A tarnishing of America’s international image has been a constant almost from the day Trump was sworn in four years ago. But 2020 could be the worst yet in terms of how people in other countries perceive the United States as a leader in the world.
The Gallup organization conducts annual surveys assessing how others assess U.S. leadership. In 20 of 29 countries where Gallup has completed these surveys, approval ratings “are at new lows or they tie the previous low,” according to the report released last week. Among the countries where approval hit new lows are two of the nation’s staunchest allies, Germany and Britain.
Four years ago, before Trump became president, 43 percent of Germans had a positive impression of the United States as a leader in the world. Today just 6 percent approve. In the United Kingdom, 15 percent say they approve. More Russians — 18 percent — approve of American leadership internationally than Brits or Germans.
Gallup’s findings square with a Pew Research Center report of a few months ago. Pew’s regular survey asks whether people elsewhere have a favorable or unfavorable view of the United States. Among the nations where favorable impressions hit record lows or roughly tied them this year were a who’s who of traditional friends: the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, Canada and Australia.
Trump’s departure and Biden’s arrival will likely begin to boost the nation’s image. The former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has promised to reengage constructively with other nations, as has his designee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken. That will begin with allies in Europe, who have been treated badly by the current president.
Biden knows the world from his travels as a senator and vice president, but he was described by one former diplomat as someone whose first orientation on foreign policy is through Europe. “When he thinks foreign policy, he thinks allies, and when he thinks allies, he thinks Europe,” said Ivo Daalder, former ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Trump has spurned or hectored allies in Europe and questioned the value of transatlantic alliances. Biden will embrace them all.
Showing up and saying the right words will be helpful in changing perceptions of the United States, but that might be only a first step in what could be a more challenging mission.
Biden will look to European allies for help in dealing with some of the most important foreign policy issues that await him, from U.S. posture toward Russia to Biden’s desire to change relations with Iran after Trump pulled out of the joint nuclear agreement.
China presents perhaps the biggest challenge, given its gains in power and reach over the past four years. Trump departed from the posture of previous administrations, adopting a more aggressive approach in dealing with the Asian giant. Even critics of the presidents concede there can be no return to the past.
“There is a growing consensus across parties that China poses a series of new challenges and that the status quo was not really sustainable,” Blinken said last summer during an event sponsored by the Hudson Institute. He also said that, because of Trump’s approach, “China is in a strong position and we’re in a weaker position.” The solution, he added, will be “to rally our allies and partners, instead of alienating them.”
Biden said the same in a post-election interview with New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman. “The best China strategy, I think, is one which gets every one of our — or at least what used to be our – allies on the same page,” he said. “It’s going to be a major priority for me in the opening weeks of presidency to get us back on the same page with our allies.”
Rhetorically that might seem easy; practically it will take time. Biden’s challenge will involve striking a balance between competition and sometimes confrontation with China over economic and defense issues and cooperation on things like pandemics and climate.
“My view of it is that the Biden administration will invest in strengthening the transatlantic relationship as a means to being able to have a thoughtful, tough, but pragmatic line towards China,” said Robin Niblett, director and chief executive of Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “I think they will take the time to try to get Europe on board before they try anything tougher with China.”
Biden has long experience with European allies, but he will be dealing with a changing and sometimes disunited continent. Hungary and Poland have moved in anti-democratic directions. Turkey is an ally and member of NATO, but the source of disagreements. Britain appears on the brink of exiting the European Union as a result of the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016.
Biden has said he knows world leaders, and he does, but leadership has changed since he was vice president and will continue to do so. He does not have a particularly strong relationship with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and in any case the so-called special relationship between the two nations will take on a different hue with Britain no longer a bridge to the E.U. for the United States.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the strongest leader in Europe, will step down later this year and there is no clear successor on the horizon. French President Emmanuel Macron was elected to his position after Biden left the vice presidency. Although he will offer a more welcoming approach than the Trump era, Biden will not be able to pick up where he left off as vice president.
From abroad, the United States is seen as a nation that is badly divided and looking inward, a country undergoing a necessary but painful reckoning on race, preoccupied with its own problems and therefore less prepared to embrace the role played for decades during the Cold War and the post-Cold War period. America also has been judged harshly for the way the Trump administration handled the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden’s willingness to reengage internationally will be an essential step in restoring U.S. leadership and in the process will rebuild America’s tattered image. But what he accomplishes domestically, his record in dealing with the pandemic and the economy and so much else, could be equally important in shaping perceptions around the world of how America sees itself in the post-Trump era.