Home/Daniel Larison/U.S. Favorability Ratings and the “Global Popularity Contest”

U.S. Favorability Ratings and the “Global Popularity Contest”

Bret Stephens isn’t making any sense:

Still, there’s no overlooking the central point of this tussle: In the global popularity contest between Barack Obama and Ali Khamenei, the ayatollah is winning.

Claims of Iran’s isolation are often exaggerated, and the Western governments that have been leading the effort to sanction and isolate Iran are almost always the ones that try to present Iran as more internationally isolated than it is. Many governments around the world don’t perceive the same threat from Iran that Western governments claim to perceive. These traditionally non-aligned governments don’t have the same obsession with Iran’s nuclear program that the U.S., Israel, and a few other countries have, so it’s not surprising that they tend not to support efforts to isolate Iran on account of its nuclear program. Having said that, the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran doesn’t tell us very much about Obama or America’s “popularity” around the world.

Hawks usually argue that the importance of U.S. favorability is overrated, but this is the measure that Stephens wants to use to support his rickety argument:

In June, the Pew Research Center released one of its periodic surveys of global opinion. It found that since 2009, favorable attitudes toward the U.S. had slipped nearly everywhere in the world except Russia and, go figure, Japan.

Yes, it’s true that U.S. favorability has declined since 2009. In many countries, it has gone from being unsustainably high in the first year that Bush was no longer in office to being merely very high. Low U.S. favorability in many Muslim countries continues and grows worse in some places because of U.S. policies and actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Stephens isn’t kidding when he writes that “no U.S. president since Jimmy Carter has been so widely rebuked,” which conveniently overlooks the last President, who was far more widely rebuked and despised around the world. Bush badly damaged or destroyed U.S. favorability in most countries by the time he left office, and the U.S. is still recovering from the damage.

International disillusionment with Obama since 2009 has some of the same causes as the disillusionment of Obama supporters here at home: they had and were encouraged to have unreasonably high expectations, and those expectations could never have been met. To the extent that Obama continued and added to Bush-era policies abroad, his reputation around the world has suffered. Most people in other nations believed that Obama was something other than the fairly hawkish conventional Democrat that he always was, and now they know better.

Even so, U.S. favorability in most countries remains higher than it was in the late Bush years. Except for Muslim-majority countries, where Obama’s unpopular policies have generally been most to Stephens’ liking, U.S. favorability is still higher now than it was in 2008. When asked about their confidence in Obama versus Bush, the contrast between 2008 and 2012 is even more dramatic: a 14-point improvement in Russia, a 22-point improvement in Turkey (where the numbers are still abysmal, but significantly better than Bush’s 2%), an 18-point improvement in Egypt, 26-point improvement in Mexico, and even a nine-point improvement in Poland. If this is what a “rebuke” looks like, we could use more of them.

Does this mean that foreign governments are necessarily going to become more cooperative on contentious issues? Of course not. Other governments will still have their own priorities and interests, and it is increasingly difficult for the U.S. to get other states to ignore their own interests for sake of a U.S. policy goal. That is a result of the emergence of more independent and assertive rising powers, which would be happening whether or not the U.S. was viewed more or less favorably.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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