PRINCETON, NJ -- Barack Obama's first foreign visit as president on Thursday will be to a country, Canada, that enjoys the highest favorable rating of 19 nations rated in Gallup's Feb. 9-12 World Affairs survey. Nine in 10 Americans view the United States' neighbor to the north favorably, while only 6% view it unfavorably.
Great Britain, another English-speaking ally of the United States, nearly matches Canada in its U.S. popularity, with an 89% favorable rating. Japan and Germany fall a notch lower, viewed favorably by about 8 in 10 Americans, followed by France, India, and Israel, all with positive ratings around 64%.
Iran ranks last on the list, with a 12% favorable rating and an 80% unfavorable rating, followed by North Korea and the Palestinian Authority, both with 15% favorable scores. Afghanistan and Pakistan are viewed as only slightly better, with 19% and 20% favorable ratings, respectively.
This is the fourth straight year that Canada has topped the country rankings, including with a 92% favorable rating in 2008.
All of the 19 countries rated this year were included in Gallup's 2008 World Affairs survey as well as in most of Gallup's annual measurements since the World Affairs survey was launched in 2001. Earlier Gallup Poll trends, from as far back as 1979, exist for many of the countries.
According to the long-term trends, the 2009 favorability ratings for both Russia and Mexico are the lowest Gallup has seen in many years.
Favorability toward Mexico peaked at 74% in 2003 and 2005, but has fallen each year since 2005. Today's 51% favorable rating of Mexico is significantly lower than the 58% found last year, and is the lowest Gallup has recorded since 1993. Heightened attention to illegal immigration from Mexico, as well as to intensifying violence in the Mexican drug war, could explain the deterioration of Mexico's U.S. image in recent years.
Americans' favorability toward Russia has also been sinking since 2005, when 61% of U.S. adults felt favorably toward the nation's former Cold War nemesis. More generally, public attitudes toward Russia have been somewhat volatile over the years, and seemingly sensitive to shifts in U.S.-Russian diplomatic relations.
Positive feelings toward Russia registered 66% in February 2002, matching the historical high point first reached in 1991. Favorability toward Russia plummeted to 40% in March 2003, likely capturing U.S. resentment against Russia for its opposition to the Iraq war. However, by February 2004, Russia's favorable rating had bounced back to 59%. The current 40% favorable rating of Russia is down from 48% a year ago, which could reflect U.S. public reaction to the recent military conflict between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
The only country to gain more than a few percentage points in popularity over the past year is Iraq. While ratings of Iraq remain much more negative than positive, the latest 28% favorable rating is up from 20% a year ago, and from 15% in 2007. The high point in favorability of Iraq was 29% in 2005, but attitudes were more negative in 2006, 2007, and 2008, as the Iraq war dragged on and U.S. casualties mounted, with little hope for a successful conclusion to the conflict.
With Iraq assuming a greater degree of responsibility for its own governance and internal security over the past year, and after the orderly provincial elections in late January, Americans seem to be feeling more positive about Iraq.
In addition to reviewing the favorable ratings of the individual countries, Gallup categorizes countries according to their political relationship with the United States, as either allies, non-allies, or adversaries. The average favorable ratings of the countries in each group allow Gallup to track broad patterns in Americans' perceptions of the world, as well as discern whether the distance between attitudes toward the United States' friends and attitudes toward its foes is widening or narrowing.
The 2009 World Affairs survey includes eight U.S. allies as defined by membership in NATO or by official U.S. designation as a major non-NATO ally. These are Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Egypt, Israel, Japan, and Pakistan. The average favorable rating of all eight countries in 2009 is 68%.
The survey includes three countries with which the United States has no formal diplomatic relations: Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. In line with the U.S. government's position toward these countries, the three receive an average favorable rating from Americans of just 19%. (From 2001 through 2004, the category also included Iraq.)
The survey includes another eight countries that currently fall into neither category: Afghanistan, China, India, Iraq, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Authority. While the United States has strong diplomatic relations with each of these and, in the case of India, has signed an important civil nuclear agreement, none of them is linked with the United States in a formal defense or diplomatic pact. The average U.S. favorability rating toward these eight countries is 36%.
While the 2009 composite rating of the eight non-ally nations is fairly low, ratings of the individual non-ally countries are quite varied, ranging from 15% for the Palestinian Authority to 64% for India. In fact, U.S. public opinion of India is more consistent with ratings of U.S. allies than with those of non-allies.
Americans' average ratings of the United States' allies and adversaries included in this year's poll were highest in February 2001, but by 2004 had fallen 11 percentage points, from 75% to 64%. Attitudes have since leveled off close to a 70% average favorability rating.
Average ratings of U.S. adversaries declined sharply between 2001 and 2003 -- largely because of decreased favorability toward North Korea and, to a lesser extent, Iraq. This followed former President George W. Bush's declaration that Iran, Iraq, and North Korea constituted an "axis of evil" that must be fought. The composite rating has since fluctuated between 13% and 20%.
Perhaps most interesting is the downward trend in average favorability toward the middle group of countries, falling from 49% in 2001 and 44% in 2002 to 40% by 2006 and 36% today. The drop is owing to the aforementioned declines in favorability toward Russia and Mexico, as well as in perceptions of Afghanistan (from 26% favorability in 2002 to 19% today). The only country in this group to see real improvement in its image since 2001 is India.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,022 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 9-12, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
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.