Polls Show Erosion of U.S. Image Abroad Over the Past Four Years

By Patrick Goodenough | September 18, 2012 | 4:28 AM EDT

President Obama at the CEO Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, Saturday April 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(CNSNews.com) – The last four years have witnessed a decline in the image of the United States around the world, and President Obama’s approval rating has also taken a hit in some regions abroad, according to a series of polls this year.

The survey results call into question the assertion, touted by administration officials and echoed in much media reporting, that Obama’s foreign policy has been an unqualified success and that his “engagement” with the international community, especially through the United Nations, has boosted America’s image significantly.

Particularly striking in some of the polls is the negative trend in key Islamic countries, despite Obama’s efforts to reach out to the Muslim world.

The most recent of the polls, Transatlantic Trends 2012, gave mixed results. Released last week, it found that Obama’s foreign policy approval rate has dropped in most countries in Europe since 2009, albeit from a high starting point following the Bush years.

In all but one of 12 European countries polled in both 2009 and 2012, approval for Obama’s handling of international affairs dropped over that period – by 21 points in Bulgaria, 17 in Italy, 16 in Spain, 16 in Slovakia, 15 in Britain, 13 in Germany, 11 in the Netherlands, 11 in Portugal, eight in Turkey, seven in France and six in Poland.

The sole exception was Romania, where his approval ratings climbed eight points from 2009 to 2012.

On the other hand, opinions of U.S. favorability in the 14 European countries surveyed remained high, ranging from lows of 34 percent in Turkey and 50 percent in Russia to highs of 84 percent in Romania and 81 percent in France.

President Obama delivers his ‘A new beginning’ speech to the Muslim world, in Cairo on June 4, 2009. His outreach to Muslims has not endeared the Islamic world to the U.S., opinion polls suggest. (AP Photo)

The poll also found that if Europeans could vote in the U.S. presidential election, 75 percent of European Union residents would vote for Obama, and only eight percent for his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. (Asked whether their view of the former Massachusetts governor was favorable or otherwise, a sizable segment, 38 percent, said they did not know or refused to answer.)

The poll, an annual survey of U.S. and European public opinion, is a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and several other groups.

Addressing a survey release event at the German Marshall Fund’s Washington offices last Wednesday, assistant secretary of state for European affairs Philip Gordon pointed to the president’s overall ratings.

“[W]hat I think that underscores is, that this wasn’t just an initial burst of what you called ‘Obamania,’ but a consistent and sustained reaction to what the United States has been trying to do in the world, in particular with our European allies,” he said.

In a Gallup poll released in July, a majority or plurality of respondents in six key Muslim countries said they believed the U.S. opposes democracy in the Middle East: Jordan (67 percent said the U.S. opposes democracy), Turkey (58 percent), Tunisia (57 percent), Egypt (52 percent), Lebanon (47 percent) and Pakistan (37 percent).

Meanwhile a Pew Global Attitudes Project report in June found that U.S. favorability ratings had dropped in nine out of 14 countries surveyed between 2009 and this year, and only rose in four. (The last country, Spain, remained the same at 58 percentage points.)

Countries where favorability ratings declined over the four years were Jordan (down 13 points to 12), Mexico (down 13 points to 56), Germany (down 12 points to 52), Britain (down nine points to 60), Egypt (down eight points to 19), Lebanon (down seven points to 48), France (down six points to 69), Pakistan (down four points to 12) and China (down four points to 43).

The four countries where U.S. favorability ratings rose over the same period were Japan (up 13 points to 72), Russia (up eight points to 52), Poland (up two points to 69) and Turkey (up one point to 15).

Ironically, given Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world launched in his June 2009 address in Cairo entitled “A new beginning,” Islamic countries – Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon – were the only ones in the Pew poll where U.S. favorable ratings in 2012 were found to be lower than they were in 2008, the last year of the Bush administration.

The poll in total surveyed more than 26,000 people in 21 countries.

Pew found Americans most popular in Japan (80 points) and in Europe, where majorities in every country except Greece held favorable ratings – ranging from 56 percent in the Czech Republic to 75 percent in France.

Majorities viewed Americans unfavorably in Pakistan (73 points), Turkey (69 points), Jordan (67 points), Egypt (62 points), Greece (53 points) and China (51 points).

Kenyans’ views of US positive, Pakistanis negative

Another major poll, released last May, found mixed results when seeking the opinions of more than 24,000 people in 22 countries about the influence the United States has on the world.

European countries produced the biggest jumps in positive views of the U.S. between 2011 and 2012, including a 16-point hike in France, 14 points in Britain, 10 points in Spain and seven points in Germany.

Moving in the other direction were countries including Chile (a 15-point drop), Russia (down 14 points), Brazil (down nine) and Peru (down seven).

Countries with the most positive views of the U.S. in 2012 – regardless of changes since 2011 – were Kenya (79 percent positive), Nigeria (69 percent) and South Korea and France (both 62 percent).

Countries accounting for the biggest negative views of the U.S. were Pakistan (61 percent negative), China (48 percent), Russia (47 percent) and Germany and Egypt (both 45 percent).

The poll was conducted for the BBC World Service by GlobeScan and the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes.

Finally, a poll released by Gallup and the Meridian International Center in April found a decline in U.S. leadership ratings in a number of countries between 2010 and 2011.

Only 19 percent of respondents in Egypt, 25 percent in Argentina, nine percent in Iran and eight percent in Serbia said they approved of the “job performance of the leadership of the U.S.” in 2011.

A comparison of the ratings between 2009, when Obama took office, and 2011 found sizeable declines in some countries, including Slovenia (a 32 point drop since 2009), Mexico (-27 points), Panama (-27 points), Chad (-24 points), Croatia (-21 points), Japan (-20 points), Uruguay (-20 points), Greece (-19 points), Chile (-18 points), Argentina (-17 points), Germany (-17 points), Afghanistan (-16 points), Tanzania (-14 points), Brazil (-14 points), Venezuela (-14 points), Colombia (-14 points), Niger (-14 points), South Africa (-13 points), Spain (-12 points), Egypt (-12  points), Ireland (-12 points), Uganda (-12 points), France (-10 points), India (-10 points), Canada (-10 points) and Kenya (-10 points).

Of the “Arab spring” countries, U.S. approval ratings remained unchanged at 19 percent in Egypt between 2010 and 2011, and rose in Tunisia by eight points to 27 percent.

Libya was not among the countries included in that survey, although another Gallup poll around the same time found 54 percent of Libyans expressed approval of U.S. leadership, a score the pollster said was “among the highest approval Gallup has ever recorded in the Middle East and North Africa region, outside of Israel.”

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow