Jan 7, 2021 - World

America's global image is in tatters

Data: Pew Research Global Attitudes and Trends; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios
Data: Pew Research Global Attitudes and Trends; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

President-elect Biden declared during the siege of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday that "the world is watching." Indeed, the world was watching long before that.

Why it matters: Biden has made restoring America's global image, leadership and alliances the cornerstone of his foreign policy agenda. That was a tall order even before audiences around the world watched a mob forcefully disrupt America's democratic process.

By the numbers: A Pew survey conducted in July — in the midst of the pandemic, racial justice protests and the U.S. election campaign — found that across 13 allied countries, a median of just 34% said they viewed the U.S. positively.

  • In nearly every country, those numbers had fallen precipitously from 2019, when majorities in most of the countries viewed Trump negatively, but not America itself.
  • In Japan, 68% of respondents viewed the U.S. favorably as of 2019, a number that had held fairly steady for a decade. This year, it fell to 41%. The falls were nearly as sharp in countries like South Korea (77% to 59%) and Australia (50% to 33%).
  • Back in 2015, a median of 68% in Pew's poll viewed the U.S. favorably.

Breaking it down: Those numbers aren't just a reflection of antipathy to Trump, though his global favorability ratings are strikingly low (19% in the U.K., for example).

  • Majorities in most countries believe the U.S. had done a "very bad" job handling the pandemic. A median of just 15% across the 13 countries felt the U.S. response was "somewhat" or "very" good.
  • Another Pew poll found a sharp decline in the belief that the U.S. "respects the personal freedoms of its people."
  • Meanwhile, a Gallup poll of 135 countries conducted in late 2019/early 2020 (before the pandemic) found virtually identical rates of approval for U.S. (median of 33%), Chinese (32%) and Russian (30%) global leadership.

Flashback: The Pew and Gallup polls both go back far enough to highlight another time when global views of the U.S. plummeted dramatically: in 2003, following the invasion of Iraq.

  • In several allied countries, views of U.S. leadership were equivalent to or lower then than they are today.
  • Those ratings remained relatively low throughout Bush's tenure and then shot upward amid global enthusiasm around the election of Barack Obama.

What to watch: Now another president is taking office promising to restore America's standing.

  • Biden is unlikely to be greeted with the immediate surge of pro-U.S. sentiment that surrounded President Obama.
  • For the time being, global attention is focused far more closely on the president who is leaving than the man who is about to replace him.
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