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Does The United States Really Need To Improve Its Image Abroad?

Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s pick to be secretary of state, promised Wednesday during his confirmation hearing to restore the United States’ lost leadership role and fix the country’s damaged reputation on the world stage. At a press conference on the same day, Trump made similar comments about America’s international reputation, promising that during his presidency, “all countries will respect us far more, far more, than they do under past administrations.”

If those promises sound weirdly familiar, it’s because they’re almost identical to the ones Barack Obama made in 2008 and early 2009. They also have a lot in common with things that George W. Bush said in 2000, when he promised to restore honor and dignity to the White House after Bill Clinton’s sex scandals. At this point, America has been saved about as many times as a guilty teenager at church camp.

But is this perennial altar call for revival just a politically expedient way of saying, “I don’t like that last guy who was in charge,” or does it reflect the reality of our place in the world stage?

Americans certainly think there are declines and rebirths happening.

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Between 2000 and 2016, Gallup repeatedly asked Americans about whether we think the leaders of other countries respect our president. We definitely perceived the Bush presidency to be at a low point, respect-wise, in 2007 and 2008. And even though our perceptions of international respect have never dropped so low since, they have fallen off — a lot — from Obama’s 2009 high-water mark.

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And when residents of other countries are asked essentially the same question, their views of the U.S. president tend to closely track with what Americans think they think. The Pew Research Center asked people in a wide range of countries how much confidence they had in the U.S. president “to do the right thing” when it comes to global affairs. Looking at 14 of those countries, we can see a low point in confidence around 2008 and then a restoration of confidence after Obama’s election, followed by a slow slide downward again.1 All these countries had more trust in the American president toward the end of the Obama administration than they had toward the beginning of the Bush administration. And almost all have a higher opinion recently (in 2015 or 2016) than they did in 2008, at least by a couple of percentage points. (The only exception: Russia, which went from 22 percent in 2008 to 11 percent in 2015.)

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Things get complicated when it comes to asking residents of other countries about their perceptions of the United States in general, as opposed to the American president specifically. The trend varies a lot more from country to country. In Germany and France, there was a surge in U.S. favorability ratings after Obama’s election. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s opinion of the U.S. fell a little. Of the 14 countries I looked at,2 five — Germany, the United Kingdom, Jordan, Russia and Turkey — have less favorable views on America now (or in 2015) than they did in 2002. And four — Jordan, Russia, Lebanon and Kenya — lowered their opinion of the U.S. during Obama’s term. But it’s reasonable to say that the world still likes us; in 2015, Pew found that the median favorability rating among 39 countries from that same survey was 69 percent.

Judging by these measures, you could say that promises to restore America’s rightful place are both a political statement and a reflection of reality. Obama’s and Trump’s calls for renewal are legit — each really did inherit a presidency in need of image rehabilitation abroad, although Trump maybe has less restoration work to do than Obama did. On the other hand, both have probably overstated how poor our reputation as a country is. That is, unless, they were both talking about Russia.

Footnotes

  1. The Pew data looks at opinion in 64 countries. We narrowed it down based on a combination of completeness of the data set — how many years Pew had surveyed a given country between 2002 and 2016 — and global representation. That last factor explains why Spain (which was surveyed every year) isn’t on this list but Ghana (which has a much smaller data set) is.

  2. Pew has data only through 2015 for nine of the 14 countries: Jordan, Russia, Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, Argentina, Chile, Ghana and Kenya.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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