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