June 13th, 2012
07:38 AM ET

World views of America: Romney, Obama both right. And both wrong

Editor's note: Bruce Stokes is the director of the Pew Research Center’s Global Economic Attitudes, which released a new survey on Wednesday. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Bruce Stokes.

By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN

A recurring theme of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s attacks on President Barack Obama has been that America’s stature in the world has declined under Obama’s stewardship. In January, after winning the New Hampshire primary, Romney charged that “(Obama) believes that America’s role as leader in the world is a thing of the past.” In late May, President Obama pushed back. In a commencement address to the graduates of the Air Force Academy he asserted: “Let's start by putting aside the tired notion that says our influence has waned, that America is in decline.”

The presidential campaign promises more of this to and fro as each candidate attempts to seize the high ground as the champion of American triumphalism. The anti-Americanism around the world during the Bush era profoundly challenged Americans’ self-image. Romney seems intent on convincing voters that the bad old days of Ugly America are returning thanks to Obama. The president implies that the Obama-mania that swept much of the world in the wake of his election in 2008 remains a positive asset for the United States.

A new global survey released Wednesday shows both presidential contenders are right. And both are wrong. As a result, the Romney and Obama camps are likely to cherry pick world public opinion data that bolsters their partisan argument. And they will conveniently ignore foreigners’ sentiments that contradict their broader campaign themes.

Poll: Obama policies weaken support for America

As with many public opinion findings, all things are relative. Any assessment of the global public’s take on America during the Obama era depends on whether it is a snapshot or a moving picture. And when exactly the cameras start rolling.

Overall ratings for the U.S. today remain largely positive in 12 of 20 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes project involving more than 25,000 people outside the United States. This includes large majorities in a number of European nations, as well as Japan and Brazil. In contrast, ratings are decidedly negative in four of the six predominantly Muslim countries polled.

America’s stature soared in most of Europe where the Pew Research Center surveyed and in Mexico and to a lesser extent in Japan in the wake of president Obama’s election in 2008. But in most of the Muslim world there was hardly any improvement in people’s opinion of the United States.

This year America’s favorability stands at 52% in Germany, down 10 percentage points from 2009, in Obama’s first year. But such approval is still up 21 points from the last year of the Bush administration. Opinion of the U.S. in Mexico (56% favorable) is down 13 points from 2009, but up 8 from 2008. Approval of the U.S. in China (43%) is down 15 points from 2010, but it is relatively unchanged from 2008.

However, America’s image as the global economic superpower is eroding. In 2008, before the onset of the global financial crisis, a median of 45% of those Pew surveyed in 14 countries named the U.S. as the world’s leading economic power, while just 22% nominated China. Today, only 36% say America is number one, while 42% believe China is the top dog.

At the same time, in countries across the globe, people continue to embrace American popular culture and to admire the U.S. for its science and technology. Attitudes toward American ideas about democracy and ways of doing business are mixed, but global publics are more positive toward both than in the final years of the Bush administration. This is especially true in Europe, but views have improved in other regions as well.

For instance, looking at the 16 countries surveyed in both 2007 and 2012, the median percentage saying they like American ways of doing business has increased by 11 percentage points. The median percentage that say it is a good thing that American ideas and customs are spreading to their country has also increased over the last five years, although it still remains the minority viewpoint.

Foreign confidence in Obama’s foreign policy leadership has slipped by 6 percentage points or more in most countries since 2009. But it remains high in Europe, Japan and Brazil. Attitudes continue to be much more negative in predominantly Muslim countries, as well as Russia, China and Mexico.

Moreover, on a number of specific issues, there is a sense that Obama has not lived up to the expectations people had for him when he first took office. The 2009 Pew Global Attitudes survey found that many believed the new American president would act multilaterally, seek international approval before using military force, take a fair approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and make progress on climate change. The current survey reveals few now believe he has actually accomplished these things.

And the global public particularly opposes one of the signature Obama security policy initiatives: drone strikes. In 17 of 20 countries, more than half of those surveyed disapprove of such attacks, including 63% of the French and 59% of the Germans, fellow NATO allies. But since 62% of Americans approve of such actions, including 74% of Republicans, it may prove difficult for Romney to exploit foreign opposition to Obama’s use of drones.

America’s stature in the world soared in Europe after Obama’s election, but it ultimately proved unsustainable. And it never improved much in most Muslim countries. However, America still rates higher today among key U.S. allies in Europe and Japan and, on balance, no worse in the Muslim world than it did in 2008. Nevertheless, there has been slippage.

So the alleged decline of America is all relative. It is in the eye of the beholder.

Related: What do people around the world think about the U.S.? Here are a few insights from CNN's "Open Mic" video series:

French weigh on the U.S. politics

Brazilians to U.S. candidates

Iraqis' messages to the U.S.

