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Gallup and Meridian Examine
World Views U.S. Leadership

by Sarah Alaoui

The recently released survey "Who Leads the World? Shifts of Interest in Global Perceptions of U.S. Leadership" paints a fascinating picture of how different nations view American leadership — from an 89 percent approval high all the way down to a 79 percent disapproval mark.

Photos: Joyce Boghosian

From left, Ambassador of New Zealand Mike Moore, Ambassador of Egypt Mohamed Tawfik, and Meridian International Center President and CEO Ambassador Stuart Holliday share a laugh during a discussion on the recently released survey "Who Leads the World? Shifts of Interest in Global Perceptions of U.S. Leadership."


On March 14, the Meridian International Center and Gallup presented data from "Who Leads the World?" — part of their fourth annual U.S. Global Leadership Track, the largest global public opinion study of views about international leadership. In addition to Gallup Government Group Director Jon Clifton, who explained the survey's findings, Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Tawfik and New Zealand Ambassador Mike Moore provided contextual perspectives on the morning panel moderated by Meridian President and CEO Ambassador Stuart Holliday.

The 2012 survey polled individuals from 130 different countries and areas (representing 98 percent of the world's adult population) on their perceptions of U.S. leadership and job performance. Interestingly enough, the region with the highest overall approval rating of the United States was Africa, with a median approval rating of 70 percent and a median disapproval of 19 percent. In fact, 89 percent of survey respondents in Guinea are reported to have a positive view of the superpower, while the lowest figure in the region was Egypt, with only 17 percent of the country's participants sharing the sentiment.

Gallup Government Group Director Jon Clifton participates in a discussion on a joint polling project between Gallup and the Meridian International Center that's part of their fourth annual U.S. Global Leadership Track, the largest global public opinion study of views about international leadership.


In contrast, the continent with the lowest approval numbers of the country was Europe, with 36 percent. The United States retained majority support in six European nations: Britain, Kosovo, Albania, Ireland, the Netherlands and Italy. However, opinion worsened in countries that were hit hardest by the economic crisis, among them Hungary, Croatia, Macedonia and Austria. Russia, which beat Serbia in 2012 as the European country with the lowest median approval rating of U.S. leadership, came in at a dismal 13 percent.

On the flip side, Russia didn't fare all that well when the tables were turned. The U.S.-Global Leadership Track also measures perceptions of internal leadership, and on that front, Russia's figures are at an all-time low. So another way to approach the poll's results is to consider how the United States fares in comparison with countries such as China, Russia or Germany. For example, while China had a slight lead in international approval ratings only two years ago, its numbers are now on the decline.

Stuart Holliday, president and CEO of the Meridian International Center, moderates a March 14 panel discussion on U.S. leadership at the Meridian Center.


Another way to examine the findings of the Global Leadership Project is to look at the responses given when participants are forced to "vote with their feet." When asked if they would like to leave their country and if so, where else in the world they would like to settle down in, the United States has garnered the most votes for four years in a row. So which countries top the list of having individuals that would flock to the United States? China, Nigeria and India had the most positive responses from people wishing to switch destinations.

It's also important to note that this Gallup assessment looked at U.S. leadership in general, as opposed to President Obama specifically. On that note, other surveys suggest vastly different results. For instance, a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project found that although Obama's global approval ratings slipped in his second term, he still retained strong support in Europe (80 percent) and Japan (74 percent), while his marks in Russia and China were fairly low, at 36 percent and 38 percent, respectively.

Meridian President Holliday invited the ambassadors on the panel to discuss their countries and factors that may have led to their compatriots' opinions of U.S. leadership.

New Zealand Ambassador Moore lauded America's crucial role in an increasingly globalized world, pointing out that much of the survey's results can be explained in terms of the high standard to which the country is held up.

Deputy Chief of Mission at the Kenyan Embassy Jean Kamau asks a question during a Q&A, flanked to the left by Ambassador of Liechtenstein Claudia Fritsche.


"It's not easy being the United States. When you make a mistake, you can't make a small mistake — they'll always find out," Moore quipped.

He also pointed out that it is important to distinguish American institutions from the American people themselves and that the survey results do not necessarily reflect the latter, which is a positive thing. In that sense, Moore said, nations would like to see consistency between values the U.S. administration champions and its actual policies.

The notion that the U.S government is hypocritical pervades many Muslim nations such as Egypt. Holliday asked Egyptian Ambassador Tawfik how the country can show Egyptians it is acting in their best interest.

"The United States has no option of disengagement, but it has the choice of how it chooses to engage," Tawfik replied. "When it embarks on military operations, its approval ratings decline but when the U.S. focuses on cooperation, coalition building and win-win situations, the numbers rise accordingly."

He cited examples of U.S. actions that led approval ratings of American leadership among Egyptians to increase, including President Obama's Cairo speech in 2009. While such gestures generally ameliorate perceptions of the U.S. in the Arab world, other images of the country — allegations of abuses and misconduct in the Iraq and Afghan wars, for instance — erode positive sentiment just as quickly.

Ambassador of Lesotho Eliachim Molapi Sebatane, left, and Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Mozambique Eduardo Zaqueu attend a discussion on U.S. leadership at the Meridian International Center.


Tawfik echoed Moore's argument that while negative perceptions of U.S. leadership may exist in Egypt, these do not necessarily define feelings toward the American people. The Egyptian envoy emphasized the influence of American values and culture internationally, pointing out that you can turn on a radio station anywhere in the world and stumble upon an American song.

But he stressed the importance of the United States remaining involved in the region politically, especially as the Arab Spring uprisings continue to destabilize countries. "What the surveys show is that as long as peace is lacking in the [Arab] region, its image of the U.S. will not be positive. It's worth the effort."

Of course, the concept of leadership is subjective, as Ambassador of Lesotho Eliachim Molapi Sebatane, one of about a dozen envoys in attendance, pointed out during the audience Q&A. She wondered to what extent the respondents' understanding of the term could have affected their responses. Clifton agreed that the definition is somewhat subjective and relies especially on political context.

"This is why the collaboration of Gallup and the Meridian International Center is crucial," Holliday said. "It provides context to the numbers."

Tom Korologos, a strategic advisor to DLA Piper, left, talks with former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, a partner at DLA Piper and Meridian chairman, at a discussion on U.S. leadership at the Meridian International Center.


About the Author

Sarah Alaoui is a contributing writer for the Diplomatic Pouch.

 

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