America’s global image: Implications for Washington and its allies

US President Donald Trump prepares to give a speech during 2017 G20 meeting in Hamburg.

In the wake of the Second World War, the United States crafted a network of allies and partners spanning the globe. The success of this venture rested heavily on key countries supporting strong ties to the United States. American leadership of this “empire by invitation” rested on populations in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East wanting U.S. engagement. Does the same remain true today?

On June 27, the Brookings Foreign Policy program hosted a discussion on global public opinion toward the new administration featuring Richard Wike, director of Global Attitudes Research at the Pew Research Center, joined by Brookings scholars Tarun Chhabra, Shadi Hamid, and Constanze Stelzenmüller, as well as Ely Ratner of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Wike presented the findings of a recently published report on global attitudes toward the United States. Between February 2016 and May 2017 Pew surveyed some 40,000 people in 37 countries across the globe. Among other issues, the survey explored confidence in President Trump as an international actor and overall favorability of the United States.

Global Attitudes Spring 2017 Survey

According to Wike, the report shows that these two metrics are often closely linked. He explained that the “change of who is in the White House has had a big impact on how the world sees the United States.” Global confidence in the U.S. president to “do the right thing in world affairs” has declined from 64 percent to 22 percent with the advent of the new administration. Concurrently, favorable views of the United States have dropped from 64 percent to 49 percent. Russia, as Wike noted, is the significant outlier with a net increase in both of these metrics.

Low Global Confidence in Trump Leads to Lower Ratings for U.S.U.S. Favorability Down Across the World, but Up in Russia

Wike reported a “steep slope downward” in favorability among Europeans between Presidents Obama and Trump, with European views of the current president roughly on par with those for President George W. Bush at the end of his second term in office. Within Asia, high favorability in nations such as South Korea and Vietnam was balanced by divided publics in India and Australia. And within the Middle East, views of the United States have remained stable within Israel and among America’s Arab allies, with greater variability of views vis-à-vis the particular president.

Global View of Trump's Characters

Opening the discussion on these findings, Tarun Chhabra, a fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy, emphasized the implications of the survey results for U.S. interests, alliances, and regional order, noting that among the 10 countries with the greatest decline in confidence in the president, nine are U.S. treaty allies.

Obama Received Much Higher Ratings at the End of His President Than Trump Gets Today

The United States and Europe

For Constanze Stelzenmüller, Robert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe, President Trump continues to test the trans-Atlantic relationship. As Trump’s commitment to NATO long remained ambiguous, Stelzenmüller explained that the current U.S. administration “holds challenges for Europe of the kind that we haven’t encountered before.”

Though uncertainty surrounds the next four years, Stelzenmüller described the transatlantic partnership as a “resilient relationship,” adding that “even when there is huge turbulence at the official level, policymakers tend to actually move closer together, and to try and to prevent the worst.” While she argued that the partnership is fundamentally too “deeply politically and economically integrated” to unravel, the divergence between the Trump administration’s perceptions of Europe and European law and policy preferences may provoke frictions.

The United States and the Middle East

Shadi Hamid, senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy, offered nuance to the complex bilateral and multilateral relationships between the United States and Middle Eastern states. As Hamid outlined, the Middle East’s authoritarian regimes are insulated from potential public pressure, which limits their responsiveness to negative public views toward Trump and the United States. For example, even though Trump’s proposed travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries provoked public indignation across the region, several Middle Eastern leaders supported it publicly. Hamid added that despite “very strong public disapproval of Trump’s Muslim ban [in the Middle East], that doesn’t necessarily filter up to the governments.”

Hamid also raised the challenge of determining who speaks for U.S. foreign policy. Washington’s response to the ongoing crisis amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council states exemplifies this challenge, as Hamid described the divergent messages emanating from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump. Despite data suggesting broad public disapproval of Trump in the Middle East, Hamid cautioned against expectations of any drastic shifts in the prevailing relationships, noting a “status quo bias” between the region and Washington.

The United States and Asia

To CFR’s Ely Ratner, the report “brings more good news than bad” for the United States. Ratner pointed out that several Asian nations have sustained positive views of the U.S. president despite the transition from Barrack Obama to Donald Trump. However, Ratner noted that a president’s popularity does not always correspond to policy success, as he witnessed in the Obama administration.

Nonetheless, Asian opinions toward the United States matters considerably, according to Ratner, as Washington now finds itself in a nascent struggle with China over the future of the Asian regional order. While no Asian leader wants to choose between Washington and Beijing, daily decisions on trade or security add up over time, and public support enables leaders to engage in diplomacy with greater confidence. Ratner explained that domestic public opinion in Asian countries will influence “the degree to which leaders are willing to stick their necks out and work with the United States, and are willing to push back in China.”

More of the Same?

These conclusions come early into Trump’s tenure. Although survey respondents were skeptical that their country’s bilateral relations with the United States would change under the new administration, the new U.S. president may alter global public opinion over time. As Hamid noted, governments have already begun to adapt styles and procedures to suit their new U.S. counterpart, with European leaders “studying up on how to appeal to Trump.” Over time, public perceptions may shift as well.