Median approval of U.S. leadership in 2011 remained stable with a small dip from 2010 to 2011 from 47% to 43%. The list of countries where the approval of the U.S. dropped more than 10 percentage points is nearly twice as long as it was in 2010 and perhaps more troubling still-- that list includes countries from every region of the world--and even long time U.S. allies. The gains made in approval from the high expectations for President Obama’s first year in office (a bump of 15 percentage points) have continued to decline.  

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These results appear at first glance to paint a pessimistic picture. However, it is important to realize that to some degree these shifts reflect a natural normalizing from their initial high point of 53 percent after President Obama’s 2008 election. It is striking that in comparison to how other countries’ leadership is viewed, the U.S. still receives significantly higher approval ratings than China (32 percent), Russia (28 percent), or the UK (39 percent) and comes only one percentage point behind Germany which had the highest approval rating for 2011. This means that while our standing in the international community may have diminished somewhat, it is still significantly stronger than most other countries. The world has now settled into a more realistic view of what U.S. leadership can accomplish. 

We should also bear in mind that with the exception of Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. leadership has been predominantly preoccupied with domestic challenges and debates. The U.S. chose not to get engaged in resolving the European financial crisis, let others lead in Libya, and watched with the rest of the world as the Arab Spring countries went through internally-generated democratic revolutions and uprisings. This choice unfortunately has left some countries feeling ignored and others questioning the effectiveness of U.S. leadership. 

However, one of the most important factors affecting these numbers might be that this year has been one of great change across the world—from the fall of deeply entrenched leaders to massive popular protests in both dictatorships and democracies. There is a crisis of leadership globally brought on by the financial crisis: people have lost faith in the ability of governments around the world to solve problems. This dissatisfaction is accelerated by social media which enables people to organize better and faster and provides a wide array of diverse perspectives. The result is that people are increasingly looking to non-governmental networks made up of individuals, NGOs and even corporations, who can be more nimble and creative, to help solve the problems. 

This trend is actually good for the U.S. because our society leads on cross sector collaboration. Our government is already looking to public/private partnerships to extend its reach while reducing the public spending burden. Moreover, American businesses and NGOs are world-renowned for their innovation, entrepreneurship, and resourcefulness. These sectors are creating partnerships with the developing world that go beyond just an aid-focused relationship to stimulate private enterprise, innovation, and job creation in other countries. 

Make no mistake, in order to continue its ranking as one of the world’s top leaders, the U.S. must maintain a strong national security posture, restore lost credibility resulting from the financial crisis, and figure out how to resolve domestic in-fighting. However, we must also learn how to lead in a different way, where governments can be not just drivers but also partners. Our government should be striving to move from a government-driven leadership model to a more inclusive and collaborative leadership style. If we can embrace this democratization of leadership while projecting greater political unity, we will demonstrate to both our allies and adversaries that we can deliver on our foreign policy goals and continue meeting, and even surpassing, global expectations of American leadership.

Holliday served as United States Ambassador for Special Political Affairs at the United Nations from 2003 to 2005. Holliday’s primary duties involved representing the United States on issues in the U.N. Security Council. This included responsibility for U.S. policy on U.N. peacekeeping, sanctions, and counterterrorism programs.