The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Global approval of the United States has rebounded under Biden, survey finds

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden landed in Cornwall, England, on June 9 and made their way to the seaside village of St. Ives ahead of the G-7 summit. (Video: Reuters)
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President Biden has promised the world that “America is back.”

As he takes his first trip abroad as president, a Pew Research Center global survey released Thursday shows that many in advanced economies believe it.

Trust in the U.S. president fell to historic lows in most countries surveyed during Donald Trump’s presidency, according to Pew.

Under Biden, it has soared. In the 12 countries surveyed both this year and last, a median of 75 percent of respondents expressed confidence in Biden to “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” Pew found, compared with 17 percent for Trump last year. Sixty-two percent of respondents now have a favorable view of the United States vs. 34 percent at the end of Trump’s presidency.

“The election of Joe Biden as president has led to a dramatic shift in America’s international image,” the Pew report reads.

The findings come a day after Biden touched down in England on the first leg of a whirlwind trip through Europe. On his agenda: a meeting of the Group of Seven nations in Cornwall, a NATO summit in Brussels, and tête-à-têtes with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Biden cast his voyage as a sort of redemption tour — a chance to revitalize the nation’s strained alliances and rally like-minded democracies to “meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.”

The Pew findings suggest that he will encounter leaders whose publics are confident in his leadership and supportive of key foreign policy priorities.

The United States’ favorability rating grew at least 23 percentage points from last year in France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, and a majority of respondents in all four view the country positively.

Among all 16 publics surveyed this spring, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ranks just ahead of Biden in the percentage of respondents who said they trust the leader’s decision-making on world affairs, with a median score of 77 percent. But Biden, with 74 percent, garnered higher rates of confidence than French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“In many cases, however, the share who have confidence in Biden is not as high as the share who had confidence in [President Barack] Obama at the start or end of his presidency,” the Pew report notes.

Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Paris office, said the lack of a “Biden effect” compared with the “Obama effect” on public opinion in Europe was likely in part due to the lasting effects of Trump’s tenure.

“I think this has left a certain level of legacy across Europe, the sort of distrust this has created between Europeans and Americans,” she said.

Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement was widely criticized among advanced economies. Since taking office, Biden has sought to position the United States as a global leader in fighting climate change; a median of 85 percent supported the United States rejoining the Paris climate agreement.

Perceptions of the United States’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic have also improved. Still, among all the publics surveyed, a median of 37 percent think the United States has done a good job. Many rate the United States below Germany, the WHO, China and the European Union in terms of pandemic response.

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And signs of skepticism about the United States’ dependability remain.

Among the 16 publics Pew surveyed in 2021, majorities or pluralities described the United States as a “somewhat reliable” partner. The proportion of respondents who said the United States is “very reliable” was below 20 percent in every place.

De Hoop Scheffer said that while Europeans have been very receptive to Biden’s “America is back” message and his championing of democracy, concerns about America’s approach to global decision-making have lingered.

“We don’t want to go back to the sort of old patterns of transatlantic cooperation where the U.S. leads and Europe follows,” she said. “This is the legacy of the Trump era that we should not underestimate.”

The Biden administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, for example, left NATO partners feeling blindsided.

The survey shows attitudes are mixed about how well the U.S. political system functions, and in most surveyed publics, less than 10 percent of respondents said it works very well.

“Publics in the advanced economies surveyed are largely skeptical that democracy in the U.S. is a good example for other countries to follow,” the report reads.

Majorities in most places think the United States “used to be a good example, but has not been in recent years,” while up to about a quarter reject the notion that it has ever been a model democracy. Young people were particularly skeptical in about half of places surveyed.

Political polarization in the United States is a major factor, de Hoop Scheffer said.

“If you have a divided political scene and polarization as you have today in the U.S. Congress, then the American president will not be able to have a long-term commitment on the international scene,” she said, pointing to Republican opposition to a Biden administration-propelled G-7 proposal for a 15 percent global minimum tax.

Most people surveyed continued to say the United States doesn’t factor the interests of countries like theirs into foreign policy decisions, although attitudes across Europe vary.

A majority of respondents in Asian-Pacific regions also said the United States discounts their interests, with the exception of Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was the first foreign leader Biden hosted at the White House.

NATO, meanwhile, has a median favorability rating of 61 percent, and positive views of the alliance are “at or near all-time highs across several member states,” the Pew report reads.

It’s a finding that will hearten leaders, including Biden, who seek to breathe fresh life into NATO next week. The alliance took a beating in recent years when Trump threatened to pull out of it and Macron declared that it was experiencing “brain death.”

Pew said its 2021 findings on the United States’ international image were based on data from nationally representative surveys of more than 16,000 adults in 16 advanced economies conducted over the phone from March to May. Findings related to the coronavirus pandemic also incorporated a survey of about 2,600 U.S. adults conducted in February 2021 using Pew’s American Trends Panel.