Article

Culture Wars? How Americans and Europeans View Globalization

Steven Kull

If the fulminations of some European pundits and politicians are to be believed, globalization is a project foisted by Americans on an unwilling world—in particular, an unwilling Europe, whose aroused public stands ready to defend not only the continent’s trade barriers, but its very culture. Polling data from both sides of the Atlantic, however, paint quite a different picture. Well below the shrill tones of the dueling diplomats and clashing columnists, the publics on both sides of the Atlantic are speaking in voices that are measured—and surprisingly harmonious.

In fact, American and European publics see globalization quite similarly. According to a U.S. State Department poll of Europeans in the fall of 2000, 65 percent of the British respondents, 73 percent of the Germans, 57 percent of the French, and 62 percent of the Austrians judged globalization to be primarily positive. The Italians were somewhat less positive (50 percent) though only 23 percent rated globalization a bad thing. A roughly contemporaneous Harris poll of Americans (April 2000) found that 64 percent believe that globalization is good for the U.S. economy. In an October 1999 survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) of the University of Maryland, when asked to rate globalization on a 0 to 10 scale, with 10 being very positive, Americans gave a mean response of 6—on the positive side, but only moderately so.

International Trade

In principle, both Europeans and Americans want to see trade grow. In the spring of 1999, a U.S. Information Agency poll offered Europeans two approaches to trade: “Some countries favor free trade to promote economic growth and lower prices for consumers. Other countries favor restrictions on free trade to protect their own products and jobs against foreign competition.” Asked which they would prefer, majorities chose free trade in Britain (57 percent), France (62 percent), Germany (60 percent), and Italy (77 percent). In response to a similar question posed by the Pew Center for the People and the Press in February of 2000, 64 percent of Americans said that free trade is good for the United States.

At the same time, the public on both sides of the Atlantic worries about trade’s effect on jobs. Overwhelming majorities believe that trade growth entails the loss of at least some jobs (table 1 below). But the concern seems stronger in the United States than in Europe. Asked to assess job loss due to foreign imports, 38 percent of Americans told PIPA (in October 1999) that “many jobs” are lost, whereas only 34 percent of the British and French, 30 percent of the Germans, and 16 percent of the Italians gave that response to a spring 1999 USIA poll. A plurality in every country (50 percent in the United States, 47 percent in Britain, 45 percent in France, 37 percent in Germany and Italy) said that imports cost “only a few jobs.” Few thought that trade growth would cost no jobs, with the smallest share (9 percent) in the United States and the largest (35 percent) in Italy.

Though neither side fears excessive job loss, both support having some trade barriers to protect employment. In May 1997 a USIA poll gave Europeans this choice: “Some people favor restrictions on foreign imports to protect…jobs. Others oppose restrictions because they lead to higher consumer prices. Which view is closer to your own?” Most—51 percent of the British, 56 percent of the Germans, and 63 percent of the French—said they preferred restrictions. Europeans are particularly concerned about imports from low-wage countries. Asked whether their country “should open its markets more than it already has to low-cost goods…from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe,” a majority of the French (65 percent) and Germans (63 percent) was opposed, as was a plurality of the British (46 percent).

Presented a choice between protecting jobs and enjoying lower prices, Americans too support shielding jobs. They are also apprehensive about imports from low-wage countries. But the October 1999 PIPA poll found that Americans are not so much protectionist asthat they see trade barriers as a temporary measure to help workers adapt. Given three options on the question of trade barriers, only 31 percent agreed that “We should keep up barriers against international trade because importing cheap products from other countries threatens American jobs.” Only 24 percent believed that “We should remove trade barriers now because this allows Americans to sell in other countries what they do the best job of producing, and to buy products that other countries do the best job of producing, saving everybody money.” Forty-three percent judged that “We should lower trade barriers, but only gradually, so American workers can have time to adjust.” Thus 74 percent endorsed having some trade barriers for now, but 67 percent supported the goal of ultimately lowering them.

