They love Russia. They love Russia not. They love Russia. They love Russia not. American attitudes toward Russia have gone back and forth for decades. Sometimes most people have favorable views, sometimes unfavorable. But unlike simply plucking pedals from a daisy, these vacillations actually can be correlated with geopolitical and other events in the world.
For instance, in the wake of Russian cooperative overtures following 9/11, fully two-thirds of Americans were expressing favorable or very favorable views of Russia. Earlier, however, as the Kosovo war was unfolding, it was a different story. CNN was reporting, "Yeltsin warns of possible world war over Kosovo." Only a third of Americans liked Russia then.
My source for these statistics is a series of Gallup polls that have tracked attitudes from the Soviet period to the present. Did you know that way back in 1954, only 5 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the Soviet Union? It's true. But by the early '90s, two-thirds felt favorably of the Soviet state. Those were the optimistic days of perestroika and Glasnost.
Indicative of how rapidly attitudes change, though, is the response to the August 19, 1991 hardliner attempted coup against Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Beforehand, in an August 8-11 poll, attitudes were riding high. Sixty-six percent of Americans had a favorable view at that time. But by that fateful August 19 day, the number plunged 30 points to just 36 percent! In less than a week, the number rebounded to 60 percent, however.
Geopolitical events certainly are powerful influencers of American opinions, and not only toward Russia. At the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003, the number of Americans with positive attitudes toward Russia dropped to 41 percent from a level of 63 percent in the previous year, a loss of 22 points. For that same period, the number of Americans with positive views of Germany fell 22 points, too. For France, it was a drop of 25 points. Great Britain suffered only a 3-point drop.
It's easier to picture these up and down attitudinal swings by looking at them graphically. Thus, I've prepared a bar chart that you can see at the following address: http://www.publishinghelp.com/consultant/amrcn09. It shows the dates of the Gallup polls and the percentage of Americans reporting positive attitudes. I've also annotated the chart by suggesting events that may have been influential at times when opinions changed.
In addition to geopolitical influencers, there is apparently another significant type of influencer: organized PR campaigns that convey negative perspectives on Russia
For instance, when then Russian President Vladimir Putin was in the process of separating media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky from his media empire, Gusinsky waged a hearty PR campaign against Putin, alleging that it was press freedom itself, not merely Gusinsky, which was being acted against. The allegations were baseless since, at the time, Russia provided no legal basis for the emergence of a free press, i.e., one free to serve unencumbered the needs and interests of the people. (Tax laws stood in the way.) Nonetheless, Western media reports were replete with Gusinsky's side of the story. All that attention seems to have suppressed positive views of Russia for at least 10 percent of Americans during that whole period.
More recently, PR campaigns appear to have reduced the percentage of Americans sporting positive views from about 60 percent in February 2006, to just 40 percent in February of this year. The intervening campaigns dealt with contentious themes such as the deaths of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and reputed spy Alexander Litvinenko, alleged use of energy as a weapon, and the initiation of the Georgian war.
Are there demographic factors that differentiate those with favorable opinions from those with unfavorable ones? I asked Gallup, but they were unable to offer a breakdown. However, I did come across a Pew Research Center study from 2007 on American attitudes toward Russia. This was just a one-shot survey, unlike Gallup's long-running series of polls. However, Pew was able to supply me with age data. They indicate that twice the percentage of Americans over 50 have unfavorable attitudes toward Russia as those under 30. That's quite a difference.
There's a message in all this for political leaders in both the United States and Russia as they move further toward rapprochement in bilateral relations. It is that American public opinion about Russia is not stuck on negative. It is malleable.
Constructive and cooperative engagement can move things in one direction. But, when political tones turn threatening, or when deliberately disparaging and misleading PR campaigns are waged, things can go quickly in another direction. One is positive, the other negative. Both words and deeds will be impactful. It will be interesting to see what choices are made by the respective leaders of the two nations.