Are International Views of the United States Improving? reports that a BBC World Service poll has found an international uptick in positive attitudes about the United States:

After years of becoming progressively more negative, public views of the United States have begun to improve, according to a BBC World Service Poll across 34 countries.

While views of US influence in the world are still predominantly negative, they have improved in 11 of the 23 countries the BBC polled a year ago, while worsening in just three countries.

The average percentage saying that the US is having a positive influence has increased from 31 per cent a year ago to 35 per cent today while the view that it is having a negative influence has declined from 52 per cent to 47 per cent.

Looking just at the countries that have been polled in each of the last four years, positive views of the US eroded from 2005 (38% on average), to 2006 (32%), and to 2007 (28%); recovering for the first time this year to 32 per cent.

Leaving aside the question about whether such polls accurately reflect international attitudes: What likely caused this uptick?

It’s easy to be simplistic when answering the question. The tendency, especially in press coverage of such things, is to look for one overriding cause. In this case, for example, pundits might say that foreign publics’ attitudes about the United States are improving because they can see the light at the end of the dark tunnel of the Bush presidency. But the factors that shape public opinion in any given country are innumerable and not easily quantified.

In the wake of the Iraq war, and amidst a general international consensus about U.S. “unilateralism,” the most popular view about the source of anti-Americanism is that it has mostly to do with U.S. actions: U.S. foreign policy in this or that region, or relations with this or that country cause hostility to the United States. (An aside: “unilateralism” is a valueless critique — people don’t tend to complain about it when they agree with a given policy choice. While no doubt valid as a pragmatic critique — it’s easier to get things done when you have help — complaints about unilateralism are too often framed in moral terms: as if justice or rightness is politically determined.)

While there’s no question that U.S. actions are a significant ingredient in the stew of influences that either please the palates of foreign publics or give them indigestion (excuse the tortured metaphor), I’m not convinced that in most cases it is the most powerful factor.

The domestic political atmosphere in a given country, profoundly shaped by both domestic political rhetoric and media coverage, can be a much more powerful determinant of public opinion.

Digging a bit deeper into the BBC World Service Poll numbers provides some anecdotal support for this proposition. The three countries with the largest drop from previous polls in negative views of the United States, for example, were France, Portugal, and South Korea, with 18, 18 and 16 percent drops, respectively, in the proportion of people saying the United States has a negative influence in the world.

While not much about U.S. foreign policy has changed during the last year, the political atmosphere in both France and South Korea has changed significantly, due to factors largely outside of U.S. control. In France, we have the sea-change of Chirac to Sarkozy, the latter the most pro-American French President in that country’s history. In S. Korea, meanwhile, the luster of the Sunshine Policy has grown dim in the face of N. Korean intransigence on nuclear weapons, and a new conservative president, Lee Myung Bak, whose policy toward N. Korea is more in line with U.S. policy, has been elected.

(As for Portugal, I must admit I’m out of the loop on events there of late. I’ll have to do some research to see what domestic political events there, if any, might have caused such a change.)

Update: In January 2006, Social Democrat Aníbal António Cavaco Silva was elected president of Portugal, the “first right-of-center politician elected president in Portugal since the 1974 election that introduced democracy,” according to the International Herald Tribune. Although the Portugese head of state apparently has no executive power, the election results at least indicate a rightward shift in Portugese domestic political opinion. In Portugal’s case, the shift appears to be due to economic woes. But to the extent that right-of-center candidates tend to be more pro-American than socialists, Cavaco Silva’s election may be an indicator of a more pro-American domestic political atmosphere in Poland — again, unrelated to any shift in U.S. policy.

Update II: A reader in France comments: “I really haven’t felt any 16 percent uptick in appreciation for the United States in France in the last year. My impression is it’s just same old, same old. If people had a problem with Sarko’s relatively friendly view of America, he could never have gotten elected in the first place. From which, I infer that the extent of discontent vis-à-vis the U.S. in France was always being exaggerated.”

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