Page last updated at 07:16 GMT, Wednesday, 2 April 2008 08:16 UK

US welcomes just a little more love

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

A BBC World Service poll suggests a slightly more positive view of the US around the world. It is only an improvement of four percentage points- with 35% of people saying the US is a positive influence, rather than 31% - but it has been welcomed by American officials and people alike.

Pakistani protesters burn a US flag to protest against a visit by US officials, March 2008
A boost in US popularity could mean fewer anti-American protests

"I think that's a huge deal, I'm so glad to hear that," said Kirsten Young, a stay-at-home mother from Minnesota.

Julie Moss, a retired teacher from New York, said she was surprised but pleased by the news.

"People in foreign countries, especially Europe and the Middle East, get so hostile when they hear you're American, me and my husband sometimes pretend we're Canadian when we travel," she said.

At the US state department, principal deputy assistant secretary of state Kurt Volker said in a BBC interview that "everyone wants to be loved".

But, he added: "We are a superpower, we have tremendous responsibility, a large economy, large diplomatic reach and military reach, so naturally the world looks at the US with much greater attention than any other country in the world."

'Working together'

Steven Kull, one of the pollsters and director of the Maryland-based Program on International Policy Attitudes, said the poll results showed that while there had not been a sudden "flip", a corner had been turned.

An American flag flies behind barbed wire at Guantanamo Bay prison camp (file image)
Anger over the Guantanamo Bay prison has not helped the US image

Perceptions of the US had been on a downward trend since 2005 in the aftermath of the Iraq war, which caused smouldering trans-Atlantic tension, he said.

The conduct of the war and the violence that followed, the scandal of the abuses that took place inside the US-run prison of Abu Ghraib in Iraq and the controversy surrounding the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, all added to the perception that the US was having a negative influence in the world.

Mr Volker said he and his colleagues had noticed the change as well, "very much so, going back a couple of years".

He went on: "I would say public opinion is a lagging indicator of what we are doing, working together with European governments and other elites."

He said he felt that the negative perceptions in 2003 and 2004 were an "anomaly" because of the war in Iraq, but he emphasised throughout the interview that "it is important to work with others".

"We have made clear our commitment to working with our European allies and partners to deal with a global agenda, and the Europeans have made the same commitment; they want to work with the US to work on those challenges and not be at odds at each other."

Middle East efforts

The state department traditionally stays out of partisan politics, but even from a department official the emphasis on co-operation suggests that the Bush administration has softened its attitude to some extent.

Presidents George W Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy at Mount Vernon, Nov 2007
There has been a rapprochement between the US and France

It is all a far cry from the days preceding the war, when President George W Bush said that "if we need to act, we will act, and we really don't need the United Nations' approval to do so".

Mr Kull said changes in the US approach to foreign policy had indeed contributed to a more positive world view.

From pushing for Middle East peace to saying more firmly that global warming was a problem, as well as the apparent relative success of the US troop surge in Iraq and the election of US-friendly Nicolas Sarkozy in France - all these elements were helping to make the problems seem less salient.

People look at the US and the electoral process here and are reminded that this is a major transparent democracy, a vibrant and diverse country
Kurt Volker
US state department

But both Mr Kull and Mr Volker also attributed the change in perceptions to the impact of the current electoral campaign excitement, although with a difference in interpretation.

"We often get defined by the problems that we're trying to deal with like Iraq or climate change and it's important that we show what we are as a country," said Mr Volker.

"Now people look at the US and the electoral process here and are reminded that this is a major transparent democracy, a vibrant and diverse country, and that reflects really well on the image of the US."

'Other voices'

But Mr Kull said it went beyond simple excitement about a campaign.

While the Bush administration had indeed been trying to work with others, there was also a feeling of anticipation that foreign policy could be less unilateral, more co-operative under a new president.

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain in New Hampshire, 5 Jan 2008
Whoever wins the White House will bring their own foreign policy ideas

"It may be that as the US approaches a new presidential election, views of the US are being mitigated by hope that a new administration will move away from the foreign policies that have been so unpopular in the world," he said.

The conclusion, Mr Kull said, was not based on direct data but the interpretation of polls and focus groups.

But it is something average Americans seem to have picked up on as well.

"If we have got more respect, I think it's got to do with the other voices, other than the president, who have been making comments about what we should be doing, people like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and members of Congress who disagree with the actions of our president," said one man in Washington DC.

Asked whether he felt that his country was viewed more positively because people were looking forward to the departure of the current administration, Mr Volker said it would be unfortunate if that was how people saw things.

And, he added, while any of the three remaining presidential hopefuls would bring a new face, there would also be continuity in US foreign policy.

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World views US 'more positively'
02 Apr 08 |  Americas

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