Yesterday, Pew Research Center, a DC fact tank whose “attitude surveys” regularly inspire Western headlines, released its latest report. Conducted across 37 nations, the poll sought to measure the health of some international opinion on both the United States and its new President. Ideas about the USA, it seems, are tarnished, and authors report that, “in countries where confidence in the U.S. president fell most, America’s overall image has also tended to suffer more”. No surprises, then, that many major outlets went with the spin that Trump Has Ruined Brand America.

The Guardian, whose own brand has lately been based on a largely uncritical loathing for Trump, went a little further than most when it produced the headline “Three-quarters of world has little or no confidence in Trump, Pew study finds”. Well, lies, damned lies, and all that. Can we really call a survey a “world”, especially when citizens of the actual world’s most populous nation were not asked anything at all?

It’s quite possible that the people of China, more than 18% of the global population, have not shifted in their opinion of the USA and its peculiar new leader. It’s also possible that they’re having a chuckle. Either way, it might be helpful, for Guardian subeditors and foreign policy columnists alike, to know what China actually thinks. But as Richard Wike, Pew’s director of global attitude research, told Chinese press, you can’t expect the world: “Wike told China Daily that a variety of factors are used in choosing countries, without specifying them.”

It is not, of course, up to the independent Pew to give us everything. It would be nice, however, if journalists reporting on the future of the planet’s most powerful nation could give us just a little more than “It’s all Trump’s fault”. Yes, of course, Trump appears to many everyday people in the world as a volatile clown, and this may eventually serve to undermine trade and military pacts. (No problem in Israel, though.) But, everyday people and their attitudes tend not to drive such agreements. We are not invited to Davos. Don’t think there were too many regular folks at the Yalta Conference. Certainly, no one in DC listened to my opinion of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Then again, no one in DC listened to the opinion of the UN security council, either.

The Pew survey, itself undertaken in nations where versions of US-style liberalism and neoliberalism are already understood as normal, has been reported in a very liberal way. That is, journalists largely and naively seem to believe that the people will decide their fate. The belief goes like this: if citizens outside the USA begin to despise the hegemon, they will depose it. Well, tell that to Pakistan, or the many nations who have good reason to feel less than warm and fuzzy about the superpower and its allies. A kid from the ungoverned hell of Libya might go batshit crazy with a homemade bomb in the West. As tragic as the consequences of such actions are, they do not generally impact the way the US does its business any more than, say, your attitude, as it may appear in a survey, does.

These days, the softness of soft-power has been falsely hardened up by a confused press.

We can understand that many in the US are profoundly ashamed of the monster their electoral system has upchucked. What we cannot accept, per the assumption of reporting on this survey, is that international power relations are formed on the basis of people’s bad feeling. This is extreme idealism, and of a sort that discounts a material history that we can trace back to 1945, if not before. It’s one, for goodness’ sake, that completely ignores actual war and actual trade agreements. We allies and the US are worried that people’s attitudes to the superpower might undermine its power? Commentators seem unable to perceive the real-world reverse of this: the way the US has used, and lost, its power undermines attitudes.

The eagle, it was written in 2002, has crash landed. The sociologist and international relations scholar Immanuel Wallerstein has, for some decades, charted the decline of US power, which can be traced in a number of moments, notably the “Nixon Shock” of 1971 when the nation had consumed a good portion of its gold reserves only to lose a costly war in Vietnam. The US, committed since the Bretton Woods agreement to back its currency with gold, transformed the international monetary system, and built enormous wealth, while accumulating an enormous debt, by selling the world. And, by particular, often brutal, commitments to military intervention.

The writer largely avoids moral judgement. He does not characterise the hegemon as Pure Evil, but as an organ acting sometimes in its own best interest, sometimes as the result of ideology — what we might also call an “attitude”. He attempts to describe the way in which the polices and circumstances that gave the US such great power have also led to its inevitable decay.

Wallerstein’s work is, for mine, fascinating. I encourage you to read him. Even if you are not compelled by his conclusions, you will be drawn in by the historical panorama that led him there. Like all good scholars of international relations, whatever their school or political view, he shows us how acts of war and trade produce attitudes. He does not hold, as popular press does, that things happen so reliably the other way ‘round.

We can, of course, read future Pew reports with interest. Our everyday attitudes are interesting. Perhaps even more interesting, though, are the historical contexts that produced these attitudes. The declining power of the USA may be expressed in the figure of Trump, and in the poor public perception of him in liberal nations, and the good perception in illiberal nations like Israel and Russia. But Trump, and the decline of US hegemony, is not just something that suddenly happened.

History doesn’t start, or end, with an “attitude”. Sometimes, a good part of the answer can be found in gold.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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