French and 41 percent of British think that people who have moved to the US from their countries have a better life.*

[1] All surveys are nationwide representative samples except in Pakistan, which was predominantly urban, and Morocco, where the survey was conducted only in urban areas.

* Editor’s Note: These excerpts and charts are taken from the March 16, 2004, report, “A Year After the Iraq War.” Reprinted by permission of The Pew Global Attitudes Project, a project of The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

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Director of Information Initiatives, The Pew Charitable Trusts