Nobody Wants America to Rule the World
Foreign confidence in the U.S. is sinking even faster than the share of Americans who see the benefits of engagement beyond our borders.
We knew the world hates Donald Trump. We knew people outside the United States have been giving Americans side-eye since 2016. We just didn’t know it was this bad.
This week’s Pew poll of foreign opinion of the United States, its president, and its policies should alarm every American. It’s not just a gauge of Trump, it’s a gauge of global confidence in us, our leaders, and our abilities. It’s an indicator of how much the world trusts us to lead them into the rest of the 21st century. And it’s not good. It’s really not good.
In country after country, favorability ratings to the United States are the lowest in two decades, since the millennium. In France, we are down to 31 percent. The only time since 2000 the French thought so little of the United States was in March 2003, when President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq moved tens of thousands to protest on the Champs-Élysées and in cities worldwide.
Trump’s ratings are worse. Pew asked who had “confidence” in the American president to “do the right thing in world affairs.” The highest score he got was just 25 percent, in Japan, where Trump publicly wooed and coddled now-former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The lowest was 9 percent, in Belgium, a founding member of NATO. Elsewhere in Western Europe, Trump received confidence ratings between 10 and 19 percent in German, France, Britain, and Spain. Their leaders, in contrast, received confidence ratings of 76 percent for Angela Merkel, 64 percent for Emmanuel Macron, and 48 percent for UK’s Boris Johnson. It’s not even close.
The world has more confidence in Russia’s Vlaidmir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping than in Donald Trump.
How bad is it? The options to answer the confidence question were “a lot,” “some,” “not too much,” and “no confidence at all.” That last one really drew ’em in. In France, 75 percent said they have no confidence in Trump at all. It was 79 percent in Germany, 67 in Canada, 65 in the UK, 69 in Sweden, and 60 in Australia. Japan was more forgiving; only 30 percent had no confidence in Trump, but 38 percent picked the second-lowest answer: “not too much” confidence. That totals 68 percent.
The numbers were already tanking before COVID hit, but Trump’s response to the pandemic sent global opinion of the United States into free fall. The highest mark that any country gave the United States’ coronavirus response was from Spain; just 20 percent said we’re doing a “good job.” Japan gave us a 15. Germany, a 9. In South Korea, only 6 percent of respondents said the U.S. was doing a good job with the pandemic.
The good news for the world, if you can call it that, is that Americans who support Trump don’t want the United States to be leading the world anyway.
The Chicago Council’s annual survey of American opinion on foreign policy is out, and the 2020 edition shows that Democrats and Republicans are more divided than ever about how to engage in the world outside U.S. borders. This is not a surprise. The council’s researchers note that Joe Biden is pushing for re-engaging alliances and multilateral partnerships, while Trump is pushing his “America First” stance and encouraging right-wingers who reject “globalists” — an anti-Semitic term that refers to the false conspiracy theory that Jews run the world.
The Council’s survey always requires a bit of a between-the-lines reading. It usually concludes that its results show that Americans retain a healthy desire to remain “engaged” in global affairs. But increasingly, the numbers paint a different picture. Mostly, Republicans say they want little to do with the outside world, at least when they answer these questions, which were asked from July 2 to July 19, at the height of this summer’s protest-pandemic frenzy.
On coronavirus, the poll asked whether the U.S. should go it alone or collaborate with the world. Eighty percent of Democrats favored collaboration; 40 percent of Republicans did. (When the question was broadened, 18 percent of Democrats said the U.S. should remain “self-sufficient as a nation so we don’t need to depend on others,” while 58 percent of Republicans said so.) No surprise when Trump has pulled the United States out of the World Health Organization-led coalition of every other country on earth, and taken no steps to collaborate with world leaders on a shared solution or plan.
But wait, the Council tells us, “Despite the pandemic, Americans continue to reject retreat from the world.” That’s the rosiest set of glasses a data interpreter could don. Their data point is that 68 percent of all respondents agreed it “will be best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs.” What does that mean, though, when more than half of Republicans don’t want the United States even to collaborate with foreign governments on stopping a global pandemic that has killed more than 190,000 of their countrymen?
What the Council didn’t highlight but is found on page 39 of the report is that 78 percent of Democrats support an “active” U.S. role in world affairs, but only 64 percent of Republicans do. That’s a 14-point split. There hasn’t been a divide that large on this question since 1986, according to their charts.
The partisan divides on U.S. participation in the world are as sharp as ever. Democrats still say globalization is a good thing for the United States (75 percent) and Republicans say no way (55 percent.) The split hasn’t budged in three years. It grew sharply apart in 2017, the year Trump took office, slamming globalization (and globalists), especially in his annual speeches to the UN General Assembly.
The most concerning threats in July 2020, according to Democrats, are: coronavirus, climate change, racial and economic inequality, and election interference. The top threats for Republicans: China, terrorism, immigrants, domestic extremism, and Iran. You can bet that Republican concern about extremism doesn’t mean Confederate flags and white supremacists. All summer, Trump and his team and right-wing pundits have claimed, mostly falsely, that racial justice protests and ensuing riots and vandalism — even California wildfires — were all started by Antifa.
Another telling, but not new, partisan split is on “American exceptionalism,” the phrase international relations scholars love to hate. It once was meant to gauge the nation’s place in history, and its ability or deservedness to lead the world. It’s become a phrase that partisans like to use as a patriotism litmus test. For some on the right, if you don’t think America is the singularly exceptionally great country on earth, you hate America. On the left, if you think America is exceptional, then you are probably a male, white-privelaged colonial imperialist who hates everyone else. Or something like that. In this survey, 80 percent of Republicans said America is exceptional. Among Democrats, only 35 percent.
On issue after issue, Republicans reject international collaboration for independent, American solutions to problems. They reject international institutions. Even on NATO, only 65 percent of Republicans support flat or increased “commitments” to the alliance, compared to 85 percent of Democrats.
There’s barely a mention of America’s wars and conflicts abroad in the survey write-up. It’s a new era, yet again.
No single foreign policy issue is as prominent in the 2020 presidential campaign as China. And the nation is divided there, too.
“Republicans identify China as a higher critical threat than any other threat presented in the survey (67%), and a significant majority say that the United States should actively seek to limit China’s power and influence (64% versus 36% of Democrats),” the survey says. But “most Democrats still favor a strategy of engagement over containment. In fact, six in 10 Democrats (60%) say that the United States should pursue friendly engagement with China.”
The China question is complicated. Democrats and Republicans alike seem to have gotten the message that something has changed and China is no longer as trusted as it once was. But what to do about it? Across the board, Republicans want a much tougher position against Beijing. From TikTok to the NBA, companies are under pressure to break with China. When asked if they would support banning “sensitive high-tech products to China” 85 percent of Republicans agreed, but only 67 percent of Democrats. On the 5G issue, 79 percent of Republicans but only 62 percent of Democrats favor banning Chinese telecom construction in the U.S. Down the list, the split is wide for tariffs (76 to 39), reducing trade (70 to 41), restricting exchanges (66 to 39), and limiting Chinese students in the U.S. (65 to 32.)
Do Americans want to lead the world? We’ve asked this question before. This week, the Chicago Council surveyors said in their report, “This isn’t the most relevant question, as a majority of Americans continue to support global engagement. Rather, the most important question is how the United States should relate to the rest of the world.”
“Today, the differences between the two candidates are glaring, reinforced by respective partisan preferences among the wider public. In November, voters will not only decide who will become the next US president but also they will help determine the path US foreign policy takes.”