Mexicans to U.S. candidates

People in India's words for America

Lebanese give their messages to the U.S.

Hong Kong lets loose on America

What Pakistanis want from the U.S.

What do you think? Has the world view of America changed? How has your view changed of the U.S.?

Post by:
Topics: Diplomacy • Politics

soundoff (470 Responses)
  1. Ram Riva

    The United States of America...is still the greatest country in the world.....we understand completely the blogger "Brazilian"....due to the fact that when the subject is touched all over Latin America....the claim is the same we're all Americans not just the US...that shouln't be a problem....call yourselves how ever you want...is your privilige....under Obama administration....the US has endured extremely hard economic times....as well as many other great countries...hes getting there...but the puritan party the GOPTeabaggers will not let him......simply because of hate....the world sees this...and brings down the US image.....most of conservatives, if not all, in the US dont care what happens to their own country...as long as they get rid of President Obama......we cannot believe they hate him more then Bush....simply because hes black!.....sad but true...in our opinion...like was said at the beginning...the United States of America is the greatest country of the world....and if President Obama is reelected....it will solidify that greatness.....

    June 14, 2012 at 10:19 am | Reply
  2. johndanger

    I'm sure glad that I was born in The USA. Of course we're not perfect. In fact we're seriously flawed. But I can't think of another country I'd rather call mine.

    June 14, 2012 at 10:31 am | Reply
  3. BSchmitt

    I care about the poor, the sick and the elderly people in this country, the USA. I care about our soldiers family killed in service and the families left behind. I care about the staggering cost of healthcare, that if I get very sick, my family will lose all our savings (even though I have insurance); I not losing his job (because of outsourcing); I care about the future of my child.

    June 14, 2012 at 10:33 am | Reply
  4. WWRRD

    Multilateralism is a joke. The UN is a joke. Just a bunch of miniscule windbags trying to appear important. Foreign countries will do nothing and use multilateralism as an excuse to do nothing.

    The US is execptional. We've lost our way in recent years, but we bailed the world out of two world wars. We lead in freedom and democracy. The problem is Bush was arrogant towards the rest of the world, and Obama thinks US ideals are no better or relevant than the opinion of a third world dictator or that of an illiterate third world countries popular opinion.

    June 14, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
  5. JayJ7

    It's not so bad to see what others complain about, even though it's often a reflection of their own insecurities. Recognizing what we need to improve is what makes us great. I have been to most of the countries listed and you would not want to live in them. You cannot take it too seriously. The average Brazilian will tell you that the USA never went to the moon, 9/11 was an inside job etc. They tend to live in another reality, sort of like Fox news.

    June 14, 2012 at 10:59 am | Reply
  6. sadandblue

    As someone who has no great dislike for or envy of the USA as many people from around the world have, it is not difficult to see why in fact America is so hated by so many. Americans have an inflated, narcissistic view of themselves, for some reason thinking "we are the greatest (best, richest, most powerful, world leader, strongest, etc.) and have no respect for other's cultures, customs or beliefs. Often the actions of the US contradict their promises or commitments. Throw in the fact that the USA is probably the most militaristic and warlike country in the world today. Yet they are unable to understand why everybody doesn't love them.

    June 14, 2012 at 11:00 am | Reply
  7. Red

    people who think america is really the best country in the world are living in a bubble, and do not fully understand how other nations operate. it's ignorant & self righteous- and everyone posting on here is just jumping on a bandwagon of self defense because they feel the need to defend their turf in one way or another.

    June 14, 2012 at 11:26 am | Reply
  8. deeprivervisions

    So that's going to be the new rationalization for hating the US if it elects Romney? That we have to keep showing we aren't racists by always electing a black (or other pre-approved) president? Could you think about that a little bit harder and even if you aren't enthusiastic about one party, try not to HATE because you can't completely understand us without except by calling its supporters "rednecks" (hardly 50% of the voters)?

    And during this thread, some of you were bashing the US because we didn't care enough what other people think...then along the way, others faulted us for being obsessed with what other people think. So which is it?

    As for the "American" adjective usage, I can't believe something so simple to explain is even an issue. Americans (US) are not oblivious to continental names. And in referring to that larger frame of reference, we say North or South Americans. But there is no "America" as a continent. The speaker is therefore using historically established precedence and is referring to the nation when leaving off the North or South. Others populations can say "Peruvian," "Columbian" or "Chilean" etc. but the US would have to rename itself to have such an option.

    Another hint: usually the rest of the sentence or paragraph provides context. So in talking about things "American," it is usually obvious what population is being referenced.

