Is America in decline?

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Is America in decline?

Throughout the United States presidential primary season, Republican candidates disagreed on many issues, but were united in their attacks on President Barack Obama for presiding over the decline in America’s stature in the world. No candidate pursued this line of attack more vigorously than the now presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.

By Bruce Stokes

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Published: Tue 19 Jun 2012, 1:32 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 11:52 AM

Obama vigorously pushed back. A new global survey now brings a mixed verdict about this debate.

In January, Romney charged that “(Obama) believes that America’s role as leader in the world is a thing of the past.” He has repeated variants of this charge numerous times.

President Obama has not hesitated to respond: “Let’s start by putting aside the tired notion that says our influence has waned, that America is in decline.”

Each candidate attempts to seize the high ground as the champion of American triumphalism. Romney seems intent on convincing voters that the bad old days of anti-Americanism are returning, thanks to Obama. The president implies that the Obama-mania that swept much of the world in the wake of the 2008 election remains a positive asset for the US. A new global survey of more than 26,000 people in 21 countries released June 13 by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes project shows both presidential contenders are right. And both are wrong.

Each US presidential candidate attempts to seize the high ground as champion of American triumphalism.

After his election in November 2008, many people around the world embraced Obama in large part because he was not George W. Bush. Reversing a half-decade of profound anti-Americanism, support for the new US president and America soared to what have proven to be unsustainable levels. Obama’s honeymoon with the global public — symbolized with an award of the Nobel Peace Prize — is not over. But as he seeks re-election, indications of friction in the relationship are emerging.

As a result the Romney and Obama camps are likely to cherry-pick world-public opinion data that bolster their respective partisan arguments and conveniently ignore sentiments that contradict their campaign themes.

Any assessment of the global public’s take on America during the Obama era depends on whether it’s a snapshot or a moving picture — and when the cameras start rolling. In the fourth year of the Obama presidency overall ratings for the US today remain largely positive in 12 of 20 countries outside the US surveyed by the Pew Research Center. This includes large majorities in a number of European nations — Poland, 74 per cent; France and Italy, 69 per cent; as well as Japan, 72 per cent, and Brazil, 61 per cent. In contrast, ratings are decidedly negative in four of the six predominantly Muslim countries polled, including 19 per cent in Egypt, 15 per cent in Turkey, 12 per cent in Jordan and Pakistan.

And what goes up has no place to go but down. This year America’s favourability stands at 52 per cent in Germany, down 10 percentage points from 2009, in Obama’s first year. Opinion of the US in Mexico, 56 per cent favorable, is down 13 points from 2009.

But such comparisons are relative. German approval of the US is still 21 points higher today than it was in the last year of the Bush administration. Mexican approval is up 8 points 
from 2008. Romney and Obama campaigns will cherry-pick world-opinion data to bolster partisan arguments.

The favourability of the US in Japan is also down 13 points from 2010, but still at a strong 72 per cent, the falloff coming from a spike in Japanese appreciation likely attributable to American aid in the wake of the devastating 2011 tsunami. It’s still 22 points higher than in 2008.

More ominously, approval of the US in China, 43 per cent, is down 15 points from 2010, although relatively unchanged from 2008. Moreover, America’s image as the global economic superpower is eroding. In 2008, before the onset of the global financial crisis, a median of 45 per cent of those Pew surveyed in 14 countries named the US as the world’s leading economic power, while 22 per cent nominated China. Today, 36 per cent say America is number one, while 42 per cent state China is the top dog.

At the same time, around the globe, people continue to embrace American popular culture and admire US science and technology. Attitudes toward American ideas about democracy and ways of doing business are mixed, but global publics are more positive toward both than during the final years of the Bush administration. This is especially true in Europe, but views have improved in other regions as well.

For instance, looking at the 16 countries surveyed in both 2007 and 2012, the median percentage saying they like American ways of doing business has increased by 11 percentage points. The median percentage stating that American ideas and customs are spreading to their country is a positive has also increased over the last five years, although this remains the minority viewpoint. Foreign confidence in Obama’s foreign policy leadership has slipped by six percentage points or more in most countries since 2009. But it remains high in Europe— 87 per cent in Germany; France, 86 per cent; Britain, 80 per cent — as well as Japan, 74 per cent, and Brazil, 68 per cent. Attitudes are negative in predominantly Muslim countries — Pakistan, 7 per cent; Jordan, 22 per cent; Turkey, 24 per cent — and Russia, 36 per cent; China, 38 per cent; and India, 41 per cent.

On a number of specific issues, there’s a sense around the world that Obama has not lived up to expectations.

Moreover, on a number of specific issues, there’s a sense that Obama has not lived up to expectations. The 2009 Pew Global Attitudes survey found that many expected the new president to act multilaterally, seek international approval before using military force and make progress on climate change. The current survey reveals few view progress on these issues.

For example, three years ago, majorities across Europe and Japan anticipated that Obama would be fair in his handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But today, just five of 21 countries have pluralities or more who believe Obama has been evenhanded on this issue. The gap between expectations and current evaluations is greater than 20 percentage points throughout Europe — 79 per cent of the British surveyed in 2009 said Obama would deal fairly with this issue; just 47 per cent now say he has.

Gaps are smaller in the predominantly Muslim nations surveyed, but that’s because expectations were already low when Obama began his term. Today, less than 20 per cent in six predominantly Muslim nations surveyed think Obama handled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fairly.

The global public particularly opposes one of the signature Obama security policy initiatives: drone strikes. In 17 of 20 countries, more than half of those surveyed disapprove, including 63 per cent of the French and 59 per cent of the Germans, fellow NATO allies. With 62 per cent of Americans approving such actions, including 74 percent of Republicans, Romney probably can’t exploit foreign opposition to Obama’s use of drones. In retrospect, hopes for an Obama presidency were unrealistically high, especially among Europeans. The real global public opinion story as Obama heads into a reelection campaign may be that the Obama honeymoon with the Europeans lasted as long as it did. Nevertheless, this survey suggests frustrations with Obama and the United States are mounting.

Bruce Stokes is the director of the Pew Research Center’s Global Economic Attitudes. The full survey is available at© Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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