Gallup reports on international approval of “U.S. leadership in 2011:
Although the image of U.S. leadership is showing some cracks in the third year of President Barack Obama’s presidency, it remains more positive worldwide than during the last years of the Bush administration. Across 136 countries, median approval of U.S. leadership in 2011 stood at 46% — relatively unchanged from the 47% median across 116 countries in 2010.
So global median approval is “relatively unchanged” (and it’s just three points lower than 2009) and approval on every continent is higher than it was in 2007 or 2008. Naturally, this means that the world is turning sharply against Obama. Here is Nathaniel Botwinick’s interpretation:
According to a new Gallup poll, the United States’ leadership approval rating continues to drop worldwide — the rest of the world is also becoming disillusioned with “hope and change,” too. The U.S. faced heavy declines across the board in Africa and South America, while Europe and Asia saw mixed results. Among important American allies such as France, Spain, and Germany, the United States suffered double-digit losses.
There was a sharp drop in approval for U.S. leadership in Africa between 2010 and 2011. As Gallup explains:
Double-digit losses in 10 sub-Saharan countries, including an 18-percentage point drop in South Africa, led the declines that essentially negate the gains after the transition from the Bush to the Obama administration.
Leaving aside that the median approval rating in Africa is still 74%, it is not hard to understand where this drop came from. While it is probably not the only reason, the decision to intervene militarily in Libya likely had a lot to do with increasing disapproval in sub-Saharan African countries, many of which benefited from Gaddafi’s largesse and many of whose publics were strongly opposed to U.S./NATO intervention. The drop in South African approval (which was at 92% in 2010 and is now 74%) is even easier to explain. After voting for UNSCR 1973, which it seems to have regretted doing, the South African government became a strong critic of the Libyan war. South Africa’s President Zuma repeatedly tried to negotiate a cease-fire under the auspices of the African Union during the war, but South Africa and the African Union were always rebuffed and ignored by Western governments. All of that was bound to reduce approval of “U.S. leadership” in South Africa and other sub-Saharan African countries. It’s not hard to imagine that there has been some disillusionment abroad when other nations discover that Obama was never going to change U.S. foreign policy dramatically or in ways that they would like, but that is almost certainly not what Botwinick has in mind when he refers to this.
On the other hand, a comparison of the 2011 approval ratings with the numbers from four years ago reminds us just how much improvement there has been. In Africa, median approval is 11 points higher than in 2007 and essentially the same as 2008, and Africa was far and away the best part of the world for approval of the U.S. during the Bush years. Median approval in Central and South America is only at 40%, which is six points better than 2008, but it’s still not very good. It is most likely driven in large part by regional dissatisfaction with the U.S. drug war, perceived U.S. “neglect” of the region, and our archaic Cuba policy. Even so, median approval is still higher in 2011 than in 2008 after having dropped thirteen points from its high point in 2009. Latin American nations have been understandably as underwhelmed by the lack of changes to U.S. policies under Obama as their leaders were at the recent Summit of the Americas.
It is in Europe and Asia where the differences are still the most noticeable. Median approval in Europe was 23 points higher in 2011 than in 2007, and it was eight points higher in Asia in 2011 than in 2008. Ratings that were very negative in both Europe and Asia in 2007-08 are still much more positive. To the extent that Obama’s policies have represented continuity with or similarity to Bush-era policies, they have naturally provoked similar negative reactions around the world. What is remarkable, then, is that “U.S. leadership” still receives more approval now despite the fact that the major substantive differences between Bush and Obama are relatively few. Since Botwinick mentions France and Germany as two countries where there has been a significant decline since last year, let’s remember that U.S. favorability in France and Germany had collapsed by 20-25 points between Bush’s first year in office and 2004. (According to Gallup, French approval in 2008 was at 13%, and German approval was 19%.)
Of course, one could argue that Americans shouldn’t care about international approval for U.S. leadership, but that seems self-defeating for supporters of “U.S. leadership.” I would be most sympathetic to an argument that the U.S. shouldn’t be pursuing the sort of “leadership” in question, but that’s a different debate all together. If we assume for the sake of argument that it is better for the United States to have broad international approval for “U.S. leadership,” the 2011 Gallup findings are mostly good news. They show that public opinion in most of the world approves of “U.S. leadership” far more now than they did at the end of the Bush years.
Update: Joshua Keating looks at some of the approval numbers in the allied and client-state countries that Republicans claim Obama has “betrayed” or snubbed:
Even after a contentious year in mideast diplomacy, approval for U.S. leadership in Israel is basically unchanged at 55 percent. In Britain, despite various perceived snubs, approval of U.S. leadership improved by 13 points. As for the countries that Obama has supposedly thrown under the bus as part of the Russia reset, Georgia and Poland both showed slight improvements.
It’s almost as if Republican complaints are inspired by unrepresentative hard-line nationalist opinion in these countries. Most remarkable of all is Georgia, where approval of U.S. “leadership” has been higher in every year of Obama’s tenure than it was during Bush’s last two years and has reached 50% for the first time in the last five.