With every new geopolitical crisis and hotspot that flares up, the idea that the U.S. has lost its global mojo surfaces once more. President Obama was asked about it again at his press conference on Friday. “Mr. President, like that cease-fire, you’ve called for diplomatic solutions not only in Israel and Gaza but also in Ukraine, in Iraq, to very little effect so far,” a reporter asked. “Has the United States of America lost its influence in the world? Have you lost yours?”
Obama answered as you might expect him to: “Apparently people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on Earth, still does not control everything around the world,” he said. “And so our diplomatic efforts often take time. They often will see progress and then a step backwards. That’s been true in the Middle East. That’s been true in Europe. That’s been true in Asia. That’s the nature of world affairs. It’s not neat, and it’s not smooth.”
Whether you agree or disagree with Obama, in light of the latest round of questions about America’s role in the world, it’s worth asking yet again: Just how does the world see the U.S. now?
The answer, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, may surprise you: The U.S. remains generally popular, even if some of its policies and agencies — especially the NSA — are not. Pew found that 65 percent of those surveyed across more than 40 countries view the U.S. favorably, little changed from 2013. And 56 percent of those surveyed said they have confidence in President Obama “to do the right thing in world affairs,” also little changed from a year earlier. The two countries where Obama’s approval dropped the most were Germany (from 88 percent to 71 percent) and Brazil (69 percent to 52 percent). The U.S. has listened in to private phone conversations of leaders in both countries.
The Pew survey focused on the U.S., China and the international balance of power, with particular emphasis on how drone strikes and electronic surveillance have affected the American brand. "A country’s brand is a valued commodity," say the study's authors, "especially when that nation is the world’s largest economic and strategic power."
It’s Not You, It’s Your Policies
The study finds most people in most other countries are not happy with the Obama administration’s use of drones to project American military power. Majorities or pluralities in 39 of 44 countries surveyed oppose U.S. drone strikes. Kenya, Israel and the U.S. are the only countries surveyed where approval is greater than 50 percent. At 65 percent, Israel's approval rating for drone strikes is the highest.
When it comes to electronic surveillance, opinion is similar. Majorities in nearly every country surveyed oppose U.S. monitoring of emails and phone calls of either foreign leaders or their citizens. Specifically:
- 81 percent of respondents find it unacceptable for the U.S. to monitor the communications of its citizens.
- 73 percent find it unacceptable for the U.S. to monitor the communications of its leaders.
- 62 percent find it unacceptable for the U.S. to monitor the communications of American citizens.
The Shining City Upon a Hill, Only Slightly Dimmed
The study found that the U.S. spying revealed by Edward Snowden has had a negative effect on global public opinion. For both 2013 and 2014, people in 22 of 36 countries surveyed said they are "substantially less likely to believe the U.S. government respects the personal freedoms of its citizens." The drop off was 20 percentage points or greater in six countries.
For all the resentment engendered by certain aspects of U.S. foreign policy, America's overall image abroad hasn't been appreciably harmed. Only 25 percent of those surveyed view the U.S. unfavorably.
For all the questions about U.S. foreign policy and global influence, the Pew research finds things could be worse: “In spite of the unpopularity of U.S. spying and its use of drones, America also remains more popular globally than China, its principal rival in world affairs,” Pew reported. On the other hand, about half of those surveyed see China eventually surpassing the U.S. as the world’s dominant superpower. So President Obama, and the presidents who follow him in the Oval Office, are going to keep getting asked about America’s standing in the world.
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