The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The United States is not great right now

Two new polls show how much America is the problem and not the solution

President Trump talks with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos before a town hall at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Sept. 15. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Four years ago, I wrote that whatever one thought about the Obama administration’s economic and foreign policy record, it had succeeded in at least one area. Based on Pew polling data, it was clear that President Barack Obama had convinced the world that even after the 2008 financial crisis, America was great again: Eight years after Obama’s inauguration, “the United States is looked upon more favorably in most (although not all) parts of the globe, and perceptions of American economic power have returned to pre-2008 levels. Americans themselves have greater confidence in the relative power of the U.S. economy than at any time in the post-2008 era.”

Of course, Donald Trump ran in 2016 on the premise that this was not true, that only he could make America great again. He has repeatedly said thatAmerica is respected again.” Just last week he claimed that before the pandemic hit, “we created the greatest economy in the history of the world.”

Two polls released this week put the lie to Trump’s claims and demonstrate just how much prestige the United States has lost during the Trump years.

The Pew Research Center surveyed 13 countries in East Asia, North America and Europe, and the results suggest that Trump has managed to lower America’s standing in the world compared with 2017 levels, an impressive feat given how low they were then. According to the Pew report:

Since Donald Trump took office as president, the image of the United States has suffered across many regions of the globe. As a new 13-nation Pew Research Center survey illustrates, America’s reputation has declined further over the past year among many key allies and partners. In several countries, the share of the public with a favorable view of the U.S. is as low as it has been at any point since the Center began polling on this topic nearly two decades ago.

My Post colleagues Ishaan Tharoor and Adam Taylor have already commented on the Pew findings in their columns. Taylor notes that the data reflects not just disapproval of Trump’s leadership, but of the United States as well. “In at least seven nations, including key allies like Britain and Japan, approval ratings for the United States plunged to record lows,” Tharoor notes, “Perhaps the most damning indicator is that the publics surveyed, on the whole, placed less confidence in Trump doing ‘the right thing regarding global affairs’ than autocrats like Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

For me, the most damning indicator is that the rest of the world no longer thinks that the United States is the world’s leading economic power. Despite Trump’s claims about building the greatest economy in history, and despite a two-year trade war, a plurality of respondents believe that China is now the world’s most powerful economy:

The United States has encountered antipathy like this in the past, such as during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But in a briefing about the report Richard Wike, director of global attitudes research at Pew Research Center, suggested a key difference. In 2003, the antipathy toward the United States was because it was perceived as a bully. In 2020, it was because the United States was perceived as incompetent at responding to the pandemic and withdrawing from the rest of the world. This is, how you say, not good.

Pew’s report is discouraging, but in some ways the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ latest annual report is even more worrisome (full disclosure: I serve on the foreign policy advisory board for that report). The report is titled “Divided We Stand” and reflects the growing polarization of the American public’s foreign policy views.

The most striking finding to me, however, was the American public’s declining faith and growing worry about the United States itself. This came through in two poll findings. The first asked Americans about what they viewed as critical threats. In this century, the hardy perennials on this list were usually terrorism, threats to American jobs and illegal narcotics. What was striking about this year’s top threats is how many of them are internal. The top three were covid-19 (cited by 67 percent of respondents), domestic violent extremism (57 percent) and political polarization (55 percent). Of the traditional foreign threats, only the rise of China (also 55 percent) came close.

The second poll finding asked Americans whether “the United States has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.” In 2017, 63 percent of respondents said yes. Three years later, Americans have gotten more sick and tired of all the winning. Only 54 percent of respondents said yes in 2020, a record low in this century.

So, to sum up: After Donald Trump’s first term, global respect for the United States has plummeted. A plurality of respondents no longer think that the United States is the world’s leading economic power. Americans are showing waning faith in American exceptionalism and believe the country’s biggest threats are internal.

Donald Trump has made America imperiled again. He will continue to do so as long as he is president.

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