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Vietnam legacy has lessons for anti-Americanism todayThe relative decline of the United States and the perceived shift in the global balance of power with the rise of the Middle Kingdom are new factors at play.Andrew Hammond25 March 2015This month marks the 50th anniversary of a pivotal moment in the escalation of the Vietnam War: the launch of the Operation ‘Rolling Thunder’ bombing campaign, and also the commitment of the first US ground troops. Fresh from his landslide re-election in November 1964, President Lyndon Johnson ramped up US military involvement in the South-east Asian country in what was to prove one of the worst ever US foreign policy debacles.One key legacy of Vietnam was growth of anti-Americanism across much of the world, undercutting US prestige and soft power. Far from being a historical artefact, this legacy is of importance for US policy today as the country continues to recover from the international unpopularity of the Iraq War and wider perceptions of excessive US power, unilateralism and over-reliance on military might.More than a decade on from the Iraq invasion, it is clear that the controversial intervention helped fuel a sea change in international opinion toward the United States which is the most significant since Vietnam. Favourability towards the United States, which had spiked upwards in many countries after 9/11, went into freefall, and has only partially recovered.For instance, in a sizeable number of allies surveyed in both 2002 and 2014 by Pew Global Attitudes Project, significantly fewer people now think favourably of the United States. This includes Ukraine (down 23 percentage points), Jordan (down 13 percentage points), Turkey (down 11 percentage points), Germany and United Kingdom (both down nine percentage points), Japan (down eight percentage points), and Poland (down six percentage points).In absolute terms, however, the problem of anti-Americanism remains most clear cut in Muslim-majority countries. This includes Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey where only 10 per cent, 12 per cent, 14 per cent, and 19 per cent of the populations respectively had positive sentiments toward the United States in 2014.This and the accompanying rise of anti-Americanism are important, primarily, because they have undercut US soft power again. And this has reduced Washington’s ability to promote and secure its interests overseas.History underlines the role soft power has played in obtaining favourable outcomes for Washington. For example, successive US administrations used soft resources skilfully after World War II to encourage other countries into a system of alliances and institutions, such as Nato, the IMF, the World Bank, and the United Nations. The Cold War was subsequently won by a strategy that combined soft and hard power.To be sure, the election of Barack Obama, who is more personally popular with foreign publics than his predecessor George W Bush, prompted an immediate increase in favourability toward the United States almost across the board internationally. However, there has since been a fall-off in numerous countries, partly because Mr Obama has become less popular for reasons including NSA spying allegations to concerns over growth in US reliance on drone strikes in the campaign against terrorism.
PAST EPISODESVietnam, like other historical episodes which triggered rises in anti-Americanism, underlines that sizeable falloffs in international opinion towards the United States are not unprecedented. Some therefore argue that, as the country fully recovered from these previous episodes, the same will happen again. While this may prove true, there is at least one key difference now. Previous major rises in anti-Americanism occurred during the Cold War in which many countries regarded the Soviet Union as by far the greater danger and tended to give Washington the benefit of any doubt. Now that the bipolar US-Soviet rivalry has ended, however, the world is more fluid and uncertain.In coming years, whether the United States fully recovers from the international opinion legacy of Iraq will be shaped, in significant part, by the interplay between two key drivers of sentiment. As well as declining favourability towards the United States and related anti-Americanism, there is another key, but conflicting trend at work in public opinion.Especially since 2008, there has been a perceived relative decline of the United States. This largely reflects widespread international assessments of the impact of the global financial crisis which is commonly perceived to have accelerated the rise of China and other emerging markets, especially in Asia-Pacific.Thus, in some 26 of 44 countries surveyed by Pew in 2014, majorities or pluralities say that the so-called Middle Kingdom has or will eventually replace the United States as the world’s leading power. This represents a significant change compared to only a few years ago before the international economic crisis.However, China’s growing prominence has aroused mixed international reactions: in some cases there is considerable anxiety, but elsewhere the shift in the global balance of power is welcomed. Interestingly, many Muslim-majority states are amongst those who regard positively the Middle Kingdom’s perceived rise.It is unclear which of these two opinion meta-narratives - that of excessive US power or US decline - will predominate in coming years. If China’s rise is viewed to continue unabated, with perceived relative decline of the United States continuing, the international tide of anti-Americanism may generally recede.However, if the United States stages a strong economic recovery and wider resurgence, as it did following recessions in the early-1980s and early-1990s when also there was a debate about the country’s perceived decline, international concern about US power could resurface. This may be especially likely if a Republican candidate is elected president in 2016 who adopts a more strident, unilateralist foreign policy than Mr Obama.While it is unclear which way this international opinion dynamic will play out next, one thing is surer. Barring another major disruption, akin to the Vietnam or Iraq conflicts, there is unlikely in coming years to be such a significant shift in global sentiment towards the United States comparable to that witnessed in recent years.The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics and a former UK government special adviser
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