Foreign Policy Blogs

What If the Rest of the World Voted for the U.S. President?

A man enthusiastically prepares for President Obama's visit to Ghana in 2009. Source: Google Images

A man enthusiastically prepares for President Obama's visit to Ghana in 2009. Source: Google Images

In my past two blog posts, I discussed new polling on Americans’ foreign policy views and the U.S. domestic reaction to the Chen Guangcheng case. This week, I highlight Gallup findings on how the rest of the world evaluates U.S. leadership. I look forward to hearing your thoughts! 

In the race to November, professional political analysts and armchair observers alike will not lack thorough, up-to-date polling data on voter opinion. For those curious about worldwide opinion of U.S. leadership, data is understandably scarcer, but fortunately, a few relatively recent polls shed some light on global viewpoints. (In this post, I focus on recent Gallup data, but I encourage anyone interested in this topic to also check out the U.S. Image section of the Pew Global Attitudes Project.)

Worldwide, the Obama administration was slightly less popular in 2011 than it was in 2009. According to an extensive Gallup survey, when citizens of 136 countries were asked “Do you approve or disapprove of the job performance of the leadership of the United States?” the median global approval rating was 46 percent, a slight drop from the administration’s peak median rating of 49 percent in 2009. Considering that this administration came to power during a global financial crisis and remains supportive of controversial military tactics like drone strikes, U.S. leadership is still doing fairly well in the eyes of the world. However, several country- and region-level declines in median approval rating are notable. While citizens of African countries typically give U.S. leaders high rankings in opinion polls, 2011 saw “double-digit losses in 10 sub-Saharan countries, including an 18-percentage point drop in South Africa.” On the other side of the Atlantic, Latin America generated “notable double-digit losses in several key countries, including Colombia and Panama, which inked long-delayed trade deals with the U.S. in 2011.”

As for the approval ratings at the extremes of the spectrum, the six countries where approval for U.S. leadership was lowest were Cyprus (18 percent), Yemen (18 percent), India (16 percent), the Palestinian Territories (10 percent), Iran (10 percent) and Serbia (8 percent). The six countries with the highest approval for U.S. leadership were Burkina Faso (85 percent), Congo-Brazzaville (86 percent), Mozambique (86 percent), Mali (87 percent), Kosovo (90 percent), and Ghana (92 percent). Although this country-level approval data is intriguing and sometimes noteworthy, one should also take these statistics with a grain of salt. For instance, while India’s approval rating of U.S. leadership suggests that U.S.-India relations are at a precariously low point, a whopping 67 percent of Indian respondents said that they did not know whether they approved or disapproved of U.S. leadership, suggesting that the India statistic only says so much.

Of course, polling data is often best understood in relative terms. In the U.S., Obama’s approval rating for May 21-23 was, coincidentally, 46 percent. Compared to worldwide opinion of President Bush at the end of his term, the Obama administration is doing much better with 46 percent median global approval in 2011 as contrasted with the Bush administration’s 38 percent in 2007. Despite fluctuating worldwide support for U.S. leadership, recent Gallup data suggests that the world’s population, on the whole, prefers U.S. leadership to that of almost any major power. While worldwide median approval of U.S. leadership in 2011 was 46 percent, German leadership enjoyed 47 percent approval; UK leadership had 40 percent approval; and Chinese leadership had just 32 percent approval, which still was better than Russia’s 28 percent. Notably, Germany experienced a 7 percentage point increase from 2010, when approval was 40 percent. While German leadership in the Eurozone crisis appears to have attracted popular global support, polling numbers for 2012 may tell a different story as citizens’ opinions of austerity measures continue to develop.

The data on U.S. leadership also raises the question of how people in other countries feel about their own leaders. I won’t recap the statistics on this highly situational question in great detail, but in May, Gallup released a fascinating data set on other leaders’ approval ratings in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Any U.S. president would envy Laotian President Choummali Saignanson’s approval rating of 97 percent, a phenomenon that Gallup attributes to Laos’ 7 percent or more economic growth since 2008. However, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s approval rating of 20 percent—the lowest reported rating for Asian leaders, who generally scored quite well—is a slightly more familiar number to an American audience. African leaders, such as Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza with 89 percent approval, also enjoyed high levels of support overall.

In future posts, I hope to discuss the reasons why global opinion of U.S. leadership has important implications for multilateral cooperation, U.S. national security, and the status of democracy worldwide–as well as the limits of these implications. Regardless, as U.S. foreign policy continues to evolve in the years to come, affecting global opinion, this data from 2011 will serve as a valuable point of comparison.



Julia Knight

Julia Knight is a graduate of Yale's Ethics, Politics & Economics program and a proud resident of New York City. She grew up as an American expatriate in Singapore and has traveled extensively, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. Professional experience ranges from criminal justice research at a public defender in the South Bronx to foreign policy research at a think tank to local government in Connecticut. She is interested in the ways that U.S. foreign policy and U.S. domestic policy interact, particularly in terms of American competitiveness, foreign citizens' perceptions of the United States, and job creation at home and abroad. In her free time, she enjoys drinking coffee, swimming, visiting New York's museums, and trying to learn Persian.