The Washington Diplomat / May 2014
By Larry Luxner
Since 2005, the Gallup polling firm has been asking average people around the world what they think of U.S. leadership.
The latest report offers even pessimists a glimmer of good news: while the image of U.S. leadership was weaker at the end of President Barack Obama’s first term than at any point during his first administration, the numbers rebounded in 2013 — despite foreign-policy obstacles ranging from Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Syria’s civil war to stalled Arab-Israeli peace talks and outrage in Europe over NSA spying.
Worldwide, approval of U.S. leadership now stands at 46 percent, up from 41 percent in 2012.
“While not a full recovery to the 49 percent approval measured at the start of Obama’s presidency, it ended a downward trend,” according to a summary of the poll’s results. “Asia and Europe largely led improvements, with the 45 percent median approval rating in Asia the highest Gallup has measured in the region during either the Obama or the Bush administrations.”
The 20-page summary was presented during an Apr. 10 breakfast at Gallup’s Washington headquarters, in conjunction with the Meridian International Center. Among the 100 or so attendees were representatives of 26 foreign embassies including two ambassadors: Moldova’s Igor Munteanu and Nigeria’s Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye.
Participants were welcomed by James Blanchard, chairman of the Meridian Board of Trustees (he’s also a former governor of Michigan and ex-U.S. ambassador to Canada), and by Stuart Holliday, Meridian’s president and CEO.
“This is the most comprehensive project ever when it comes to attitudes toward the United States,” said Jon Clifton, managing director of Gallup World Poll. “This includes over 1.5 million interviews in 163 countries. Nearly every country from Bhutan to Swaziland to Turkmenistan was included. We even surveyed Somalis for the first time. We went out to all these countries and asked people how they felt about America.”
Clifton gave a slide show explaining to what length Gallup goes to capture all that information.
“A lot of times, you read about surveys conducted online. But we went through a very robust process,” he said as images on an overhead screen depicted people being polled in such far-flung places as Costa Rica, Kyrgyzstan and Madagascar. “In China, we didn’t just do surveys in Beijing and Shanghai. And 80 percent of the time, they were done not by phone but face-to-face.”
Clifton added: “There are some countries where men cannot interview women. So we needed to come back with a female interviewer. We go back up to three times if necessary. All the data that’s in here took about 10 months to collect.”
Nine of the 10 countries where U.S. leadership scored the highest are in Africa — led by Guinea (90 percent), Senegal (88 percent), Mali (83 percent), Rwanda (81 percent) and Chad (80 percent). The sole exception is the newly declared republic of Kosovo, where 84 percent of respondents approved of U.S. leadership.
The Obama administration is also quite popular in Albania (77 percent); Haiti (71 percent); Ireland (70 percent); Cambodia (67 percent); Canada (66 percent); Great Britain (63 percent); New Zealand and the Philippines (62 percent each); Italy and the Netherlands (60 percent each); Australia (59 percent); South Korea (58 percent); Belgium (57 percent); Costa Rica (55 percent), and Israel and Mongolia (53 percent each).
Conversely, the worst scores are found in the Arab world, with approval ratings of 18 percent in Lebanon, 15 percent in Iran, 13 percent in the Palestinian territories and only 9 percent in Yemen. Interestingly, the average Syrian view of U.S. leadership has jumped from only 4 percent in 2008 to 26 percent last year, while China’s standing fell from 55 to 20 percent over that same period and Russia’s dropped from 57 to 12 percent.
Despite the ongoing civil war in Syria, “we are still doing face-to-face interviews on the ground there,” Clifton said. Likewise, the 15 percent approval rating of U.S. leadership in Iran — which like Syria is on the State Department’s list of governments that sponsor terrorism — is a big improvement over the 9 percent reported in 2011.
Overall, the United States gets its highest marks from Africa, where 64 percent of respondents approve of U.S. leadership, followed by Asia (45 percent), Europe (41 percent) and Latin America (40 percent).
In Nigeria, with 170 million inhabitants Africa’s most populous country, 60 percent of respondents viewed U.S. leadership favorably in 2013 — down from 71 percent a year earlier.
“There were very high expectations after Obama’s inauguration,” said Adefuye. “We thought the U.S. would pay more attention to Africa. We expected more.”
If the Gallup numbers are to be believed, Ukrainians aren’t impressed with U.S. leadership either. Only 34 percent of those polled in that country approve of the Obama administration’s policies, compared to 47 percent who look upon the Kremlin favorably.
Munteanu, commenting on Moldova’s perceptions of the United States, praised Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent trip to his small country and noted that by the end of April, Moldovans would be able to take short trips within the European Union’s Schengen area without the need for visas.
“We are the first country of the Eastern Partnership to receive this benefit,” he said. “Our people look with great admiration to the EU because they want the same level of certainty about their future, and they want a stable business environment. This kind of partnership is fully supported by the United States.”
Yet James K. Glassman, chairman of Public Affairs Engagement LLC, sounded a sour note. Glassman also helped run the Dallas-based George W. Bush Institute and served the 41st president as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.
“I would be hard-pressed to find too many observers of U.S. foreign policy who would say that our leadership is stronger now than it was 10 years ago. I think it’s more hesitant,” said the retired diplomat, who’s also a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a frequent Obama critic. “People around the world have less confidence in our leadership. In some sense, we may have abdicated leadership. One example of this is that we couldn’t get other countries to go along with us on taking limited action against Syria for using chemical weapons on its own people.”
Why then, he was asked, did the U.S. leadership approval rating rise from 41 to 46 percent over the past year?
“It seems to me that leadership is equated with general favorability,” Glassman replied. “A lot of it has to do with the way people feel in their own countries.”