America’s Image and Foreign Assistance

August 2, 2013 By John Glenn

The image of the United States in the world has seen a turbulent past decade.  Lately some have tried to link views of the United States to foreign assistance, asking, why are we giving aid to countries that don’t like us?  They point, for example, to a recent NPR story about the recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey with the headline, “Which countries hate us?  Often those receiving U.S. aid.”

The only problem is that they’ve got the story wrong.  Looking closely at the Pew poll, it turns out that this is more a story about the Middle East than foreign assistance.  The Middle East is actually the only region of the world in the poll where the image of the United States is seen negatively.  In Africa, where many of America’s most successful foreign assistance programs are focused, 77% see the United States favorably.  In Asia, it’s 64%.  In Latin America, it’s 66%.


Members of U.S. Southern Command deliver disaster relief from USAID to the people of El Salvador in the wake of Tropical Storm Ida.

If you follow global development, you may have noticed the poll includes three of the Partnership for Growth countries.  These are countries where the United States is partnering to better coordinate U.S. foreign assistance and implement the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development.  How do these countries feel about the United States?  Overwhelmingly positive – in the Philippines, 85% see the United States favorably, in El Salvador, 79% see the United States favorably, in Ghana 83% see the United States favorably.

Of course, the Middle East is the region with countries that receive the highest amounts of foreign assistance, most of which is military assistance to strategic allies.  The number one recipient is Israel, which doesn’t fit the story because 83% see the United States favorably, but Pakistan, Jordan, and Egypt receive significant foreign assistance and only 11-16% of their populations see the United States favorably.  The persistence of these low figures is concerning, but surely this is a bigger challenge about the U.S. role in the Middle East.

In today’s partisan Washington, it may be surprising but influential voices on both sides of the aisle agree that U.S. foreign assistance in the region is in our national interest, not charity or given so that people will like us.  It is a fair question to ask, how can U.S. assistance be most effective in the turbulent Middle East?   Should we continue military to military assistance in places like Egypt, where our own military leaders have repeatedly expressed appreciation for the channels of influence resulting from years of training foreign military officers at our War Colleges?  Should we support strengthening governments or civil societies in places like Pakistan, where the state doesn’t control all of its territory and humanitarian needs are pressing?  These are the hard questions, given the turbulence in many countries and global threats like international terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction that do not recognize borders.

As the Pew poll shows, the image of the United States in the world has recovered from its decline since the war in Iraq in every region of the world but the Middle East.  How the United States should deal with the persistence of negative attitudes as we draw down troops in Afghanistan, deal with the civil war in Syria, and engage the Arab-Israeli peace process are the tough challenges facing policymakers today.  Foreign assistance is another story.