From Africa with Love

3rd Aug 2007

Perhaps at no other point in history has the United States been more unpopular in the world than it is today. According to the Pew Global Attitudes poll released last week, America is viewed as the greatest threat in the world by 17 out of a total 47 countries surveyed, more so than any other nation. Even in Great Britain, historically its most dependable ally, only 56% of people viewed the U.S. favorably last year, as compared to 83% in 2000. Yet there’s a silver lining: the U.S. is tremendously popular in Africa.

Though Africa does not rank high in strategic importance for the U.S. — or, considering America’s image problems in the Mideast, because of that — in eight of the 10 African nations surveyed, a majority said that the U.S. was their country’s “most dependable ally.” In South Africa, 57% of those polled ranked the U.S. at the top, while only 37% mentioned Great Britain, its former colonial ruler. Africans also seem to prefer American engagement to the recent influx of Chinese investment; the Pew report found that seven of 10 countries thought that Washington was more dependable than Beijing.

Though it was not surveyed as part of the Pew poll, one country in which the U.S. is widely admired is Zimbabwe.The people of Zimbabwe have given up on their fellow African countries, who’ve turned a blind eye to President Robert Mugabe’s abuses of power and destruction of their economy. Though Mr. Mugabe has a famous contempt for the West, the people I spoke to last year in Zimbabwe looked to the U.S. for help. A high ranking Zimbabwean opposition activist told me that, the “[anti-American] sentiment in [Mugabe’s] government is completely against the sentiments on the ground.”

The U.S. did poll poorly in one area: its response to the ongoing violence in Darfur. Most Africans said that either the African Union or the United Nations is doing more to avert the horror than the U.S. The poll also didn’t capture public opinion in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola, where cold war meddling still clouds public opinion of the U.S. America is less popular amongst African countries with large Muslim populations. Nonetheless, while in Africa last year, the only fervent criticism of the U.S. I heard was from a group of European intellectuals in Johannesburg.

America’s popularity has several geneses, starting with Africans’ remarkable optimism in general. In nine of the 10 countries surveyed, over 60% of people believed that their lives would be better five years from now. Possibly this endears them to the U.S., where optimism has long been a trait of national life.

Another is the success of African-Americans. From sports stars to the global phenomenon of Oprah Winfrey, nowhere have the descendants of Africans been more successful than in the U.S. Barack Obama’s trip to his father’s birthplace, Kenya, brought home with much fanfare that America’s image as a land of opportunity for all is not the stuff of fables.

The poll indicates that Africans want more American engagement with their continent, not less. The Bush administration’s ambitious agenda for Africa is also appreciated. In his 2003 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush called on Congress to pledge $15 billion over five years to fight AIDS in Africa via his President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and the United States now spends far more on AIDS prevention than ever.

No doubt these are trying times for America and its friends in the world. But if the United States can replicate the policies that have kept so much goodwill in Africa, it won’t feel lonely.

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