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U.S. Leadership Has an Image Problem. Should We Care?
Gallup Blog

U.S. Leadership Has an Image Problem. Should We Care?

Gallup's latest numbers show the image of U.S. leadership abroad is not good right now. Its approval rating is basically unchanged from the all-time low set last year.

Maybe this isn't entirely a bad thing. Doing what's right isn't always popular. President Donald Trump's America First foreign policy wasn't designed to win friends around the globe.

Trump believes that the U.S. has been wronged in most international agreements. He notably pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal.

He's renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and started trade wars with China, the EU and other long-standing trade partners. He criticized NATO allies and opened a direct dialogue with North Korea. These actions were intended to benefit America, not make the country more popular.

But should we really care what the world thinks of the U.S.?

If you subscribe to the concept of soft power, yes, we should.

Where hard power is reflected in America's ability to impose its economic and military might on others, soft power is the type that makes people in other countries want to align their interests with the U.S. -- not because they have to, but because they want to.

Scholars have shown quantitatively that this type of influence exists. Researchers at Dartmouth and the University of Sydney looked at the relationship between countries' voting patterns at the United Nations and their citizens' attitudes about U.S. foreign policy. They found that "public opinion about U.S. foreign policy in foreign countries does affect their policies toward the U.S."

This suggests that America's recent unpopularity may be making it harder to lead globally. But it might affect more than foreign countries' policies toward the U.S. Newer research at Berkeley indicates soft power may even negatively affect trade. The researcher found that America's recent unpopularity abroad is costing the country billions of dollars in global trade.

Our founder, George Gallup, famously said that great leaders don't "vote the polls." Instead, they always know what people are thinking and then choose to do what they think is right.

The Rating World Leaders: 2019 report details what people outside the U.S. think about its leadership, and how it compares with other global leaders. This report helps leaders know what people are thinking. After that, it's up to them to decide what's right.

Read the full report.


Jon Clifton is Global Managing Partner at Gallup.

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