September 5, 2003

World Publics Approve Increased International Trade

But Concern for Problems of Global Economy

Though controversy is likely to surround the world trade ministers’ gathering in Cancun, Mexico September 10-14, increased trade is widely supported by the world’s people. Both the rich and the poor embrace international commerce, saying it is good for their countries and good for their families, according to results from the Pew Global Attitudes Project‘s surveys of 38,000 people in 44 nations. And, contrary to widespread perception, the public thinks positively of both international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization, and multinational corporations, both the target of violent protests at the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999 and likely to come under fire again in Cancun.

Anti-globalization protesters, on the other hand, are held in low esteem worldwide – even though the public thinks many of the problems the protestors rail against, including the availability of jobs and the gap between the rich and the poor, are worsening. And Pew’s global surveying found that popular support for trade is more muted than enthusiastic, especially among less affluent people in most countries.

Overall, large majorities in 38 of 44 nations surveyed by Pew in Summer, 2002 thought growing global trade and business ties were good rather than bad for their country. This was particularly the case in Vietnam (98%), Nigeria (95%), Germany (91%), China (90%), Mexico (79%) and the United States (78%). There was also strong support for global commerce in France (88%), Brazil (73%) and India (69%), countries that have been critical of the current Doha negotiations and will be pivotal players in the debates in Cancun. (See chart for selected countries.)

Enthusiasm for trade was particularly strong in Africa, the poorest continent, where majorities in 6 of the 10 countries surveyed said trade was very good for their nations. As might be expected, international commerce was also popular among upper income people, who in Brazil, France, Mexico and the United States, were twice as likely as the poor to think trade was very beneficial. Nevertheless, for most of the world’s people, their support for trade was guarded. The public was more likely to see international commerce as somewhat good, not very good for their country in nations as disparate as Brazil, China and Great Britain.

Multinational corporations–the engines of world trade that have long been vilified by globalization’s critics–were, nevertheless, widely supported around the world. In 33 of 44 countries–including every nation surveyed in Africa–majorities think foreign companies have a generally positive influence. International firms were particularly popular in developing nations, such as South Africa (78%), China (76%) and Mexico (64%). By contrast, just half of those surveyed in industrial economies such as the United States (50%) and France (50%) gave global corporations good marks. And most people everywhere said such firms had a somewhat good influence on their nations, not a very good influence.

International organizations, such as the WTO, were rated even higher by the world’s public. Two-in-three people in Great Britain, France and South Africa said such bodies are a good influence. Three-in-five people in the United States and Mexico agreed.

But despite high visibility demonstrations in the last few years, globalization critics have simply failed to register on the public’s consciousness. Majorities or pluralities in most of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe said they did not know enough about protesters to have an opinion or they declined to offer one. In the United States and much of Western Europe, the sites of numerous past protests, critics’ support was limited: 27% in Italy, 30% in the United States, 34% in Germany. Only in the Philippines (54%), France (44%), South Africa (44%), Bolivia (47%), Guatemala (44%) and Honduras (46%) did large portions of the public think protesters were a positive influence.

Public support for trade and multinational corporations and the lack of enthusiasm for protesters does not mean that people necessarily reject critics’ concerns. Majorities, in most cases strong majorities, in 34 of 44 nations thought the availability of good paying jobs had gotten worse in the last five years. And substantial majorities–82% in France, 67% in the United States, 63% in Mexico–thought the gap between the rich and the poor had worsened. But, unlike trade’s critics, the public did not blame globalization for these problems. People attributed such difficulties to domestic factors.

In an effort to avoid one likely confrontation in Cancun, the WTO agreed in late August to ease poor countries’ access to medicines for diseases such as AIDS. The WTO’s initiative reflected widespread public concern. The Pew survey showed that most people believed that diseases now spread more rapidly than they did half a decade ago. And more than eight-in-ten people in Africa and more than seven-in-ten in most of Latin America rated infectious diseases such as AIDS as “very big” national problems. By contrast, only three-in-ten Americans agreed. Americans’ lack of urgency about this issue may provide one explanation for the Bush Administration’s delay in resolving the dilemma.

These results are drawn from polls conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a series of worldwide public opinion surveys conducted over the past 18 months. The project has issued two major reports, “What the World Thinks in 2002″ – based upon 38,000 interviews in 44 nations – and “Views of a Changing World, June 2003″ – based on an additional 16,000 interviews in 20 nations and the Palestinian Authority. Full details about the surveys, and the project more generally, are available at www.people-press.org.