By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is the director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center. Full survey results are available here. The views expressed are his own.
At the Republican National Convention scheduled to take place this week and the Democratic National Convention beginning September 3, Americans will notionally be choosing their candidates for president of the United States. Effectively they will be deciding who will be the leader of the world for the next four years.
The world’s citizens get no say in this choice. Nevertheless, people outside the United States have definite opinions about Obama and some of the key issues in the campaign: about the state of the economy and what to do about it, climate change and how they think Washington should treat them.
Neither the GOP nor the Democratic nominee is likely to shape his electoral message to the American people to please foreigners. In fact, if he did, it would probably hurt his chances of winning.
But either challenger Mitt Romney or incumbent President Barack Obama is going to be the next U.S. president. And experience shows that the success or failure of his foreign policy may depend, in part, on how it is perceived abroad. So what people around the world think going into the final two months of the U.S. presidential campaign does matter, if not on November 6, then for the next four years.
Europeans have had a four-year love affair with Barack Obama: 87 percent of Germans, 86 percent of French and 80 percent of the British have confidence in Obama, according to a 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes project. In each case this is higher than public confidence in their own national leader. And 92 percent of the French, 89 percent of the Germans and 73 percent of the British want Obama reelected.
In the long run, if Romney wins, none of this may matter, as Europeans get to know him. But, in the short run, it could matter. A 2005 Pew Research Center survey found that in Britain, France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands, strong majorities said the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush led them to have a less favorable opinion of the United States. A newly-elected Romney administration may have to contend with a similar European reaction if the popular Obama is defeated in what will come to a surprise to many of them.
But an Obama defeat may not play as poorly in the Middle East – in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia – where a median of only 29 percent approve of Obama and a median of just 25 percent want him reelected.
Elsewhere, foreign reaction to an Obama defeat could be mixed. In Asia, 74 percent of Japanese have a favorable view of the current U.S. president and 66 percent want him reelected. But Obama’s popularity is only 38 percent in China and only 31 percent there want him to get another term.
Similarly, in Latin America, while 68 percent of Brazilians like Obama and 72 percent want him reelected, only 42 percent of Mexicans are well disposed toward the current U.S. president and just 35 percent hope he has a second term.
Foreign expectations of the next American leader can, in part, be discerned from their current policy preferences and their judgment of the Obama foreign policy.
At a time of global economic turmoil, people outside the United States look to the U.S. president for strong economic leadership. Those who like Obama and want him reelected tend to approve of his handling of global economic problems. Those who dislike him disapprove. How they would feel about Romney’s custodianship of the U.S. economy, and by extension that of the global economy, is unknown.
Romney has charged that America has lost stature abroad during Obama’s presidency. And some foreign perceptions tend to bear out that observation. In 2008, across 14 countries surveyed by the Pew Center, a median of 44 percent named the United States as the world’s leading economic power, while just 22 percent chose China. Today, only 36 percent cite America, while 41 percent believe China is in the top position.
But the GOP candidate has also espoused fiscal austerity at home, while criticizing fiscal profligacy abroad. This runs counter to majorities in seven of the eight European nations the Pew Research Center surveyed this spring who oppose further belt tightening in their home countries. Notably, only in Poland did people support more austerity. Interestingly enough, it was Poland that Romney chose to visit in late July.
On foreign policy issues, foreigners have long complained about American unilateralism. They think Obama has acted unilaterally, much as they criticized his predecessor George W. Bush for such actions. That criticism has softened a bit in Europe and China during the Obama tenure, but it has worsened in parts of the Middle East. And it is largely unchanged in Japan.
It remains to be seen how foreigners will react to Romney’s promise of even stronger U.S. leadership abroad, in which Washington will no longer “lead from behind.”
On specific international issues, a median of 56 percent in 20 countries surveyed outside the United States in spring 2012 think Obama has not been fair in dealing with the Israelis and Palestinians. During the campaign, Romney has openly sided with the Israelis, a policy stance that is not likely to be perceived any better than Obama’s actions.
On climate change a median plurality of 48 percent believe Obama has not taken significant steps to deal with global warming. Romney says he doesn’t know the extent to which climate change is even occurring or whether it is caused by human activity, a view that is not likely to lead to the additional “significant measures” seemingly desired by global publics.
Over the next two weeks at their national political conventions Republicans and Democrats will hone their electoral messages aimed at domestic voters in the November presidential election. That is to be expected. But they need to keep in mind that the policy positions they stake out in the heat of an election campaign resonate abroad. And, whoever is the next U.S. president, the success or failure of his foreign policy will, in part, depend on what foreigners think.