Amid deepening divisions, US no longer seen as beacon of light around the world

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People care about their image, how others perceive them. So do nations.

Every nation extends its values and interests onto the world stage, generating public opinion. How citizens and governments respond to a nation (positively or negatively) can impact that nation’s power and influence, both real and perceived. That, in turn, affects policy and people — how we live within the global community. In short, what others think of you matters.

Into that complex public opinion vortex comes a new report from Pew Research Center, which has been measuring international attitudes for decades. The findings of this new Pew survey on international perceptions of the United States,  Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) include critical data for all of us, especially Americans.

Pew’s data were collected from February of this year through the third week of May — a critical window when things were changing across the globe.

On Feb. 24, Russia began a full-scale military assault on Ukraine leading to a massive refugee and humanitarian crisis and an urgent need for military equipment and troops from the West.

President Biden had just entered his second year in office, having endured a painful evacuation of American troops from Afghanistan in August. The COVID-19 pandemic, with its deep divisions over masks and vaccines, was still raging.

Jan. 6was barely in the rearview mirror and divisive congressional hearings would be underway by spring. Against that backdrop, how did America fare?

First, the good news: International public opinion of the United States remains positive in the 18 developed countries surveyed, according to the report. Most global citizens say that the U.S. is a reliable partner, and ratings for President Biden are mostly positive. NATO’s image is positive and improving even among countries such as Sweden, which is not (yet) a member.

Unsurprisingly, the view of Russia, which we have blamed for the troubles in Europe, is negative and falling. In 10 countries, 10 percent or less of those polled expressed a favorable opinion of Russia. Positive views of Russian President Vladimir Putin are in single digits in more than half of the nations polled.

And our strategic competitor China is not held in high regard. Chinese President Xi Jinping gets mostly low ratings, except among people in Singapore and Malaysia.

But there is a corollary to the story about America, and the devil is in the details:

Over the past couple of years, advanced nations have found reason to be very concerned about the health of American democracy. In 2021, more than half of people in most nations surveyed said democracy in the U.S. “used to be a good example for other nations to follow” but no longer is. Large majorities in nearly all nations polled believe that there are strong conflicts in America among supporters of different political parties.

And although Biden is still well-liked around the world, his approval ratings have slipped since 2021, with confidence in his leadership dropping significantly in 13 countries —falling 20 percentage points or more in Italy, Greece, Spain, Singapore and France. (Biden’s drop is bigger that what Obama experienced in his second year.) Some of that drop may reflect disappointment over the way the U.S. evacuated from Afghanistan, how we handled COVID-19 and the U.S. economy.

It should be noted that America received historically low international ratings during President Trump’s tenure, and global attitudes toward Trump were overwhelmingly negative.

Within the United States, Trump divided Republicans and Democrats more than any incoming president in the previous 30 years — a gap that only grew after he took office, according to earlier Pew reports.

What’s the takeaway from this new survey, and what can we do about it?

The headline, in my view, is that America’s internal divisions over race, policy and politics are visible to many around the world. As the famous saying goes, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”

Nor should we. America needs other countries and other countries need us.

But as a beacon of light for democracies, we are a bit dimmed. Our cracks and fissures are showing, and that does not bode well for competing in the world and certainly not for making arguments in favor of democracy over authoritarianism.

We need to find ways to address our divisions and pull ourselves together. The Pew survey is a warning light that our engine needs to be checked — and fast.

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice in Public Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Tags Biden Biden foreign policy Biden presidency Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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