Offered the possibility that their government could help workers adapt to trade-related changes, Americans’ support for free trade becomes overwhelming. Given three options for describing their attitude on trade in the 1999 PIPA poll, 66 percent chose “I favor free trade and I believe that it is necessary for the government to help workers who lose their jobs.” A smaller 18 percent supported free trade but did not support government aid to workers, thus bringing to 84 percent the share who support free trade under some condition. Only 14 percent opposed free trade when given the option of worker programs.

Although no comparable data confirm how Europeans would feel about trade if their governments made greater efforts to help workers adapt, Europeans strongly support their existing systems of protecting workers and are more critical of the U.S. system. In response to a USIA poll in May of 1997, majorities in France (76 percent), Germany (68 percent), and Britain (57 percent) agreed that the U.S. system “neglects too many social problems because of a lack of job security and few employment benefits for many workers.” On average, only a quarter favors theU.S. model “because it is able to maintain economic competitiveness through a flexible system of labor.” In a separate poll by Le Monde in France in October 1996, 66 percent preferred the French system, with good social protection but high unemployment, while 18 percent preferred the U.S. system, with little social protection but low unemployment.

Americans do not look just to domestic efforts to address the threats to U.S. workers. The 1999 PIPA poll found that an overwhelming 93 percent favor including labor standards in trade agreements to ensure that U.S. workers will not face unfair competition from exploited workers overseas. Support for this measure, though, was not rooted simply in concern for American workers: 83 percent agreed that it is “immoral for workers to be subject to harsh and unsafe conditions.”

Indeed, Americans take a broad attitude toward trade. While they value it, they believe that its growth should take into account other values, even those that slow that growth. For example, they want to incorporate environmental standards into trade agreements and are not overly concerned if that slows the growth of trade—hardly a surprising view given that Americans tend to believe that trade’s benefits only moderately outweigh its costs.

Opening Markets

Author

D

Steven Kull

Senior Research Scholar and Director, Program for Public Consultation, School of Public Policy - University of Maryland

Europeans would be amused to hear themselves described as stubbornly resisting American entreaties to open European markets. Asked, in a 1998 USIA poll, how easy or difficult their own country makes it for U.S. manufacturers to sell their products there, an overwhelming majority of Europeans said that their country makes it quite easy (Britain 81 percent, France 84 percent, Germany 68 percent). Far fewer saw the United States as open to European products (Britain 46 percent, France 34 percent, Germany 38 percent).

In a classic case of the mirror-image phenomenon, Americans have the opposite perception. An overwhelming 86 percent of respondents to a PIPA poll conducted from February to April of 1998 said the United States makes it easy for European manufacturers to sell their products in the United States, whilejust 41 percent said western European countries make it easy for the United States to sell its products in Europe.

Americans have shown their readiness to further open their markets to European products on a reciprocal basis. When a PIPA poll in the spring of 1998 asked, “If the countries of the European Union say they will lower barriers to products from the United States if we will lower our barriers to their products,” 64 percent said the United States should do so, while 28 percent said it should not. And Americans wanted to lower trade barriers with Europe even though 48 percent (mistakenly) voiced a belief that labor standards are lower in Europe than in the United States. Just 18 percent thought that labor standards are higher in Europe; 25 percent, that they are about the same.

Foreign Investment

Europeans appear more open to foreign investment than are Americans. Asked in the 1999 PIPA poll to choose between two statements—”foreign investment is dangerous because it allows outsiders too much control over our affairs” and “foreign investment is necessary and has a positive influence on our economy”—52 percent of Americans chose the negative view, 43 percent the positive. Most Europeans chose the positive view (Britain 51 percent, France 53 percent, Germany and Italy 59 percent).

Spread of American Culture

Polls also gainsay the notion that Americans are on a mission to spread their culture through globalization, while Europeans are fending the Americans off to protect their own culture.

