How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Anti-Americanism has surged in much of the world since U.S. President Donald Trump took office. New polling from the Pew Research Center shows that global ratings for Trump are similar to those President George W. Bush received near the end of his second term (and considerably lower than the high marks President Barack Obama enjoyed throughout his tenure). And as in the Bush years, the president’s unpopularity has led to a sharp decline in overall favorability ratings for the United States.
In 2007, the median percentage of respondents who said they had confidence in Bush to do the right thing in world affairs was 21 percent across seven European nations regularly surveyed by Pew: France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In the 2019 survey, the same percentage expressed confidence in Trump, compared to 79 percent who said they were confident in Obama in 2016. And the Trump era decline isn’t limited to Europe: across 24 countries surveyed during the final two years of Obama’s presidency, a median of 74 percent of respondents said they had confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs. Looking at these same 24 countries, just 31 percent said the same about Trump in 2019. The median percentage (meaning that half the countries were above this percentage and half were below) with a favorable opinion of the United States dropped from 64 percent to 53 percent over the same time period.
The worries driving negative global attitudes toward the United States are different now than they were during Bush’s presidency. When anti-Americanism reached its high point during the Bush administration, the United States was seen as an unchecked superpower, unilaterally pursuing its interests, and unconstrained by the international norms and institutions it had played the lead role in constructing. In the Trump era, by contrast, critics are less concerned about the exercise of unrivaled U.S. power than they are about a U.S. retreat—from both global leadership and liberal democracy.
Rattled by the lingering effects of the 2007-08 financial crisis, exhausted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and challenged by the “rise of the rest,” the United States is now widely seen as a fading former hegemon, disinterested in global challenges and in danger of being eclipsed by China. In an era of anxiety about the creaking liberal world order, much of the rest of the world wants American engagement and leadership—but sees the United States turning inward instead.
Gone are the days when critics assailed the United States for trying to be the world’s policeman. Now they worry about a disengaged superpower thinking only of “America first.”
Since World War II, views of the United States—both positive and negative—have been shaped by perceptions of U.S. power and the ways it has been exercised. In 1947, the British scholar and politician Harold Laski observed that the United States “bestrides the world like a colossus; neither Rome at the height of its power nor Great Britain in the period of economic supremacy enjoyed an influence so direct, so profound, or so pervasive.” In the decades since, the United States has employed that influence—and especially its tremendous military power—in different ways, eliciting very different reactions from policymakers and people in the rest of the world.
Global opposition to American power has generally come at moments when the United States seemed inclined to project military might around the world with little restraint. For example, the Vietnam War and President Ronald Reagan’s deployment of intermediate-range missiles to Germany both generated considerable opposition. More recently, the invasion of Iraq provoked considerable opposition around the world at a time when U.S. foreign policy seemed to reflect a belief in Washington that the United States could do what it wished and ignore the concerns of even its closest allies.
Opposition to American power has generally come at moments when the United States seemed inclined to project military might around the world.
By 2007, the United States’ image had been severely tarnished in many parts of the world. Comparing polling data from that year and 2002, the year before the invasion of Iraq, the share of the public with a positive opinion of the United States fell in 26 out of 33 countries surveyed in both years by Pew. It rose in only five, and stayed about the same in two. The 2007 survey found a median of just 41 percent across a total of 47 countries expressing support for U.S.-led efforts to fight terrorism. In an earlier Pew Global Attitudes survey, in 2004, about half or more of Jordanians and Pakistanis, as well as 40 percent or more of French and Germans, said the war on terrorism was a smokescreen for a campaign against unfriendly Muslim governments and groups. Majorities in predominantly Muslim nations consistently said the United States could someday be a military threat to their country. And into the Obama presidency, drone strikes against terrorist organizations and leaders generated widespread opposition. Across 44 countries surveyed by Pew in 2014, 74 percent opposed U.S. drone strikes that targeted extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. (Still, a Pew survey the very next year offered a reminder that hard power isn’t always unwelcome: a 39-nation median of 62 percent supported U.S. military action against the Islamic State.)
