- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
More than a year after Edward Snowden revealed a vast network of eavesdropping by the United States, a new poll has found that people around the world are overwhelmingly opposed to American electronic spying and are far less likely to believe that the United States respects the personal freedoms of its own people.
The poll, which is based on more than 48,000 interviews in 44 countries conducted by the Pew Research Center, found huge opposition to the U.S. government monitoring the emails and phone calls of people in their own countries. Overall, 81 percent of respondents said it was "unacceptable" for the United States to monitor citizens of their countries, and 73 percent said it was unacceptable to spy on their leaders. The poll is being published just as the United States and Germany are locked in a bitter dispute that began with reports that the NSA was eavesdropping on the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The dispute picked up steam last week with the disclosure that a midlevel German intelligence service employee had been slipping classified government files to Washington, allegedly at the behest of the CIA. Merkel has been under growing pressure to stand up to what some German politicians and the public see as aggressive and unnecessary espionage by Washington. Last Thursday, Merkel kicked out the top U.S. intelligence official in Berlin, the clearest signal to date that historically strong German-American relations are at a low point.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found that Americans are more inclined to tolerate spying on foreign leaders. But, joining with their counterparts in other countries, the majority of U.S. citizens said they opposed the government spying on average people, whether they’re in America or abroad.
"The Snowden revelations appear to have damaged one major element of America’s global image: its reputation for protecting individual liberties," the report’s authors found. In 22 countries, fewer people were likely to believe that the United States is a guardian of personal freedoms now than a year ago, when the Snowden leaks began. One of the sharpest declines was in Germany, where 23 percent fewer people said the United States respects civil liberties and privacy. Another big drop-off — 25 percent — was in Brazil, where the United States also monitored the communications of the country’s leaders. Brazilians have been among the most vocal critics of NSA spying, and the country is the home of journalist Glenn Greenwald, who wrote the first story based on documents leaked by Snowden.
In a stinging indication of just how damaging the Snowden revelations have been, President Barack Obama’s personal approval rating plummeted among the German public from 88 percent a year ago to 71 percent now, and in Brazil, where his rating fell from 69 percent to 52 percent in the past year, Pew found. In the report’s least surprising finding, Obama’s rating was lowest in Russia, where it came in at an anemic 14 percent.
Americans also have "lost some faith" in their government’s safeguarding of their civil liberties, but a majority still believes the government respects personal freedom, the poll found. Still, that number has dropped in the year since the Snowden leaks began, from 69 percent in 2013 to 63 percent in 2014. And there were significant declines among several European allies, including Spain, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom.
Pew also found little public support for another key component of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy — drone strikes. In 39 of the countries surveyed, majorities or pluralities of people opposed drone strikes aimed at extremists in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, or other countries where the United States has taken aggressive steps to dismantle terrorist groups, the study found. And this opposition has grown since last year. Only three countries had majorities of citizens who support drone strikes — Israel, Kenya, and the United States, all of which have been the victim of deadly terrorist attacks on their soil.
Much of the strongest opposition to drone strikes is found in the Middle East, Pew found, where drone attacks have been concentrated and are widely criticized by governments and the public. In all six majority-Muslim nations that the group surveyed, more than 70 percent of people disapprove of the Obama administration’s policy. The number was highest in Jordan (90 percent), one of the United States’ stalwart allies in counterterrorism operations since the 9/11 attacks. Eighty-seven percent of Egyptians also oppose the strikes, as do 84 percent of those polled in the Palestinian territories. Those high numbers are essentially unchanged from two years ago when Pew measured public support for drones. And opposition is increasing in other countries, as well, perhaps most concerning for the Obama administration in the United States, where Americans’ disapproval of drone strikes has gone up 11 points in the past year.
That mirrors a trend among America’s NATO allies, where some of the strongest public opposition comes from countries that have fought both domestic and foreign terrorist groups on their own. In Spain, a whopping 86 percent of respondents opposed U.S. drone strikes. In Italy, 74 percent were opposed. Even in countries that have partnered with the United States on counterterrorism operations, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and Germany, strong majorities opposed using remote-piloted aircraft to kill terrorists. Political ideology accounts for some of the opposition in Europe, Pew found. In Italy, Spain, Germany, Greece, and the U.K., those opposing drone strikes are concentrated on the political left. But opposition to drones appears to transcend national and political boundaries around the world, according to the poll data.
Despite such dismal appraisals of U.S. policies, the news isn’t all bad for Washington. The overall favorability rating for America is still high, at 65 percent, Pew found. And those ratings haven’t changed much since last year.
"Despite anger with Washington over U.S. spying on both foreign leaders and foreign nationals, widespread opposition to U.S. drone strikes, disagreements about what to do in the Middle East and other recurring tensions, most surveyed publics around the world still hold a favorable view of the United States," the report’s authors found. A majority of people also said they support surveillance and eavesdropping if it’s aimed at terrorist groups, as opposed to government leaders and citizens. Obama is also still popular, with a median 56 percent confidence rating across the 44 countries that Pew surveyed.
And even though the United States has been shown in classified documents leaked by Snowden to be routinely scooping up millions of innocent people’s emails, photographs, and phone records in the search for a relatively small number of terrorists, half or more of citizens in 33 of the countries Pew surveyed this year "still think that Washington safeguards Americans’ freedoms." That positive impression was especially strong in Asian nations, particularly South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan. And in many societies, Pew found, younger people are more likely to see the United States as a defender of rights than are their parents or grandparents. In Russia, for instance, there is a 19-percentage point gap between the younger generation and their elders, Pew found.
Those are some potential bright spots. But in terms of overall favorability towards the United States, the survey found ominous results in the Middle East, where a series of foreign-policy crises have tested American resolve and stretched the limits of its influence. "Anti-Americanism has been common in many Middle Eastern nations throughout the Obama presidency, as was the case during the George W. Bush era," the report’s authors write. In Turkey, only 19 percent of respondents held a favorable view of the United States. In Jordan, it was a mere 12 percent. And Egypt came in with the lowest rating — 10 percent. The Middle East was also one region where China was viewed more favorably than the United States.
Only Israelis held a favorable view of the United States (84 percent). But they are an outlier in the region and globally, coming in second only to the Philippines as the "biggest fan" of America among the nations Pew surveyed. The news from the Middle East is clear and troubling. It is "the sole region where anti-Americanism is both deep and widespread," the authors found.