Americans are rightly concerned about the United States’ ability to remain a global leader. In Iowa, Republican presidential aspirants have voiced concerns over President Obama’s lack of decisiveness, and the battle over the U.S. budget currently underway on Capitol Hill has caused people to question whether the United States can afford a dominant position in global affairs. The proposed cuts in international broadcasting sound disturbingly like the end of an era, as did the news reports of the space shuttle’s last flight. Both have been proud symbols of the American can-do spirit.
Yet, the rest of the world does not necessarily view the United States as a nation in decline, which is good news. According to the report of the U.S. Global Leadership Project (2010), just published by the Gallup organization and the Meridian International Center, median global approval of U.S. leadership was 47 percent in 2010, representing a 2 percent drop from the year before. For comparison, the U.S. “job approval” as a world leader in 2007 was 33 percent.
What can we conclude from these numbers? That the “Obama effect” is still in play, though some erosion is taking place. The 2007 numbers reflected worldwide popular opposition to President Bush’s military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. By contrast, the soaring numbers that followed the U.S. presidential election rewarded President Obama for being “not Bush,” for his personal popularity, and for his lip service to multilateralism and international institutions. Being “not Bush,” however, is not enough for presidential leadership, as the numbers show.
The regions where U.S. leadership is most in question—and not surprisingly so—are the Middle East and North Africa. In Tunisia and Egypt, a mere 19 percent approved of U.S. leadership; in Algeria, 35 percent; in Morocco 29 percent; and in the United Arab Emirates 15 percent. This is in part a reflection of unmet expectations following President Obama’s soaring 2009 Cairo speech on U.S.–Arab relations, and in part disappointment with the Obama Administration’s support for the region’s entrenched dictators. Sub-Saharan Africa is a different story entirely. Looking at the results region by region, opinion of the United States was higher in the Sub-Saharan than anywhere else in the world, averaging 84 percent.
Another region where unmet expectations took a toll on opinions of American leadership was the Americas, where views of U.S. leadership suffered on a large scale, dropping from 53 percent approval in 2009 to 44 percent in 2010. Those who have faith in improved relations between the U.S. and Latin America dropped from 43 percent to 33 percent. Here the lack of follow-through on free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia, negotiated under the previous Administration, has clearly been a factor.
Europe saw the biggest gain in U.S. approval between the Bush and Obama Administrations—no surprise there. From 10 percent approval in 2007, the average European score went to 47 percent in 2010. In Western Europe, favorable opinions remained high more so than in Central and Eastern Europe, a persistent difference since the election of President Obama. There were notable swings in both directions, however, depending upon the country. Approval dropped sharply in the countries suffering from the financial crisis: Greece, Ireland and Portugal. Meanwhile, it soared to 88 percent in Kosovo, whose national independence the United States has recognized, and bombed in Serbia to 12 percent—for much the same reason, presumably. Two countries recently included in the U.S. Visa Waiver program saw marked increases: Hungary by 15 percent and Malta by 9 percent, possibly reflecting easier access to U.S. travel.
Asia remains fairly steady in favorable views of the United States, which is good because the U.S. has close allies there. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea all show between 77 percent and 55 percent approval of U.S. leadership. An interesting contrast is offered by India, a prospective new ally, intensely courted by the U.S. government. A great weariness seems to characterize the Indian view of the United States: Only 18 percent of Indians actually approve of U.S. leadership, 10 percent disapprove, and a whopping 72 percent still stay they don’t know enough to make up their minds.
The lack of follow-through on many of Obama’s presidential promises has caused a drop in 2010 numbers, varying from region to region. Global views are indeed influenced by presidential imagery, but also very strongly by policy choices. Every region saw big losses in approval, and the number of countries where U.S. approval dramatically fell is now nearly four times as long as the list of countries where major gains were made.
The good news, though, is that the world still looks to the United States for leadership, more so than any other major country. As Americans take stock of the deficit, the national economy, and overseas military and political commitments, the Gallup U.S.-Global Leadership project offers a salutary reminder of this country’s international standing.