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U.S. Leadership Image Suffers Most Among Friendly Nations

by Zacc Ritter

After Donald Trump's election, U.S. allies and adversaries scrambled to evaluate whether his unorthodox rhetoric foreshadowed substantive shifts in U.S. foreign policy. The "America First" agenda raised questions about his administration's willingness to defend and promote the liberal world order that the U.S. had instrumentally shaped since 1945.

Reflecting this uncertainty, the median approval rating of U.S. leadership fell from 48% in 2016 to a record-low 30% in 2017. To understand where the sharpest declines occurred, we examined salient country-level attributes often associated with key U.S. strategic partners. The most significant declines in U.S. leadership approval occurred in freer nations connected to the U.S. through a dense network of political and economic ties.

Fraying the Ties That Bind

Residents of allied nations (those that have formal alliances with the U.S.) are less likely to approve of U.S. leadership under Trump than are those in non-allied nations (36.8% and 48.1%, respectively). The opposite was true in 2016, when 63.5% of residents from allied nations approved of U.S. leadership, compared with 53.9% from non-allied countries.

Map of Nations by U.S. Strategic Partner Status

This drop suggests Trump's transactional style and rhetoric -- for example, expressing skepticism about the U.S. commitment to NATO to encourage greater alliance burden-sharing -- may affect how populations in countries that are U.S. allies view U.S. leadership.

U.S. Strategic Partners
Figures represent the % approving of U.S. leadership
Obama (2016) Trump (2017) Difference
% % pct. pts.
Not ally 53.9 48.1 -5.8
Ally 63.5 36.8 -26.7
Gallup World Poll

Free Fall in Free Societies

Residents living in countries that Freedom House rated as Free (those with robust civil liberties and political rights) in 2017 registered an absolute decline in approval of 17.6 percentage points from 2016 to 2017. Conversely, the drop in the most restrictive societies was marginal (0.5 points), meaning the average U.S. leadership approval rating is slightly lower in Free societies than in Not Free societies under Trump.

Map of Nations by Freedom House Status

In contrast, U.S. leadership approval ratings during the last year of the George W. Bush administration were generally low but were higher in Free nations (48.0%) than in Not Free ones (41.6%). While many observers associate both administrations with a preference for unilateral over multilateral action, Trump's muted rhetoric about democracy promotion and human rights protection may partly explain this reversal.

Freedom House Status
Figures represent the % approving of U.S. leadership
Obama (2016) Trump (2017) Difference
% % pct. pts.
Not Free 44.0 43.5 -0.5
Partly Free 59.3 47.3 -12.0
Free 59.7 42.1 -17.6
Gallup World Poll
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Substantial Losses Among Closest U.S. Trading Partners

The degree of economic interdependence -- a country's imports from and exports to the U.S. as a percentage of its total imports and exports -- is another metric for evaluating the changing landscape of global opinion toward the United States.

Map of Nations by Degree of U.S. Economic Interdependence

Trump's rejection of continued negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his forced renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, as well as the uncertain future of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, make economic relations relevant to popular views on U.S. leadership. The decline in approval from 2016 to 2017 is more modest (6.5 points) in nations whose trade with the U.S. is nominal, but precipitous (29.1 points) among the United States' closest trading partners.

U.S. Economic Interdependence
Figures represent the % approving of U.S. leadership
Obama (2016) Trump (2017) Difference
% % pct. pts.
Low interdependence 65.0 58.5 -6.5
Medium interdependence 52.4 44.1 -8.3
High interdependence 66.8 37.7 -29.1
NOTE: Low interdependence = less than 2.4% of a nation's total trade is with U.S.; medium interdependence = 2.4% to 10.6% of total trade is with U.S.; high interdependence = more than 10.6% of total trade is with U.S.
Gallup World Poll

Implications

U.S. leadership has an image problem. Positive public opinion toward U.S. leadership has diminished dramatically in less than one year, especially among wellsprings of traditional support.

Some foreign policy experts believe a positive image abroad is a means to an end. Higher approval reflects a component of U.S. soft power, a reservoir of goodwill that the U.S. can use to influence other countries. The right to lead is conferred to a benign superpower when it practices self-constraint and plays by the rules.

Trump and his surrogates have periodically extended an olive branch by emphasizing that America First does not mean America Alone. Whether such episodes of measured rhetoric will change elite, let alone popular, opinion of U.S. leadership and the degree to which the current administration cares how the world views the U.S. are open questions.

Download the Rating World Leaders: 2018 report.

Gallup Global Managing Partner Jon Clifton discussed the major findings from Gallup's global survey on U.S. leadership on C-SPAN. Watch now.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face and telephone interviews with approximately 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older, in each country or area in more than 130 countries in 2016 and 2017. For results based on the total samples at the country level, the margin of sampling error ranges from ±2.0 percentage points to ±5.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The margin of error reflects the influence of data weighting. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

For complete methodology and specific survey dates, please review Gallup's Country Data Set details.

NOTE ABOUT MODEL: The country-level analysis used a random-effects model. In addition to all variables in the respondent-level model, this model included a dummy variable for U.S. strategic partners, Freedom House categories and economic interdependence. Both models used projected weights of respondents proportional to the population size of the country. The predicted probabilities changed values for one country-level factor, holding other individual-level and country-level attributes at their mean values.

Learn more about how the Gallup World Poll works.

Gallup


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