President Trump, whose 2016 presidential campaign speeches regularly included the line “the world is laughing at us,” could not acknowledge that the world really did laugh at him during his cringeworthy speech at the United Nations last week. It’s bad enough that the American president is a joke; worse, the man who promised to make America great has made it less respected than ever. A new Pew Research Center poll finds:
A year after global opinion of the United States dropped precipitously, favorable views of the U.S. remain at historic lows in many countries polled. In addition, more say bilateral relations with the U.S. have worsened, rather than improved, over the past year. Among possible sources of resentment is the widespread perception that the U.S. does not consider the interests of other countries when making foreign policy decisions. More generally, relatively few see the U.S. stepping up more to solve international problems.
Not surprising, given Trump’s behavior, our closest allies are among the most turned off by America’s recent conduct. “Divergent opinions of the U.S. are quite evident in Europe, where favorable views range from seven-in-ten in Poland to three-in-ten in neighboring Germany. Half in the United Kingdom have a positive opinion of the U.S., while only 38% in France agree. Across the 10 European countries, views of the U.S. tilt toward the negative (a median of 43% favorable vs. 52% unfavorable).”
The European countries most favorably disposed to the United States these days are the increasingly anti-democratic ones in the grip of their own right-wing nationalism (e.g., Poland, Hungary). (Outside Europe, Trump is wildly popular in Israel and South Korea.) It’s even worse in our own continent: “In North America, however, positive views of the U.S. are sharply down from the last reading in the Obama presidency in both Mexico (-34 percentage points) and Canada (-26 points).”
Most troubling is the perception of the U.S. commitment to democracy and individual rights:
In fact, among the 10 European countries surveyed, in all but Greece there has been a significant decline in those saying the U.S. respects personal rights, with the most dramatic falloff in the Netherlands (-17 percentage points).
Looking back over the past few years, far fewer people across the countries surveyed say the U.S. government respects personal rights. In fact, in 17 of the countries surveyed in both 2013 and 2018, there has been a significant downward shift in the share saying the U.S. respects its people’s rights. Only one country, Tunisia, has seen an improvement.
Trump’s America First message has been heard loud and clear. “Across the 25 countries where the question was asked, a median of just 28% say the U.S. takes their country’s interests into account when making international decisions. In fact, majorities across Europe, and in neighboring Canada and Mexico, say that the U.S. does not take into account their interests when making foreign policy.”
Trump personally rates very poorly around the world: “A median of 27% in 25 nations surveyed say they trust in President Donald Trump’s handling of international issues, while 70% do not have confidence in him. In only four countries – the Philippines, Israel, Nigeria and Kenya – does more than half the public voice trust in the U.S. president.” Russian President Vladimir Putin (30 percent) gets higher marks than Trump as do leaders of France and Germany.
Some Americans might ask why we care if the French or Brits or Mexicans don’t think well of us. Let us count the ways.
First, anti-American, anti-democratic politics has a bigger audience in Europe and in other allied countries these days. The result is likely to be the rise of more anti-American, less friendly governments; even those parties and governments normally supportive of the United States will think twice before rallying around the U.S., making sacrifices that help the United States or supporting our positions in international bodies. Everything from intelligence-sharing to troop commitments to trade arrangements will suffer.
Second, our stature as a superpower relies in large part on our ability to persuade (not force or frighten) allies and to offer the U.S. system of democratic capitalism as a model for others. As our influence with allies erodes and our reputation as a defender of human rights frays, our enemies grow more aggressive and confident. Our international conduct and disdain for democracy become fodder for enemies’ propaganda. Our indifference to democracy encourages repressive behavior abroad. (The United States doesn’t care about you, repressive regimes can tell dissidents and oppressed populations.)
Third, China is now viewed as the ascending power in the world. (“In nearly all of the surveyed countries, a majority say China’s role in the world has increased over the past decade. A median of 70% say China plays a more important role in the world today than it did 10 years ago.”) That will diminish our influence in Asia and beyond as countries see their economic well-being depends on good relations with China. When we toss away measures to check China’s influence (e.g., pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership), we accelerate the rise of China.
Now, it is easy to exaggerate the extent of American decline. “More countries currently see the United States as the world’s leading economic power than China,” Pew found. “This is particularly true in Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region. Few name Japan or the European Union as the world’s leading economic power today.” However, in 10 or 15 years, it’s unclear whether that perception will remain.
It is also telling that the world doesn’t seem to take much joy in the decline of U.S. influence and in its shoddy international conduct. The survey found that “while perceptions of current economic leadership are somewhat divided between the U.S. and China, when it comes to preferred global leadership, there is no competition. Majorities or pluralities in nearly every country surveyed say the future would be better if the U.S. were the world’s leading power than if China were.” A weak America is not what our allies want.
The takeaway here is that the United States is heading in the wrong direction but still enjoys a huge reservoir of goodwill and respect. That reservoir is not limitless, however, and there are real costs to America’s international decline. Robert Kagan recently wrote, in a column based on his new book, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World. “Nothing is determined, not the triumph of liberalism or its defeat. As we have seen these past 70 years, tremendous human progress and human betterment are possible even in a dangerous world. To know that the jungle will always be there is not to despair of keeping it at bay, as we have done more or less successfully for decades. But make no mistake: The liberal order is as precarious as it is precious. It needs constant tending lest the jungle grow back and engulf us all.”
In short, we can keep America great by making it good and responsible again. That means first getting our own house in order and rejecting the right-wing politics of nativism, know-nothingism, irrationality, resentment and authoritarianism.
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