By Bruce Stokes and Richard Wike, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center. Richard Wike is associate director of the Pew Global Attitudes Project.
With less than three months to go in the U.S. presidential election, the candidates’ debate over America’s place in the world can only be expected to escalate. Republican contender Mitt Romney is likely to echo a theme he developed in the spring primary campaign: America’s stature on the world stage has suffered during President Barack Obama’s time in the White House. President Obama can be expected to counter that America isn’t in decline; in fact, during his tenure U.S. influence has rebounded.
This debate is broadly about American power. But power is a nuanced concept. It manifests itself both through military muscle and cultural influence. The candidates’ stump speeches rarely delineate this distinction. But global publics do. Recent opinion surveys suggest that people outside the United States question American hard power and increasingly embrace U.S. soft power.
Whoever is president in 2013, the success abroad of his foreign policy may depend on achieving the right balance in the exercise of American hard and soft power.
Public opinion data – including the results of the annual Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes surveys, the yearly Transatlantic Trends polls by the German Marshall Fund and other surveys – leave no doubt that foreign approval of the United States in most parts of the world is much higher today than it was in the waning days of President George W. Bush’s administration. In France, Spain, and Germany, for example, the percentage of people with a positive view of the U.S. is at least 20 percentage points higher than in 2008, according to the Pew Research Center studies. And much of that rebound is attributable to the personal popularity of Barack Obama.
But national stature fueled by presidential personality is inherently volatile. Once global publics soured on Bush, their view of most things American took on a negative hue. And his successor’s rock star attractiveness created an Obama-bounce for a range of measures of America’s influence. However, that Obama aura actually never existed in the Middle East. And it has already begun to fade, if only somewhat, in a number of countries. How the world would take to the largely unknown Romney as president remains to be seen.
A potentially more sustainable measure of U.S. stature may be the global public’s assessment of the exercise of American power in all its forms, both soft and hard. Here, polling data suggests respect for U.S. soft power is on the rise, although many measures of it still don’t enjoy majority support. Meanwhile, global publics are at times divided and in other instances strongly opposed to the exercise of U.S. hard power. A drone campaign against extremist leaders and organizations in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia has been one of the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy initiatives. Yet a median of 69 percent across 20 of the countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center this spring oppose such strikes. The policy is particularly unpopular in majority Muslim nations, but also in Europe and other regions as well. Indeed, at least three-in-four hold negative views in a diverse set of countries: Greece (90 percent), Egypt (89 percent), Jordan (85 percent), Turkey (81 percent), Spain (76 percent), Brazil (76 percent) and Japan (75 percent).
Moreover, just as in the Bush years, there’s a widespread perception that Washington acts unilaterally in world affairs. Among the 20 countries surveyed, there isn’t a single country where at least half the population believes Obama has taken their nation’s interests into account when making foreign policy (Brazil is the closest, with 49 percent of those surveyed saying he had). The numbers are similarly low for those who believe Obama hasn’t sought international approval before militarily intervening in the world’s trouble spots.
And while there’s majority support for U.S. anti-terrorism efforts in most nations, roughly two-in-five people still oppose them. There has never been much backing for this initiative in the Muslim world. And, since 2009, the first year of the Obama administration, there has been a 20 percentage point drop in support for such American activities in Mexico, a 17 point drop in China, an eight point decline in Germany, a seven point drop in the United Kingdom and a six point drop in Spain.
At the same time, aspects of American soft power are well-regarded. Looking at 16 countries polled by Pew in both 2007 and 2012, a median of 65 percent embraces American music, movies and television, up six percentage points from five years ago. The appeal of American popular culture has increased even more in particular nations. It’s up 16 points in Mexico, 10 points in Russia and eight points in Italy and Turkey.
More than half the population in 16 of 20 countries also admire the U.S. for its science and technology. And that backing is up 15 points in Spain, 11 points in Pakistan, seven points in Italy and six points in Japan.
A median of just 45 percent like American ideas about democracy, but it’s notable that backing is up 10 points since 2007 in the 16 nations where there is comparable data. And such approval has jumped a whopping 30 points in Spain, 20 points in Italy and France and 14 points in Germany.
Meanwhile, a median of 43 percent admire American ways of doing business and such support is up 11 percentage points since 2007, despite the Lehman Brothers fiasco in 2008. Even in nations where overall ratings for the U.S. remain low, such as in the Arab World, more than half in Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt say they appreciate American business practices.
There are good reasons to believe that the influence of U.S. soft power will continue to grow. American popular culture and ideas about democracy are particularly appealing to young people who will be the leaders and opinion molders of the future.
Still, there are limits to American soft power. Even as people embrace certain features of American culture, they also worry that it may crowd out their own cultures and traditions – Japan is the only nation of 20 surveyed where at least half the population believe it is a positive thing for U.S. ideas and customs to spread to their country. Nevertheless, the median percentage that sees such Americanization as a good thing has increased over the last five years. And this includes an uptick in support of 16 points in Japan, 15 points in Mexico and Italy and 13 points in Poland.
Pew Research Center surveys show the American people want their country to show leadership in the world. It will be up to President Romney, or a re-elected President Obama, to determine the balance of hard and soft power within American foreign policy. If they had a vote, global publics are suggesting they would like to see more soft power.
The full survey results of the survey are available at