Unfulfilled Expectations

As we all know there are lies, damn lies and statistics.  Nevertheless, for historians interested in public opinion, this week’s Pew Global Attitudes Survey on international views of the United States makes for interesting – if not necessarily surprising – reading. [1]

On the positive side, in twelve of the twenty countries polled, a plurality had positive overall views of the United States.  In addition, thirteen of the twenty countries polled had favorable views of the American people.   Many of those countries were European, and not just Germany, the UK, France, Spain and Italy, but also Poland, the Czech Republic and Russia.  Beyond Europe, Japan, India, Brazil and Mexico all held positive views of the U.S. and its people.  The most unfavorable views unsurprisingly came from Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey and Jordan (where 86% of those polled viewed the U.S. unfavorably).

However, on the more critical side, a number of particular issues saw more negative responses.  The poll revealed that the United States is clearly seen as a nation that acts unilaterally in world affairs.  When asked if the U.S. took other countries into account when making foreign policy decisions, only three of the countries polled responded more positively than negatively (interestingly, they were the BRIC countries of China, Brazil and India).  There is also a striking disconnection here between America’s perception of itself and the views of others, as 77% of Americans believe that their foreign policy does consider the interests of others.

The issue of drone strikes saw an even more critical international response.  Only one country polled saw a plurality in support of drone strikes, and even that case – India – the approval rating was a mere 32%.  In crisis-hit Greece (whose numbers were consistently more critical than other European nations across most questions), 90% of those polled disapproved.  In Egypt the “disapproval rating” was 89%, in Brazil and Spain it was 76%, while in Japan the figure was 75%.  The highest approval rating was from the UK with 44% in support (and 47% against), which again revealed a stark disconnect between American attitudes and those of the rest of the world: 62% of Americans approve of drone strikes, compared to just 28% against.

Beyond specific issues, one broader conclusion that can be drawn from the polling figures is a sense of unfulfilled expectations in the Obama Administration.  While confidence in Barack Obama’s leadership is still high in much of Europe, Japan and Brazil, that confidence is down from its dizzy heights of 2009.  Compared to three years ago, there are big drops in international expectations on whether President Obama would consider the interests of other countries when making foreign policy decisions, cultivate international approval for military force, be fair in dealing with Israelis and Palestinians, and take steps to deal with climate change.

On one hand, these declining figures could be seen as very negative results for Obama. Fortunately, Obama does not rely on international voters (even if he does again decide on a campaign stop in Berlin).  Yet even if he did, despite the criticism on individual policy positions and broad issues, respondents in the majority of countries polled agreed that he should be re-elected. This included sweeping majorities in most European nations, including 92% support for re-election from those polled in France and 89% in Germany.  This can be explained by taking a slightly longer view, and the fact that Obama is still deemed to be a superior alternative to his predecessor.  While Obama’s positive ratings on many issues have fallen since 2009, they have not yet fallen to 2008 Bush-era levels.  And even if there is disappointment with the Obama Administration, there appears to be a sense that a Romney presidency would be even more confrontational and unilateral – and generally more like the presidency of George W. Bush.  Nevertheless, in most nations, there is a decline in interest in the forthcoming presidential election compared to 2008; the one significant exception here is China, where numbers following the election are up 19 percentage points on 2008 to 36%.

Staying with China, one of the more interesting statistics from the poll is that ten countries (or half of those polled) now see China as the world’s leading economic power.  This shift is especially pronounced among European nations, but it was also (marginally) the view expressed among those polled in the United States. Interestingly, the Chinese still clearly see the United States as the world leading economic power.  Whether these perceptions reflect reality is highly contested, but perceptions of economic strength clearly do matter moving forward.

Making any more concrete conclusions from the polling data is something of a challenge (though I’m sure others would disagree as there’s enough diverse and contradictory evidence here to support almost anyone’s point of view). Given Obama’s failure to live up to his rhetoric, it can be argued that the results reveal the credibility gap between what America claims to stand for and what it actually does in the world.  However, international opinion appears equally critical when asked about (the admittedly vaguely worded concept of) American democracy.  Half of the countries polled had a plurality that disliked, rather than liked, American ideas about democracy including nations as diverse as Mexico, Turkey, Russia, Germany, Pakistan and France.  Other results relating to American soft power are equally inconclusive.  While positive views were forthcoming regarding admiration of American technological advancements and popular culture (except for the Muslim nations polled), only one nation – Japan – had a majority that claimed it was a good thing that American ideas and customs were spreading to their country.  It appears to be a case of “we like what you do, but we’d rather consume it on our own terms.”

Some online reactions to these polling numbers suggest that many Americans don’t care what the rest of the world thinks, as the United States does not need to answer to anyone but itself. And again, these voters will not count in November.  Yet the figures are not entirely without meaning.  Domestically, they represent a stick for the GOP to beat Obama with prior to November’s election.  Obama campaigned on a promise to restore America’s moral standing in the world, and while the bar initially appeared to have been set low, Obama’s artificially inflated expectations were ultimately too high to meet. Internationally, there is the fear that they represent a missed opportunity for the United States to build on the greater global goodwill that came with Obama’s election.  More broadly, they also suggest that the United States is not quite the “city on a hill” for others to aspire to that it thinks it is.

[1] http://www.pewglobal.org/2012/06/13/global-opinion-of-obama-slips-international-policies-faulted/