    June 14, 2012 at 11:51 am | Reply
  9. pastafaria

    America is no more dominant in this world than countries such as Greece, Mongolia, France, Spain, and what are now Italy and Turkey have been in previous eras. I'm natural born, but also a dual citizen (UK), and lived in the U.S. for most of my childhood and have always been flabbergasted about how delusional most Americans are about how they supposedly have it better than everyone else. Instead of using your vacation time every year to make your annual pilgrimage to Disneyworld, Graceland, or one of those backwater towns in the Midwest that claim to be the home of the world's largest ball of twine, try stepping outside your comfort zone and experience other cultures.

    June 14, 2012 at 11:59 am | Reply
    • JGM33528

      I think you have offered the best advice so far. I have only lived in 2 countries, so that is all I feel qualified to offer an educated opinion on. I agree that travel and open mindedness is fatal to ignorance.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
    • J

      America is no more dominant than Greece or Mongolia? You so smart! I bet your IQ is the same number as your age.

      June 15, 2012 at 10:44 am | Reply
  10. k c

    The point of this story was how does the world view the US,not flag waving,or throwing slurrs.This is a country with many problems ranging from a need to produce more of its own energy,and improving its own infastructure,all the way to improving its own democracy before telling others how to govern. If America improves more from within it will become easier to influence from without,and world leadership can be by example rather than demand.

    June 14, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  11. JAL

    Pass the popcorn...

    June 14, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  12. Douglas Caines

    After reading thru the comments above it is easy to see why we simply do not stand a chance when The time comes.

    America's Time of True greatness has not yet arrived. And when it does, then its people will have to make a terrible choice. No country in this world is perfect. All are, just like America, flawed.

    FDR said America should tread softly, yet carry a big stick. Wise words.

    June 14, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Reply
  13. Muin

    Romney could be wrong in many policy positions but American people might still give him a chance. He is right to suggest that it's the President who was in charge for last 3 and half years. Too many false promise is not good for any politician. What were promises? Expire bush tax cut, comprehensive immigration reform, comprehensive health care reform with low cast(cost went up after health caree reform), deficit reduction, big stimulus to get a good economic recovery. That's all I could remember. None got done. What's worst is that they didn't stick with what worked in American history? Big government spending was always part of American recovery after recession.

    June 15, 2012 at 1:15 am | Reply
  14. wrm

    Gimme a break, there are over 6 billion people in the world. You can cherry pick any subset of opinions from any context and make any case you want.

    June 15, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Reply
  15. Walter Sieruk

    What a choice the American public has for the upcoming in the election in November. The choice is to either vote for a Marxist or a cultist. This that the best the American people can do ?

    June 15, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  16. matt

    25000 people wow good job thats .000000000000000000000000000000000000001%. You suck at this get a new job.

    June 15, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  17. Kevin

    You mentioned on your GPS show (re: the Bush yrs) that during the Bush's presidency "job growth" was "weaker than during the Great Depression." At the same time, perhaps you shd have mentioned that the Unemployment rate for most of his presidency was in the 4% to 5% range, growing to the hi 6's in late 2008. When unemployment trends below 5%, historically, "full-employment" (an economist's term) is reached. When that happens, it is difficult to "grow jobs" more because w/unemployment so low, it's difficult to find workers to hire.....therefore, altho it sounds counter to logic, job growth flattens, unless there's a huge increase in population.

    June 17, 2012 at 8:33 am | Reply
  18. johnpicarra

    A Failure By His Own Words

    " many believed the new American president would act multilaterally, seek international approval before using military force, take a fair approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and make progress on climate change. The current survey reveals few now believe he has actually accomplished these things."

    A Failure By His Own Deeds
    Obama restarted federal funding for the Killing of Babies By Abortion, a Demoncrat thing previously started by Clinton Coward Clown.
    He is a man of Evil.

    June 17, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  19. CharlieSeattle


    The Democrats always spend more than the taxes they increase when they are in power.
    The Republicans always cuts taxes less than what they spend when they are in power.

    ....................................So what is the difference here? None.

    Congress has a spending problem not a revenue problem. Ops, I take the second part back. Tax revenues would be higher if NAFTA and China's MFN trade status were never passed by Congress. That was about 8 million lost jobs ago.

    Both political parties have lied to the voters for 40 years and committed willfull ecomomic treason against the taxpayers that sent them in good faith to Washinton to build a better America not destroy it.

    ....................................Fight Organized Crime! Re-elect No One!

    June 17, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Reply
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  21. IrishYank2

    I love all of the freaks trying to state that the US is the greatest place in the world. Not that this isn't a great place, but most of you have never actually been anywhere and sum up your international experience to a trip in Cancun or Toronto, right? Foremost, if you think Americans have the most "freedoms", then you clearly have never been anywhere, as I've been to numerous countries where personal freedoms are much better than here in the US. I love patriotism, but nationalism is very, very dangerous. It's what caused WW1.

    July 29, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Reply
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