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U.S. as leader — or not. What Gallup has found about global perceptions

“For the third year in a row, the U.S. received historically low assessments from some of its closest historic allies,” Gallup reports.

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaking at a roundtable on donating plasma during a visit to the American Red Cross National Headquarters in Washington on Thursday.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria

How much do we care, or should we care, about how residents of other nations view the United States as a leader of the world? If we do care, how can we know? And what has happened to those views over recent history?

All those questions are above my pay grade. Personally, I tend to care what the world thinks of my country, but I’m often reluctant to see the U.S. get into unnecessary wars.

I would venture to say that since America came out of its isolationist phase with its entry into World War II in 1941, America has purported to be, and often has been, the leader of what we used to call the non-communist world, and especially the club of relatively wealthy Western nations represented by the membership of NATO. And I would say that by running as an America Firster, Donald Trump was playing the opposite card, arguing that U.S. activity in the world has too often been a sucker play for America.

Over recent years, the Gallup organization has tried to ascertain how residents of other countries perceive the United States as a world leader, and to compare and contrast that with other nations that, one might say, play some sort of global or regional leadership role.

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Gallup has published the most recent update of the surveys on which those ratings are based, and they are consistent with the trends in those surveys going back to late years of the George W. Bush presidency. The trend is quite clear and strong, is shown graphically below and can be described thus:

The approval rating of the United States as a “world leader” rose sharply during the Obama years, fell sharply from net approval to net disapproval when Donald Trump was elected and, although it has inched up since first year of Trump, it remains far below water.

Global Leadership Rankings
From the Gallup editor’s summary in the introduction to the report:

“The image of U.S. leadership, on the other hand, remains relatively weak. For the third year in a row, the U.S. received historically low assessments from some of its closest historic allies. In fact, approval of U.S. leadership rose noticeably in some of the world’s least democratic societies. And, the leadership of China and Russia remained essentially as unpopular as the U.S. Halfway through 2020, both the United States’ and China’s responses to the coronavirus pandemic have been criticized from East to West. The image of U.S. leadership in particular could seriously suffer as the globe watches U.S. states and the federal government struggle to get infection rates under control. But while 2019 may feel like a century ago, the public’s impressions of the leadership of the world’s major powers could, in some key regions, influence how each nation’s leadership positions their own country’s lot with each global power in 2020 and beyond.”

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Those ratings have edged up a bit over the past two years, but have remained near the low they established right after the transition from Obama to Trump. The ratings are at their worst in Europe, where they have sat stably at 24 percent approval during recent years. The numbers have edged up elsewhere, especially in Africa, from the lows they established in Trump’s first year, but nowhere near making up the ground they lost during the transition from Obama to Trump.

A PDF of the full Gallup report can be downloaded from a link at the top of this page.