The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
In his four years in office, President Donald Trump did tremendous damage to the United States’ image and reputation around the world. His distaste for democratic norms and disdain for multilateralism caused even the closest U.S. allies to question whether they could ever fully trust Washington again. And although Americans ultimately voted Trump out of office, many analysts predicted that his legacy would stain the country’s image long into the future. As the political scientist Jonathan Kirshner argued in Foreign Affairs, “The world cannot unsee the Trump presidency.”
Yet a new survey from the Pew Research Center reveals that the United States’ global reputation has rebounded to a remarkable degree. Many international publics remain skeptical of Washington’s commitment to their interests, and even more doubt that American democracy should still be held up as a model for other countries. But U.S. allies and partners have overwhelmingly welcomed Joe Biden’s election as president and cheered his commitment to rebuilding alliances and seeking multilateral solutions to global problems. Biden’s administration has a long way to go to restore confidence in U.S. leadership on the world stage, but it is clear that the world has not completely given up on the United States.
The United States’ global reputation has always ebbed and flowed, but over the last two decades, it has been especially volatile. President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, among other unpopular policies of his, damaged the country’s image in the eyes of the world, whereas President Barack Obama’s global popularity drove an upswing in favorable perceptions. Trump’s election led to another sharp downturn in positive views of the United States. By 2020, the share of many foreign publics with a positive view of the country had slipped to its lowest point since 2002, when the Pew Research Center began regular polling on this topic.
The new survey of 16 advanced economies—nine in Europe, six in Asia, plus Canada—finds that in general the United States’ image has recovered to levels last seen during the Obama administration. In more than half of the nations polled, U.S. favorability is at least 20 percentage points higher than it was one year ago. And in every country where it is possible to make a direct comparison, the difference between public confidence in Biden this year and public confidence in Trump last year is dramatic. In Germany, for instance, fully 78 percent of respondents are confident that Biden will do the right thing in world affairs, whereas only ten percent said the same about Trump a year ago.
The extraordinarily large gap in perceptions of Biden and Trump can be explained in part by the two leaders’ personality traits and qualifications. Big majorities described Trump as “arrogant” and “dangerous” during his first year in office, while few see Biden this way. Across the 12 nations surveyed in both 2017 and 2021, a median of 77 percent think Biden is well qualified to be president, whereas a median of just 16 percent felt this way about Trump four years ago. Trump scored better marks for being a “strong leader”: a median of 46 percent said this described him in 2017. Even on this measure, however, Biden gets higher ratings, with a median of 62 percent labeling him a strong leader.
Big majorities described Trump as “arrogant” and “dangerous” during his first year in office, while few see Biden this way.
But the perception gap between Biden and Trump is also about policy. Foreign publics largely opposed Trump’s withdrawal from international agreements such as the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and international trade pacts. They rejected his harsh immigration policies and efforts to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexican border, too. By contrast, Biden’s decisions to rejoin the World Health Organization and to allow more refugees into the United States both enjoy widespread support. His move to rejoin the Paris climate accord is even more popular: 93 percent of Spaniards, for example, approve of Biden’s recommitment to the deal, compared with only 12 percent who supported Trump’s withdrawal in 2019.
Biden’s more multilateral approach to foreign policy has also helped the United States’ image rebound. Pew Research Center surveys have found that ordinary citizens around the world generally endorse the principles of international cooperation. But Biden has not eliminated doubts about the United States’ reliability as an ally or concerns about its commitment to cooperating with other countries. Although most still consider the United States a reliable partner, few think it is “very reliable.” And there is wide variance on this question, with 80 percent saying the United States is a reliable ally in the Netherlands compared with just 54 percent in Taiwan.
A perennial complaint about the United States, captured by Pew surveys during Democratic and Republican administrations alike, is that it ignores the interests of other nations. That perception endures under Biden. Compared with the Trump years, more people now agree that the United States considers the interests of countries such as theirs when making foreign policy, but for the most part this is still a minority view: only about a third of respondents in this year’s survey think the United States considers their countries’ interests. In New Zealand, Sweden, and Spain, less than a quarter of respondents hold this view.
Of course, previous survey research has shown that people around the world generally feel the same way about the other global superpower: China. Few think Beijing considers the interests of other countries when it makes foreign policy. And just as global perceptions of the United States hit a low point in 2020, so did attitudes toward China—reflecting concerns about Beijing’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, its human rights record, and specific bilateral tensions.
But the United States also comes in for criticism for the health of its democracy. Publics across the globe generally support basic democratic rights and institutions (although they frequently express frustration with the way democracy works in practice), and the United States’ commitment to democratic ideals has long been seen as a pillar of its soft power. But over the past two decades, many foreign publics have grown skeptical of the idea that the United States is a beacon of liberty.
Today, many say American democracy is no longer the model it once was: across the 16 publics surveyed, a median of 57 percent say that American democracy has not been a good example for other countries to follow in recent years, even though it used to be; 23 percent think it has never been a good example; and just 17 percent say it currently is. Young people are especially harsh: in Sweden, Germany, New Zealand, and the Netherlands, about 40 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 say American democracy was never a good model, roughly double the share of respondents 65 and up who say the same.
This year’s survey revealed broad support for Biden’s plan to host a democracy summit—85 percent approve of the idea—but it is clear that most respondents believe the United States still needs to look inward and examine the flaws of its own democracy. If the United States is going to effectively lead a reenergized community of democratic nations, it will need to demonstrate that democracy can work at home and that international cooperation can work abroad. These pillars of the liberal international order have been under attack in recent years, but they still appeal to people around the globe. The United States and other countries upholding that order must show their citizens that a commitment to democratic renewal and multilateralism can effectively address the many urgent challenges they face. Otherwise, the appeal of alternative political approaches may grow—at the expense of freedom and international cooperation.
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