What’s Worse Than World Leaders Laughing at the U.S.?


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- That viral video of the leaders of Canada, France and the U.K. laughing about their U.S. counterpart at last week’s NATO summit was vivid yet anecdotal evidence of what the rest of the world thinks of President Donald Trump. Now comes some hard data showing America’s declining global reputation.

Not only is the perception of the U.S. as a top ally fading, according to a new survey of 18 countries from the Pew Research Center, but more people see the U.S. as “posing the greatest threat” to them in the future. Even America’s closest neighbors are losing faith in their U.S. alliance.

In Canada, the percentage of those who see the U.S. as its top ally has fallen from 54% in 2007 to 46% in 2019; over the same period, the percentage of those who see the U.S. as the top threat has risen from 16% to 20%. (Keep in mind that the 2007 reading, near the end of George W. Bush’s calamitous presidency, already represented one of the lowest rates of global confidence and approval.) In Mexico, the percentage of those who see the U.S. as Mexico’s top ally fell from 35% to 27%; the percentage who see the U.S. as the top threat has risen from 35% to a poll-topping 56%.

The results also suggest that the U.S. is losing ground in perhaps its most important diplomatic challenge: the contest for influence and power with a rising China.

The Trump administration has paid lip service to the idea of growing great power competition, and to the need to offer an alternative to China in Africa and Latin America. Yet as the survey notes, “Across many of the Latin American as well as Middle East and North African countries surveyed, more name the U.S. as a top threat than say the same of China.” Equally disturbing is that in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa — democracies that are also sub-Saharan Africa’s three biggest economies — the share of respondents who regard China as their country’s most reliable ally is about as high as those who choose the U.S. In emerging markets more broadly, “China’s economic influence is seen in similar or even slightly more positive terms” than that of the U.S.

It’s possible, of course, to justify these findings by saying it’s better to be feared than loved. You might even argue that the growing U.S. isolation in the United Nations is a sign of America’s commitment to its principles. (In 2018, the U.S. voted against a higher proportion of General Assembly resolutions than any other nation; its global average voting coincidence was 31%, below the 10-year average of 36%.)

That’s certainly how Trump sees it. As he has repeatedly said, “We’re respected like we haven’t been respected in a long time.” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has doggedly defended his boss’s in-your-face approach to foreign policy, declaring that “putting America First means proudly associating with nations that share our principles and are willing to defend them.”

That raises at least two questions: Who are these nations, and what are these principles?

In a speech titled, “Trump Administration Diplomacy: The Untold Story,” one example Pompeo offered was getting other nations to join the U.S. in a statement rejecting a right to abortion. Consider the other signatories: Bahrain, Belarus, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Of these countries, Freedom House ranks only three as “free,” while four are “partly free.” The other 11 are “not free,” including three (Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Libya) that have the worst aggregate scores for political rights and civil liberties. If this is what the U.S. sees as “the trajectory for nations all across the world,” as Pompeo put it, then maybe those world leaders were laughing last week because the end state Trump has in mind is too horrible to contemplate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. Previously an editor at the Atlantic, the New York Times, Smithsonian, Foreign Policy and the New Republic, he was also in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1989 to 1997 in India, Japan and Washington.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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