Editorial: Global view of US leadership hinders foreign policy

The good news in Gallup’s recently released global poll on world leadership is that the U.S. slightly improved. The bad news is that approval across 135 nations is only 33% — just ahead of China (32%) and Russia (30%), but well behind Germany (44%), which leads the quartet of consequential countries. Even worse, disapproval of U.S. leadership is at a record 42% — twice as high as Germany (21%) and even higher than China (30%) and Russia (33%).

That a democracy that has historically been a beacon of freedom and human rights is seen as just above repressive regimes in China and Russia should provoke change no matter who wins the November election. The low standing makes it much harder for foreign governments to work with the U.S. to counter countries like China and Russia — or to work with these superpowers on challenges that can only be solved through global efforts.

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Strains between countries and populism across countries may have weakened international institutions. “But there still are massive multilateral problems” such as climate change, global health, trade and setting standards in global technology, among others, that need cross-country cooperation, Reva Goujon, the managing director for intelligence at the strategic advisory firm Martin + Crumpton Group, said during a Gallup webinar last week.

And just as important as “power over others” is “power with others,” Joseph Nye, professor emeritus at Harvard, added during the webinar. Nye, credited with coining the term “soft power,” said “the ability to project a moral image is a great asset for a country’s soft power. … It not only increases the attraction of the leader domestically, it increases the attraction of the country internationally,” which Nye cited as a key factor in creating either an “enabling environment” or “disenabling environment” for world leaders to agree to U.S. initiatives.

U.S. leadership is seen as significantly less attractive now than in the last year of the Obama era (48% approval), and the decline comes right when alliances are needed most. Across Europe, for instance, a record 61% disapprove of U.S. leadership — a dismal data point that was likely made worse by President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw about 12,000 troops from Germany, a move that Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, called a “grave error.”

While Trump justified his decision by citing Germany’s level of military spending, Berlin and other European capitals will likely interpret it as another slight to NATO. “It is a slap in the face at a friend and ally when we should instead be drawing closer in our mutual commitment to deter Russian and Chinese aggression,” Romney said in a statement. “The move may temporarily play well in domestic politics, but its consequences will be lasting and harmful to American interests.”

Approval ratings are particularly low in key NATO nations such as Germany (12%), France (23%), Italy (21%) and the United Kingdom (25%). “When you see open divisions between what are supposed to be like-minded countries, between Europe and the United States, that lack of a united front is an opportunity for U.S. adversaries,” Goujon said. And while the data there is somewhat better, open divisions exist among key Pacific allies, too (Japan, 34% approve/40% disapprove; South Korea, 41% approve/47% disapprove).

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The survey was taken in pre-pandemic days. Next year’s poll will reflect perceptions of America’s coronavirus response and how it handles its election, among other issues.

Even in these deeply divided times, there should be consensus that the country must do better at home so that it can do better abroad.