Europeans, it turns out, have a fairly benign view of American culture (table 2 below). In a November 2000 USIA poll, only small minorities in Italy (19 percent), Britain (23 percent), and Germany (31 percent) regarded U.S. popular culture as a serious or very serious threat. The French were somewhat more critical, with 38 percent agreeing that American culture poses a serious or very serious threat. But 62—79 percent in these four countries saw it as only a “minor threat” or “not a threat at all.” Furthermore, a solid majority in Italy (62 percent), Britain (67 percent), and Germany (59 percent), and a modest majority in France (52 percent), all viewed U.S. popular culture favorably. Unfavorable responses ranged from 30 percent in Britain to a high of 46 percent in France (table 3 below).

In fact, Americans and Europeans differ little in their view of U.S. popular culture. Like their neighbors across the Atlantic, Americans tend not to see their culture as a serious threat to other cultures. According to the October 1999 PIPA poll, 33 percent considered it only a minor threat, 41 percent no threat at all. Only 43 percent thought the French should have the right to limit the showing of American films.

Not that Americans are wildly enthusiastic about their own culture. Just 60 percent of Americans—roughly the European share—rated it favorably, while 39 percent rated it unfavorably. Nor are Americans overjoyed to see their popular culture spread around the world. Asked how they feel “When you see or hear about McDonalds opening up in cities around the world or when you hear about the popularity of U.S. TV shows in other countries,” only 43 percent said they had positive feelings; 43 percent said they had mixed feelings, 5 percent negative feelings.

What’s All the Fuss About?

Given the consistent message of the polls to the contrary, what is the source of the view that Americans are promoting and Europeans are resisting globalization? In the first place, several high-profile U.S.-European disputes on agricultural subsidies, bananas, American films, steel, pasta, hormone beef, and more have received substantial attention in the press. Some of these disputes lend themselves to the impression that the United States is trying to force something on the Europeans—to make small family farms unviable, to stop favoring former colonies, to watch American films, to eat beef grown with hormones. But this exaggerated image does not resonate deeply with the public. The media hype has made the disagreements seem fundamental and enduring when in factthey are little more than intrafamily conflicts over which side is going to make more adjustments within a fairly consensual broad framework and set of values.

Attempts to understand the attitudes of the publics on both sides of the Atlantic are complicated by the strident voices of vocal groups who are suffering the negative consequences of globalization or who are sympathetic to those who are. Sometimes these groups are taken as representative of the general public.

But in fact the American and European publics seem to agree that globalization is more positive than negative. At the same time, both are uneasy about the impact of globalization, especially on workers. Both desire to keep some trade barriers for now, at least long enough to help workers adapt to the changes that globalization entails. To reassure both publics, it will probably also be necessary to address globalization’s effect on workers in developing countries and on the environment as well. The United States and Europe will probably continue to engage in periodic disputes over exactly how to address these concerns, but the disputes should not obscure the shared underlying support on both sides of the Atlantic for the broader process of globalization.

Table 1: Do you think that importing foreign products means the loss of many jobs in this country, only a few jobs, or no jobs?
Percent
Response in
United States
Response in
Britain
Response in
France
Response in
Germany
Response in
Italy
Many jobs lost
38
44
40
32
16
Only a few jobs lost
50
42
42
41
37
No jobs lot
9
9
16
18
35
Don’t know or no answer
3
4
3
9
12
Source: U.S. data, PIPA (October 1999); European data, USIA (Germany, France & Britain; May 2000; Italy, April 1999)
Table 2: How much of a threat do you think American popular culture, such as music, television and films, is to the cultures of other countries in the world?
Percent
Response in
United States
Response in
Britain
Response in
France
Response in
Germany
Response in
Italy
Very serious threat
7
7
8
10
6
Serious threat
17
16
30
21
13
Minor threat
33
39
46
50
21
Not a threat at all
41
36
16
19
58
Don’t know or no answer
4
1
1
2
Source: U.S. data, PIPA (October 1999); European data, USIA (November 2000)
Table 3: In general, what is your opinion of American popular culture, such as music, television and films?
Percent
Response in
United States
Response in
Britain
Response in
France
Response in
Germany
Response in
Italy
Very favorable
21
20
9
14
16
Somewhat favorable
39