The highly controversial speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s to Congress had one purpose: to convince U.S. officials and the Israeli and American public that Iran and its nuclear energy program poses a dire threat. “Iran's regime poses a grave threat, not only to Israel, but also the peace of the entire world,” Netanyahu said.
The U.S. Congress certainly agrees with Netanyahu. But much of the rest of the world thinks Iran has a right to enrich uranium, which is at the heart of the dispute between the U.S. and Israel and Iran. More importantly, the rest of the globe thinks the United States is the biggest threat to peace. In early 2014, Gallup International/WIN released its annual global survey based on research conducted the previous year. The most striking statistic was that 24 percent of people around the world believe that the U.S. poses the greatest threat to peace. The runners-up were far behind: eight percent of respondents thought Pakistan was the greatest threat, while six percent thought it was China. And only five percent of those surveyed thought Iran was a threat to world peace. The numbers are based on interviews with 1,000 people in 65 different nations. (The survey published this year did not contain the same question.)
Those numbers are an important window into how the rest of the world views U.S. foreign policy—a view in stark contrast to how Americans think of themselves. The end of WWII marked the beginning of the U.S.’ superpower status. Since 1945, the U.S. government has meddled, intervened, overthrown and/or invaded the governments of dozens of foreign countries. U.S. actions have created an arc of violence and chaos stretching from Latin America to the Middle East and beyond.
In the Cold War era, this intervention was justified by the threat of communism. In 1954, the CIA colluded with right-wing Guatemalans to overthrow the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz. In subsequent decades, the right-wing leaders of Guatemala waged a vicious campaign against leftist opponents, resulting in what many consider to be a genocide in which hundreds of thousands of people died. (In 2013, a Guatemalan court ruled that U.S.-backed General Rios Montt, the former leader of the country, was guilty of genocide for his role in the killings of 1,700 indigenous people. The ruling was overturned 10 days after the conviction on procedural grounds.)
In 1961, the CIA tried, and failed, to overthrow the Cuban government, which underwent a communist revolution in the 1950s. And in 1973, the U.S. backed the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende, which ushered in a brutal dictatorship run by General Augusto Pinochet. By the time Pinochet’s reign was over, he had killed at least 4,000 people and tortured tens of thousands.
The contemporary era has been marked by the U.S. “war on terror.” After the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration embarked on a violent war that destroyed Afghanistan and Iraq. Thousands of civilians were killed by the U.S. military, and thousands more as a result of the power vacuum and chaos that arose in those states after the U.S. deposed Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. Concurrently, the Bush administration implemented a global torture regime with the help of dozens of other countries. The CIA and U.S. military systematically tortured hundreds of people, many of them innocent of any serious crime. The Obama administration’s drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have further destabilized those nations and killed hundreds of civilians while enraging the local population.
Another striking statistic from the Gallup International/WIN poll is the country that most fears the U.S.: Russia. Fifty-four percent of Russians told the pollsters that the U.S. is the biggest threat to global peace. This feeling is rooted in a real fear of NATO expansionism, a fear that has only increased since the start of the Western-Russian conflict over Ukraine. As John Mearsheimer wrote in Foreign Affairs last year, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO—composed of the U.S. and European allies—has steadily crept eastward in Europe toward Russia. NATO came to encompass states like Poland, the Czech Republic and Latvia. NATO had designs on states even closer to Russia, Georgia and Ukraine, though those two countries never formally joined NATO.
This naturally raised tensions with Russia. And so when the pro-Russian leader of Ukraine was deposed, a move backed by the West, Russian leader Vladimir Putin exploited the opportunity to invade Crimea, setting up an explosive new conflict with the U.S. and Europe. Now there is real fear of an escalation of the war in Ukraine.
No wonder Russians view the U.S. unfavorably. Nor is it surprising that the rest of the world, which witnessed the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, continues to see the U.S. as a threat to peace.
So when Netanyahu and his congressional allies crow that Iran is the biggest threat to the world’s peace and security, the rest of the world snickers. The world will continue to see the U.S. as a threat as long as it continues its aggressive interventionism around the globe.