Assistant Head, US and the Americas Programme

This report examines how elites in Latin America and the former Soviet Union view the United States, and makes recommendations as to how the US could adjust its policies based on these perceptions.

A US National Park employee cleans the floor of the Lincoln Memorial after a wreath-laying ceremony to honour Abraham Lincoln’s 207th birthday on 12 February 2016 in Washington, DC. Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images.A US National Park employee cleans the floor of the Lincoln Memorial after a wreath-laying ceremony to honour Abraham Lincoln’s 207th birthday on 12 February 2016 in Washington, DC. Photo: Getty Images.

Summary

  • Elites across both regions have a more favourable view of the American people and US non-governmental institutions (corporations and universities, in particular) than of the US government.
  • American strength as an abstract concept is widely praised, but there is very little positive reinforcement for specific contemporary American policies that might embody this quality.
  • Latin American elites’ views are shaped to a considerable degree by domestic US factors. Inequality, police violence, gun crime and the tenor of the country’s political discourse are the primary factors that drive negative perceptions of the United States.
  • US immigration policy is a significant foreign policy issue. This is particularly true for Latin American elites, many of whose members have studied, worked or travelled extensively in the United States, and who accordingly demonstrate a more sophisticated understanding of American political and social structures than their counterparts from the former Soviet Union.
  • Elites in former Soviet states are not instinctively pro- or anti-American. Elites in Russia and Central Asia with exposure to the United States praise its entrepreneurial and individualistic qualities, but tend to have a cynical view of its government and policy priorities.
  • US policy-makers and their foreign counterparts from both regions have fundamentally different understandings of the history of US foreign policy. Past US support for military governments in Latin America and American promises made in the wake of the USSR’s collapse and subsequently unfulfilled were cited as examples.
  • Elites in both regions perceive the US government as operating arrogantly and hypocritically on the basis of limited information about the world. Almost all respondents were critical of US foreign policy, regardless of their country, sector or political affiliation.
  • The process by which US policies are made is widely misunderstood, though Latin American elites are generally better informed about the American political system than are their former Soviet counterparts. The US president and secretary of state are widely recognized; beyond that, however, attention is paid to only a very small number of specific members of Congress and to local American ambassadors.
  • Latin American elites believe that their countries are not priorities for US foreign policy. This state of affairs is widely interpreted as neglect rather than malign intent. The opening of ties with Cuba presents an opportunity for the United States to remake its image in Latin America, but that window is limited in both scope and time frame.
  • Russian elites particularly object to US dominance of the internet. The issue of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance is a primary concern. Formally accepting the transition of internet governance to a multistakeholder model would be an excellent first step towards improving Russian elite perceptions of the United States.