Foreign Policy Blogs

The World Votes for U.S. President Part II

Children watch President Obama's speech in Egypt in 2009. Source: Google Images

Children watch President Obama's speech in Egypt in 2009. Source: Google Images

If you are also a fan of global opinion polling, Wednesday was an exciting day. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Gallup’s findings on world opinion of U.S. leadership. Yesterday, the Pew Global Attitudes project released new data that, with greater specificity, measures world opinion of Barack Obama, American culture and U.S. foreign policy, among other topics. Although the Gallup poll found that world opinion of U.S. leadership has dropped slightly from the high levels of popularity associated with President Obama’s inauguration, the Pew survey compatibly found that “global approval of President Barack Obama’s policies has declined significantly since he first took office, while overall confidence in him and attitudes toward the U.S. have slipped modestly as a consequence.”

Opinion polling is a flawed science and the data set comes with a range of caveats, but to me, this Pew survey exemplifies the value of measuring global attitudes. Some of the findings confirmed many of the assumptions that I (and maybe some of you) hold about the United States’ image abroad, but other findings intrigued and challenged me. Below, I highlight and discuss some of Pew’s most important and/or interesting results, which were primarily based off of polling data from twenty countries:

While worldwide approval of President Obama’s foreign policy has decreased notably, confidence in President Obama himself has declined to a much lesser extent. In Europe, for instance, approval of Obama’s foreign policy dropped from 78 percent in 2009 to 63 percent in 2012, while “confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs” dropped from a high 86 percent in 2009 to a respectable 80 percent in 2012. In Muslim countries, approval of Obama’s policies went from 34 percent to 15 percent, but confidence in Obama declined to a lesser extent, from 33 percent to 24 percent.  Even in China, where support Obama’s foreign policies experienced a precipitous drop (57 percent to 27 percent) there was a smaller percent change in confidence in Obama (62 percent to 38 percent). President Obama himself still has significant soft power throughout the world, though it is less certain than in 2009.

Of course, there is more than one way to measure global approval of a U.S. president. In late May, the Brookings Institution used an innovative question to measure Obama’s popularity in Egypt, where relations with the U.S. are at a significant low.  Researchers asked if Egyptians would prefer Romney as U.S. president (which they did, at 73 percent) or Obama (25 percent); evaluating these findings, researchers added that “It is unlikely that most Egyptians know much about Romney, and the choice is thought to be an expression of disappointment with Obama.” In yesterday’s report, Pew also asked people in various countries about their hopes for Obama’s reelection, finding that “support for Obama’s re-election is generally high in Europe, Japan and Brazil,” with an overwhelming 92 percent of the French in favor of Obama. Support for Obama was dampened in Muslim-majority countries, ranging from 37 percent of Tunisians for Obama’s reelection and 38 percent against it, to 7 percent of Pakistanis for Obama and 49 percent against his reelection.

Support for U.S.-style democracy increased in most countries from 2007 to 2012. To me, the past four years have not provided a showcase of American democracy at its finest; to name just a few examples, Donald Trump’s absurd (and sadly, continuing) birther movement and the failure of the “super committee” demonstrate the extreme partisanship that throws sand in the gears of even one of the world’s oldest democracies. Nonetheless, global support for the American style of democracy has experienced significant gains. Europe, in particular, increasingly approves of “American ideas about democracy,” with opinion in Spain increasing from 19 percent approval in 2007 to 49 percent approval in 2012 and similarly impressive 20-percentage point approval gains in Italy and France respectively. I would like to know whether these gains have to do with frustration over the Eurozone crisis, a generally favorable perception of U.S. domestic politics, or a combination of the two.

Given Muslim countries’ low levels of support for U.S. foreign policy (24 percent, as mentioned earlier), it is interesting to note Arab Spring countries’ support for “American ideas about democracy.” As the report states, “…in Tunisia, the country that launched the Arab Spring, six-in-ten say they like these ideas. And significant minorities offer a favorable response in Lebanon (44%), Egypt (42%) and Jordan (42%).”

The United States’ drone program is extremely unpopular throughout the world and there is a huge gap between U.S. opinion of the program and global opinion. Out of various countries surveyed about drone strikes, 28 percent of people in the U.S. disapproved while 62 percent approved. The next most supportive country surveyed was Britain, with 47 percent disapproval and 44 percent approval. The MENA countries included in the survey also had very high levels of disapproval, ranging from 69 percent in Lebanon to 89 percent in Jordan. Greece had the lowest approval of all, with 90 percent of citizens disapproving. Pakistan and Yemen, countries profoundly affected by the drone strikes, were not included in this survey question.

While I won’t discuss drone strikes in detail in this post, Michael A. Cohen at Foreign Policy deconstructs how U.S. voters perceive the drone program and why the program will not play an important role in the elections. In a thoughtful article in yesterday’s New York Times, Yemeni activist Ibrahim Mothana explains how public perception of drone strikes is a security issue in and of itself. He argues that “Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but by a sense of revenge and despair … rather than winning the hearts and minds of Yemeni civilians, America is alienating them by killing their relatives and friends. Indeed, the drone program is leading to the Talibanization of vast tribal areas and the radicalization of people who could otherwise be America’s allies in the fight against terrorism in Yemen.” 

With its recent report, the Pew Global Attitudes Project has taken a valuable snapshot of global opinion in 2012, a year when numerous major events are pulling at the inextricable threads linking populations across the world. In some way or another, most corners of the globe will feel the effects of the U.S. presidential elections, the Eurozone crisis, and Arab Spring countries’ democratization processes, to name just a few of the events ahead. While the U.S. presidential elections provide a compelling reason for Pew, Gallup, and others to track global public opinion, I hope to see this work continued after campaigners close up shop in early November.



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.