The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Global views of U.S. plunge to new lows amid pandemic, poll finds

President Trump boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Sept. 10. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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President Trump defended his handling of the coronavirus pandemic during an interview with Fox News over the weekend, arguing that he took “tremendous steps” early in the outbreak, which “saved probably two or two and a half million lives.”

But much of the world appears to think otherwise. In a new poll of 13 nations released Tuesday, a median of 15 percent said the United States had handled the pandemic well, while 85 percent said the country had responded poorly.

The data, released by Pew Research Center, suggests that the international reputation of the United States has dropped to a new low in the face of a disorganized response to the novel coronavirus. The country leads the world in virus-related deaths.

International affairs analysts say it may be difficult to repair the damage to the United States’ standing overseas. Among some traditional allies like Germany, views of the United States have declined to the lowest levels since Pew began tracking them nearly two decades ago.

“I still think there is admiration for the United States, but it may be waning very quickly — especially if Trump gets reelected,” said Sudha David-Wilp, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

Pew surveyed 13 foreign nations, all wealthy democracies, along with the United States this summer.

After Trump entered office in 2017, Pew found much of the world to hold a negative view of the U.S. leader, with views of the United States overall dipping in many nations.

But Pew’s latest polling suggests that the pandemic, an unprecedented global crisis, has caused views of the United States among its closest peers to slide even further.

In contrast, many respondents had positive perspectives on their own countries: Nearly three-quarters of people polled said their own governments had done a good job handling the crisis.

Internationally, the U.S. rating was significantly lower than the ratings for the World Health Organization, which the Trump administration has dubbed “corrupt,” and China, the epicenter of the initial outbreak, which Trump said “sent us the plague.”

In at least seven nations, including key allies like Britain and Japan, approval ratings for the United States plunged to record lows. In Germany, just 26 percent of the respondents held a positive view of the United States — the lowest rating since 2003, the year of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Among the countries surveyed, Belgians had the lowest estimation of the United States: Just 24 percent of Belgians said they had a positive view.

Pew has only recorded lower ratings twice: Both times in Spain during the administration of President George W. Bush, when 16 and 23 percent of the Spanish population had a favorable view of the United States in 2003 and 2006, respectively.

In interviews for Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward's new book, President Trump called coronavirus “deadly,” as he publicly downplayed its threat. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

This spring, even before the pandemic surged in the United States, David-Wilp said, German experts and commentators with whom she spoke expressed doubts that the United States would be able to handle the pandemic and feared that serious social unrest would develop.

“And lo and behold, you did actually see that,” she said, referring to the high number of deaths in the United States and the protests against racial injustice that have swept the country.

Trump has proved consistently unpopular in global polls, but the pandemic appears to have worsened his international reputation. Positive ratings of Trump in Japan dropped from 36 percent in spring 2019 to 25 percent this year — still the highest of any nation surveyed.

The decline was even more pronounced in South Korea, where 46 percent of respondents gave Trump a positive rating in spring 2019, compared with 17 percent this year. South Koreans gave the U.S. handling of the pandemic the worst rating of any nation, with 6 percent saying the United States did a good job.

South Korea, a key U.S. ally, tends to see the country in a positive light, said Kang Won-taek, a professor at Seoul National University. Trump’s outreach to North Korea and interest in the peninsula may have given his popularity a boost among some South Koreans in recent years.

“The euphoria is gone,” Kang said in an email, pointing to a lack of progress in peace talks with Pyongyang and Trump’s heavy-handed approach to relations with Seoul. The U.S. handling of the novel coronavirus had dented the country’s standing with South Koreans, he said.

Highlighting a contrast with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, President Trump on Sept. 10 said he would oppose new coronavirus lockdown measures. (Video: The Washington Post)

“As a matter of fact, many Koreans are very surprised that the U.S. has not effectively dealt with the outbreak,” Kang said, adding that many Koreans pin the blame on what they see as Trump’s unreliability.

Other world leaders fared better than Trump on the world stage. Though China is widely criticized for aggressive foreign policy moves and its secrecy during the early days of the pandemic, President Xi Jinping has a marginally more positive international reputation than Trump, Pew found.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, widely suspected of backing attempts at electoral interference and the assassination of dissidents, also fared better, as did British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, frequently criticized by Trump in recent years, was by far the most popular leader among those surveyed, with a median of 76 percent expressing confidence that she will do the right thing in global affairs.

The contrast between Merkel’s cautious handling of Germany’s federal system during the pandemic and Trump’s less disciplined approach, David-Wilp said, heightened many Germans’ awareness of her reputation.

“Germans, I think, have been surprised and maybe secretly proud of Chancellor Merkel,” David-Wilp said. “I think she really touched a nerve with the German people in the sense that she was very open and direct and called [the pandemic] what it was: The biggest crisis Germany is facing in the post-war era.”

Pew said it gathered its survey data using nationally representative surveys of 13,273 adults from June 10 through Aug. 3, with all interviews conducted by phone. The margin of error ranged from 3.1 percentage points in South Korea to 4.2 in Belgium.