It should be noted that this figure remains marginally higher than global approval of U.S. leadership pre-2009 (34 percent in 2008 and 38 percent in 2007), and may even indicate a gradual adjustment back to the norm. Global approval of other major world powers is also declining across the board – in comparable surveys on global opinion of the leadership in China, Russia, Germany, and the United Kingdom, all demonstrated a decline in approval between 2011 and 2012. Moreover, at a 41 percent global median, Germany actually tied the U.S. for the highest approval rating among these five historical powerhouses.
Yet the nature of leadership – and perceptions of these leaders – is also changing worldwide at a rapid pace. This is to be expected, as new limits are placed on power in all sectors; and 24/7 media outlets expose the paralysis of governing bodies across the globe, including the U.S. government as it attempts to execute something as basic as a budget. Nonetheless, the fact remains that international approval of U.S. leadership is on a downward trend with few obvious signs of an impending upswing. Whatever leadership might look like in the future, if we want to maintain a leading position in the global landscape, it is time to reexamine our strategies.
It isn’t surprising that some of the lowest approval ratings for U.S. leadership can be found in the Middle East and North Africa. Except in Libya, where the positive levels were almost unprecedented according to survey results gathered before the attacks in Benghazi. While the often intangible battle for hearts and minds rages on across the region, it is essential to assess where the varying characteristics and methods of U.S. engagement converge with positive and negative perceptions – from a low approval rating in Egypt unchanged since before the fall of Mubarak, to a curiously high 13 percentage point positive shift in Syria, to more than three quarters of the Pakistani population disapproving of U.S. leadership.
Yet even some of our closest allies may not be our biggest fans. European approval of U.S. leadership – though still twice as high (at 36 percent) as before President Obama’s first term – dropped fairly precipitously between 2011 and 2012 from 42 percent to 36 pecent (more than the preceding two years combined). The effects of the ongoing financial crisis in Europe and the perceived role of the U.S. in that crisis are hard to ignore, and so is the fact that some of the biggest spikes in disapproval stem from European countries. One has to wonder what will happen when trade negotiations between the U.S. and the European Union begin in earnest later this year, and many non-Eurozone states are left out in the cold – and even some member states don’t feel their voices are heard.
This less than ideal picture from both expected and unexpected sources is, at the very least, an indication that newly reelected President Obama and his recently installed Secretary of State, John Kerry, have their work cut out for them. So what’s the good news? While the factors that led us on this downward trend are complex, the solutions do not have to be complicated. The power of money – via foreign aid and other avenues – is not as meaningful as the power of exchange and sustained engagement. In fact, regional data proves that global engagement strategies such as prolonged and substantive dialogue, relationship-building, and renewed public and cultural diplomacy have not only increased America’s overall “likeability,” but also improved global perceptions of U.S. actions in the global stability and security arenas.
Sometimes, however, perception is first and foremost a matter of visibility. While we often think of the United States as hard to escape in the global opinions game, prior to President Obama’s historic late 2012 visit, 67 percent of Myanmar citizens either had no opinion of U.S. leadership or chose not to answer when surveyed. As countries like this continue to become more open, positive and consistent engagement with the U.S. will be critical. In fact, just last month, Meridian was honored to work with the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women initiative, the McCain Institute, and the George W. Bush Institute on a delegation of several incredible women from Burma. By creating opportunities for exchange with peers, policy experts, and decision-makers, these women will return home with not only a better understanding of the U.S., but the tools to bring their country onto a world stage that is ready to work with them.
Meanwhile, a dramatic 11 point increase in approval in Mexico between 2011 and 2012 – still 3 points below the regional average at 37 percent – coupled with a healthy majority of approval in Canada demonstrates that some of our best friends may be close to home. Greater engagement with the highest levels of Mexican leadership, in conjunction with a shifting U.S. stance on immigration, may have contributed to the change. The U.S. should capitalize on this goodwill and a strong history of North American trade to invest in these relationships and the potential they hold for the future.
By developing a more robust understanding of international perceptions and what is shaping them, the U.S. Global Leadership Project serves as both a bellwether and a guidepost for global leaders. Through discussion of the data, these leaders recognize the need to build relationships across borders and sectors while working collaboratively to develop solutions for the complex economic, political, and social challenges that face communities, corporations, and countries around the world. Increasingly, it is likely to be this kind of fully engaged approach that doesn’t “go it alone” (except in matters of vital national security) that will ultimately sustain U.S. leadership in the world.
We should remember that the data also reveals that 3 percent of the world’s adult population – or 138 million people – would permanently relocate to the U.S. if they could. These citizens represent a diverse cross-section from every major region of the world and some of the most critical countries, including China, India, and Brazil. This distinction between views of U.S. leadership and views of the opportunity presented by life in America is critical – and indicates that there are many individuals open to engagement with the U.S. on some level. And the recipe for that increased positive engagement with the world is right in front of us: exchange. The exchange of ideas, the exchange of cultures, and the exchange of experiences – this builds trust, helps us find common ground, and creates new opportunities for collaboration. It may be a slow process, but it is a lasting one.
Holliday is president & CEO of Meridian International Center.