The polls also show that the United States is no longer seen as a colossus bestriding the globe. China and other emerging powers increasingly challenge U.S. leadership in various domains—a shift recognized by ordinary citizens as well as policymakers and analysts. In a 2018 Pew survey, a median of 70 percent across 25 nations said they believed China was playing a more important role in world affairs compared to 10 years ago; only 31 percent felt this way about the United States. In 2015, a median of 48 percent across 40 nations said China will someday replace—or already has replaced—the United States as the leading superpower, while just 35 percent believed the United States would remain on top. In the minds of many, the hyperpower has become a declining power.
Over the first three years of Trump’s presidency, the decline in favorable views of U.S. leadership has been accompanied by a sense that the United States’ commitment to global leadership is waning. Many people around the world believe they are witnessing a Trump-led U.S. withdrawal from an active role in world affairs—and they don’t like it.
In the years following World War II, publics in Europe especially believed the United States was exercising its power in relatively benign ways that helped to lay the foundations for a liberal order. (For example, polling in the late 1940s showed widespread awareness of and support for the Marshall Plan among the British, French, and Italian publics, according to the Italian political scientist Pierangelo Isernia.) Now many see the United States as bearing some of the blame for the unraveling of the international order. Pew surveys in 2019 found overwhelming opposition to Trump’s policies on trade (a median of just 18 percent across 33 nations support the United States increasing tariffs), climate (14 percent support U.S. withdrawal from climate accords), immigration (24 percent approve of building a wall on the Mexican border), and Iran (29 percent back the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal)—all instances in which the United States seems to be pulling away from international commitments and erecting barriers between itself and the rest of the world. Europeans are especially likely to think Washington is contributing less to global problem-solving. In a 2018 survey, three-quarters of Germans and Swedes said that, compared to a few years ago, the United States is doing less to help address major global challenges, and half or more shared this view in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and France.
The other major driver of anti-Americanism today has less to do with geopolitics or foreign policy and more to do with the unease that currently pervades democratic societies amid a global “democratic recession,” in the words of the political scientist Larry Diamond. According to International IDEA’s most recent assessment of the global state of democracy, “Democracy is ill and its promise needs revival.” The scholars Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk have examined public opinion over time and found decreasing support for democracy and growing support for nondemocratic forms of government in a number of supposedly “consolidated” democracies. In many ways, liberal democracy is experiencing a crisis of confidence, as recent Pew data shows. A 2017 survey found a median of 78 percent across 38 countries saying representative democracy is a good form of government, but surprisingly high numbers were also open to nondemocratic alternatives, such as rule by experts (49 percent), rule by a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliaments or courts (26 percent), or even military rule (24 percent). Democracy is a popular idea, but the degree to which people are committed to democratic rights and institutions is often underwhelming.
Democracy is a popular idea, but the degree to which people are committed to democratic rights and institutions is often underwhelming.
Moreover, there are growing doubts about how well the United States can serve as a model of liberal democracy. Across 25 countries polled in 2018, a median of 51 percent said the U.S. government respects personal freedom, while a median of 37 percent said it does not. But in many nations, the share who believe the United States respects individual liberty has declined in recent years. Ratings on this measure are down significantly in the Trump era, although in many cases the slide began during the Obama presidency, coinciding with revelations about NSA eavesdropping and other similar stories. This decline has been especially steep in Europe. In 2013, for example, 81 percent of Germans said the United States respects personal freedom, compared with just 35 percent in the 2019 poll.
Whether it’s the shifting balance of power, challenges to multilateralism, the closing of borders or declining confidence in the health of democracy, scholars and average citizens seem to agree that key elements of the liberal world order are under strain. And they see in Washington a leader less committed than his predecessors to strengthening and maintaining that order.
Yet it is worth remembering that the United States’ image has bounced back before. It’s clear today that people haven’t given up on the United States. In 2018, Pew asked respondents in 25 nations whether they would rather live in a world with the United States or China as the top superpower. A median of 63 percent preferred the United States, while just 19 percent preferred China. People recognize that the world is changing, but they still want the United States to have a prominent place in it. Even if the international system is reeling, many elements of it remain quite popular—and people are still looking for leadership from the increasingly complicated superpower that built it.