Common wisdom seems to tell us that the United States has suffered under President Trump in terms of its image and influence around the world. Recent data, however, suggests there’s less to that charge than people might think.
I recently attended the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, convened by former Danish prime minister and NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s foundation, which brought together leaders and democracy activists from across the globe. Participants explored topics such as how activists in Syria, Myanmar and Nigeria are bringing democratic practices and values to their countries and the role that private-sector entrepreneurship in places such as Iraq can expand economic growth and civil society. But the burning issues on everyone’s mind — Trump, populism, and the state of democracy in the West — were fully addressed, too.
Rasmussen’s opening remarks set the tone: “Democracy is in crisis,” he contended. The reasons: “Western self-doubt” and an unwillingness of Western political leaders to take “a good look in the mirror.” The United States was not spared from this critique. “For our democracies to survive,” he said, “we need American leadership. Today, the world is on fire because the U.S. decided to stop being the world’s fireman.”
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) argued at the event that there was still bipartisan congressional commitment to the postwar global structure. He voiced strong support for democratic values and movements, specifically calling out Turkey, Hungary and the Philippines as countries moving in the wrong direction. House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) concurred but argued that this consensus “was not always reflected in the White House.”
Overall, the gist of the summit seemed to follow the standard story that Trump’s election has upset the previously placid democratic apple cart — though participants such as Schiff acknowledged that “the fire began before Trump,” noting that globalization, social media manipulation, economic anxiety and populism were rising before his election. Rasmussen, for his part, told me that the United States stopped being the world’s fireman during the Obama administration, most acutely when the president decided not to enforce the “red line” in Syria.
Polling data presented by Dalia Research confirms the negative views many Europeans hold toward the United States today. The company polled more than 177,000 people in 54 countries this spring. It asked, among other questions, whether the United States was a positive or negative force for democracy in the world. The opinion was decidedly negative in much of western Europe, Canada and Australia. Margins ranged from minus-47 in Austria and minus-40 in Germany to “only” minus-32 in Canada and minus-16 in France and minus-15 in Australia. People in many of our strongest allies are clearly upset with U.S. leadership in the Trump era.
But that’s far from the whole story. Similarly large and negative margins arose elsewhere only in countries such as Russia and Turkey that Trump has sharply criticized. Almost all of the rest of the world still sees the United States as a net positive force for democracy — in many cases, strongly so.
Asia is an excellent example. People in every country surveyed except China and Malaysia viewed U.S. influence positively. Residents of the Philippines, Vietnam, India, South Korea and Taiwan gave extremely positive scores to U.S. influence, while positives outweighed negatives in Japan by nine points. The Trump administration’s confrontational stances toward China and North Korea seem to have produced a much different reaction in the nations close to the danger than in places much farther away.
This pattern — the enemy of my enemy is my friend — was repeated everywhere else in the world. Every South American country included in the poll except Argentina thought the United States was a force for democratic good, with the highest margin in Venezuela. Trump unites the Middle East with his anti-Iranian campaign, as Israelis, Saudis, Egyptians and even Iranians agree the United States is good for democracy; so, too, do the few African countries included in the poll. The more data one examines, the more it appears that Western Europe is the outlier, not the United States.
That message comes through plainly when one looks at European governments with populist governments or which have Russian troops nearby. U.S. influence is viewed extremely positively by Poles (plus-36 percent) and Ukrainians (plus-30 percent). The United States is also viewed positively in Romania, Hungary, Italy and Portugal. Again, this neatly mirrors the split within the European Union between populist, eastern nations and the more developed, western ones.
Trump has clearly disrupted traditional U.S. foreign policy — and not always in a good direction. But for all the complaining, the data presented at the conference shows that the United States continues to be well regarded in many places around the globe. Maybe that’s something Western leaders should consider if they follow Rasmussen’s advice and start looking in the mirror.