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What the world thinks

By Russell Brown

Friday 1st August 2003

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It raised a few titters that Americans - albeit narrowly - were more likely to have confidence in Tony Blair than George W Bush to lead the world, and that more Britons had faith in Kofi Annan than their own prime minister, but the June report of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, "Views of a Changing World", disappeared from the world's headlines almost as soon as it arrived.

Which was a great pity, because, at a time when talismanic words are so readily used and relayed in the media, it provides a rare insight into what more than 66,000 people in 49 nations actually think about "modernity, free markets and democracy".

The project, chaired by former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, was conceived as a response to dramatic times. Its first report, last year's "What the World Thinks in 2002", gave substance to the anecdotal impression that the rest of the world largely agreed with American values, but was strikingly uneasy with the means by which those values were being pursued.

The new report uses previously unpublished responses from the earlier surveys, and adds a round of questions about the war in Iraq, the war on terror and global governance. International perceptions of the US, especially in the Islamic world, but almost everywhere else too, have flagged in the past year. But in almost every country where a previous benchmark was available, confidence in the UN has also reduced. So has support for the kind of ties embodied in NATO.

The extreme distrust of the US, noted last year in the Middle East, has spread to such countries as Indonesia. Worryingly, support for the war on terror is also shrinking. Although most respondents said their opposition was to US foreign policy and its leadership, previously favourable opinions of Americans themselves have taken a hit.

If the report tends to depict an America that is important but more alone than ever, it also highlights some intriguing ways in which America really is a country unto its own. For one, 65% of Americans believe success is not outside their control and that people largely fail in life through their own fault - many more than in Europe. Their belief that it is more important for governments to leave individuals free to pursue goals than to see that no one is in need was matched only in developing countries with corrupt or inefficient governments.

At the same time, US citizens display a fervour for religion usually - nay, exclusively - found in failed economies or those resistant to modernity. Only a bare majority of Americans believes that religion is a completely personal matter and has no place in government. The idea that it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person finds little purchase in Canada or Europe, but in the US the occurrence of this belief approaches the levels seen in developing countries. (Views on acceptance of homosexuality follow a similar pattern.)

An ancillary report from Pew demonstrates the difference even more strongly: religion plays an important part in the lives of six out of 10 Americans. That's nearly twice the rate in the next most pious developed country surveyed (Britain) and six times that in France or Japan.

A 1998 survey indicated fewer than a third of New Zealanders were "certain" of a belief in God. Yet several surveys show more than twice that many Australians enjoying firm belief. Toss in our atheist prime minister and the dedicated churchgoer in charge over there, and perhaps we find another reason why we lean toward Europe while the Aussies are closer than us to America.

But, happily, there are things we can all believe in: "People everywhere are united by their desire for honest multiparty elections, freedom of speech and religion and an impartial judiciary," says the report. There was guarded but consistent support everywhere for global trade. Indeed, the very countries that anti-globalisation activists tell us are hurt by free trade were the most enthusiastic. Sixty-seven percent of Nigerians thought global trade had a "very good" impact on their country, and 62% of Pakistanis - compared with only 21% of Americans. African countries were the most enthusiastic about the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank and they had a better opinion of big US corporations than Americans did.

The danger, perhaps, is that trade and economics might become as fractious a battleground as democracy has been lately. In Argentina a loss of faith in the market model (not entirely unreasonable under the circumstances) has been accompanied by a collapse in confidence in institutions in general from the IMF to trade unions. As they pursue their newly unilateral policy on trade, America's leaders ought to ponder the dangers of a world where nobody believes in anything but their own gods.

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