Commentary: Americans are worried about global regard for their country - and rightly so

Commentary: Americans are worried about global regard for their country - and rightly so

A polarised electorate and alarming policy reversals is reducing confidence in US global leadership not just abroad but also domestically within the United States, says director of the Pew Research Centre.

WASHINGTON: As the Trump administration embarks on a new course in foreign policy within its first year in office, roughly two-thirds of Americans report believing that the United States is less respected by other countries than it has been in the past, according to a recent Pew Research Centre poll of US adults.

This perception of how the United States is seen around the world has long been a partisan issue. However, there are substantial changes in how Republicans and Democrats view the relative level of global respect for the nation.

Even at various points when Barack Obama was in office, majorities of Democrats viewed the US as less respected internationally; for example, 58 per cent said this in 2016.

But now, 87 per cent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents say the US is less respected than in the past, with 70 per cent saying this is a major problem.

In contrast, 42 per cent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say the US is less respected by other countries than in the past, the lowest percentage expressing this view in more than a decade.

But a small percentage of 29 per cent of Republicans say the nation is more respected internationally today than during Obama’s presidency or Bush’s second term. And only 28 per cent think this is a major problem.


Concern about the US’s image abroad may have some basis in fact. Results from the centre’s 37-nation spring survey within months of Donald Trump’s ascendancy found that, globally, a median of 49 per cent had a favourable opinion of the US, down from 64 per cent at the end of the Obama administration. 

The US image also suffered during the tenure of George W Bush, when foreign publics questioned the wisdom of the Iraq war and the US approach to combating terrorism.

Today’s resurgent doubts about the US can be traced, in part, to the lack of public confidence in Trump and popular opposition to his stand on issues like climate change, free trade and immigration.  History suggests anti-Americanism can have consequences for US foreign policy objectives, though it’s too soon, yet, to judge the impact of souring views of Uncle Sam.

Barack Obama had vowed before leaving office that he would speak up if Donald Trump moved to unravel
A median of 49 per cent of respondents from around the world had a favourable opinion of the US, down from 64 per cent at the end of the Obama administration.  (File photo: AFP/Scott Olson)

The decline in US favourability has occurred in most regions of the world. Views of the nation are down 36 percentage points in Mexico, 30 points in Ghana and 22 points in Canada. 


Across Europe there have been large shifts in public views of the US: Favourable opinion is down 28 points in Spain, 26 points in the Netherlands and 22 points in Germany. Clear majorities in those nations now hold unfavourable views.

And, despite the “special relationship” between the US and the United Kingdom, only 50 per cent of the British view the US favourably, down 11 points from 2016.

Latin Americans are lukewarm, at best, toward the US. About half of Colombians, Peruvians, Brazilians and Venezuelans express a positive attitude. Mexicans are unfavourable by more than two to one – 30 per cent positive, 65 per cent negative.

In the Middle East, around eight in 10 Israelis are positive toward the US. But they stand isolated in the region. About a third of Lebanese and roughly a quarter of Tunisians report a favourable opinion of America. Overwhelming majorities in Turkey and Jordan voice an unfavourable view.


The US remains popular in Asia, although there are signs of slippage. Support is up in Vietnam, 84 per cent, up 6 points, while positive but declining in the Philippines, 78 per cent, down 14 points, and South Korea, 75 per cent, down 9 points.

A majority of Japanese, 57 per cent, are favourable toward the US, but that support is down 15 points. About half of Australians are positive: 48 per cent, down 12 points. A similar portion of Indians – 49 per cent, down 7 points – express a favourable view.

In sub-Saharan Africa more than half the respondents in all six nations surveyed offer a favourable assessment of the US The most widespread support is in Nigeria at 69 per cent. But intensity of positive opinion has waned in the six African societies since 2015.

A notable exception to the near universal decline in US standing: Russia, where positive views are up 26 points since 2016 to 41 per cent today.

Russia parliament
A street on Moscow. Russia is one of two countries whose respondents have indicated a more favourable impression of the US in 2017 compared to 2016. (Photo: AFP/ Mladen Antonov) 


Since 2002, when Pew Research first asked about America’s image abroad, favourable opinion of the US has frequently tracked with confidence in the president.

But views of Trump are significantly lower than those of Obama at the end of his term. A median of 22 per cent has confidence in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to international affairs compared with a median of 64 per cent who expressed confidence in Obama.

This decline is especially pronounced among the populations of some of America’s closest allies: Sweden, down 83 points; Germany, 75 points; France, 70 points; the United Kingdom, 57 points; and Japan, 54 points.

And note, this survey was conducted before the recent spat between British Prime Minister Theresa May and Trump over his retweeting controversial anti-Muslim videos posted by the far-right Britain First Party.

In only two countries does Trump get higher marks than Obama at the end of his tenure: Israel with 56 per cent confidence, up 7 points, and Russia with 53 per cent, up 42 points.

Lack of confidence in Trump is linked to public opposition to some of his signature policies. A median of roughly three-quarters of those surveyed oppose Trump’s vow to build a wall on the US border with Mexico to limit unauthorised immigration.

The Pew Research survey was conducted before Trump officially announced that the US would pull out of the Paris climate change accord. Nonetheless, a median of 19 per cent support the US backing away from such accords.

There is a similarly low level of support for the US rejecting major trade agreements. Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership early in his administration. Opposition to the nation withdrawing from climate and trade agreements is especially strong in European nations polled.

After days of talks on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Danang, the so-called TPP-11 nations made
After days of talks on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Danang, the so-called TPP-11 nations made a breakthrough on Nov 11, a day after Donald Trump's ladled out more "America First" rhetoric in an address to world leaders. (Photo: AFP/Jorge Silva)


A possible new wave of anti-Americanism may have consequences on policies in the US and abroad, and the past suggests that foreign leaders and governments may add anti-Americanism to their political calculus.

In 2003, when just 25 per cent of Germans had a favourable opinion of the US, then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder refused to go along with the US-led invasion of Iraq after relying on anti-American sentiment in his successful 2002 reelection campaign. 

Similarly, the Turkish Parliament refused to allow American troops to invade Iraq from the north, a decision made as only 12 per cent of Turks saw Uncle Sam favourably. Anti-Americanism alone may not have determined either policy decision, but it provided context as decisions were made.

Sometimes anti-Americanism backfires as political opportunity. In the 2017 German election, Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz attempted to use anti-Americanism to rally support for his party.

In the end, Social Democrats fared worse than in any recent German election. Schultz may have misread public opinion.

The Pew Research Centre finds that despite mistrust of Trump and falling opinion of the US, Europeans have not lost faith in the nation as an ally. Most, including 65 per cent of Germans polled and 60 per cent of French, remain confident that Washington would use military force to defend a NATO member involved in a serious military conflict with Russia.

So history leaves open the question of how anti-Americanism may influence domestic and international politics. New answers may be on the horizon, however, with the image of the US widely suffering once again and confidence in the US president at or near historic lows in key countries.

And the new administration is barely a year old.

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Centre. This commentary first appeared in Yale Global Online. Read the original commentary here.

Source: CNA/sl