If 2017 was the year foreign observers of U.S. politics struggled to decide where the country was headed, 2018 was the year they came to a conclusion: not in the right direction. Far more people around the world now believe that their countries are threatened by U.S. power and influence under President Trump than they are by the other global heavyweights, Russia or China, according to a new Pew Research Center survey released on Sunday.
While 45 percent of respondents in 26 large countries interviewed between May and August last year said that the United States posed “a major threat to our country,” only 36 percent said the same about Russia and 35 percent about China. Back in 2013 — under President Barack Obama — only 25 percent of global respondents held that view about the United States, while 34 percent considered China to be a major threat to their countries at the time. Data for Russia were not available that year.
During Trump’s first year in office, global approval of U.S. leadership began to drop significantly, with 38 percent saying they viewed the United States as a threat — compared to 33 percent saying the same about Russia and 34 percent about China. While China’s standing appears to have remained largely unchanged since, the percentage of people who now consider the United States a threat has almost doubled within just half a decade.
The sudden rise of the United States as a perceived major threat in other countries likely comes down to a number of different factors. The most prominent one is Trump. His trade wars and affronts against traditional alliances have unsettled U.S. partners and allies in Europe and other parts of the world, where “U.S. power and influence,” as the Pew survey phrased it, has become tightly associated with Trump himself. While 49 percent of Germans said they considered “U.S. power and influence” to be a top security concern, only 30 percent said the same about Russia. (The ratio of Germans fearing U.S. power is in fact now higher than the share of Russians who are concerned about the United States.) In Britain, which prides itself for having a special relationship with the United States, 37 percent still said they feared Washington’s leadership posed a threat to their nation, too.
In Latin America, Trump’s hard-line immigration policies and his insistence on building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico have earned him few friends, however. In all three surveyed Latin American countries — Brazil, Argentina and Mexico — more than half the population said the United States posed a major threat.
Animosity toward the United States was also high in countries directly impacted by Trump’s highest-stakes act of diplomacy so far. Despite Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un, a vast majority of people in South Korea and Japan said U.S. power and influence were perilous. The Pew survey was conducted while negotiations between the United States and North Korea were still ongoing, so the data may not fully capture public opinion in those two countries by the end of last year. But for a president who has said that “everyone thinks” he should get a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the North Korea talks, the Pew data may be disappointing.
The survey comes at a time when Trump also appears to be following through on his promises to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, effectively disengaging from international conflicts, despite warnings by allies that the time may not be right. Trump’s rhetoric and unpredictable attacks on allies and foes alike also appear to have made him a bigger target of public animosity than the human rights violations committed by other major powers. China’s brutal detention campaign of up to 1 million Uighurs and other minorities appears to weigh less heavily in the survey, perhaps because China’s human rights violations have so far been restricted to certain groups. Only 22 percent of Swedes said they considered China to be a major threat.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its attempts to meddle in Western elections have infuriated (some) leaders of the affected countries, but concerns over Moscow’s intentions are far less pronounced elsewhere.
Russia and China may be deeply unpopular in some places, but in international rankings they’re still able to balance those sentiments out. In China’s case, significant financial investments abroad may have helped, while Russia’s military maneuvers have so far rarely extended beyond Europe and parts of the Middle East.
In comparison, animosity and skepticism toward the United States are relatively evenly distributed across the globe, likely reflecting both the country’s large footprint in various regions and particularly strong feelings on Trump.
Trump may be able to find some comfort in the fact that the United States is actually not considered the world’s biggest threat by the citizens of the 26 polled nations. Instead, climate change came out on top last year, followed by the Islamic State group.
Trump’s perception of global threats doesn’t appear to be exactly aligned with that view of the world, however. One of the president’s early moves was to withdraw from the Paris climate accord that aimed to lower the emissions most believe are behind climate change, followed by his more recent victory claim over the Islamic State and withdrawal of the troops confronting it.