18 May, 2015
The image of U.S. leadership — which for most of the world likely means President Barack Obama — continued to be the strongest worldwide in Africa in 2014, bolstered by majority approval in 24 sub-Saharan African countries. However, even though the U.S. hosted its first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in August to strengthen ties with the region, median approval dropped to 59%. This is its lowest point in the history of the trend.
Some of this decline is attributable to higher percentages of residents in some countries not expressing an opinion, rather than from increases in disapproval. Yet this does not explain the changes in countries such as Kenya, Malawi and Mauritania, where approval dropped significantly and disapproval rose significantly. The U.S. was not alone in this regard, however, leadership ratings of Germany and the EU in several of these countries also dropped.
At the same time, approval was lower than average in several countries where these ratings were measured for the first time in 2014: South Sudan (48%), Somalia (24%) and Sudan (21%). However, the regional median would be lower in 2014 regardless of whether these new countries were included in the average.
Approval Also Down in Asia
Although Obama made two trips to the region in 2014, the image of U.S. leadership did not appear to benefit from the administration’s attempts to “rebalance” relations in Asia. In fact, the 39% median approval in 2014 is a six-percentage-point drop to the same level observed in 2011.
Some of the biggest losses in approval in 2014 took place in former Soviet republics in Central Asia, where the crisis in Ukraine and U.S. tensions with Russia cast a shadow over relations. Kazakhstan led the region — and the world — in declines, with approval ratings of the U.S. dropping 28 points between 2013 and 2014. There were also double-digit declines in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. All three countries remain close to the Kremlin and share a long history of cultural and economic ties.
Image Stable at Mid-Point of Obama’s Second Term
Despite losing some ground in Africa and Asia, the 45% median approval across the 135 countries and areas surveyed in 2014 remained stable during yet another challenging year for U.S. foreign policy.
However, the flatness in the global trend somewhat masks the mix of diplomatic gains and losses in 2014, as the U.S. and other major powers continued to engage Iran, tensions flared with Russia over the crisis in Ukraine and the Islamic State group emerged as a major security threat.
European Approval Largely Stable; Disapproval Up
Median approval of the leadership of the U.S. remained static in Europe at 41% in 2014, suggesting that the public outrage over U.S. spying allegations in late 2013 (after Gallup’s surveys concluded that year) did not linger into 2014. The U.S. garnered majority support in 13 countries in 2014 that spanned most of regions of Europe, and included key allies such as Italy, Ireland, Denmark, France and the United Kingdom. However, the slightly higher disapproval numbers in several countries suggest residual resentment.
The crisis in Ukraine and tensions with Russia in 2014 clearly soured the public in Russia and former Soviet republic Belarus on the leadership of the U.S. Approval ratings in both countries dropped to single-digit record lows, and disapproval doubled in each country. But Russians’ ratings of the U.S. have the distinction of being the worst in the world in 2014, with residents giving the U.S. the highest disapproval (82%) and the lowest approval ratings (4%) of all populations surveyed.
U.S. Image Slightly Better in Americas
After several years of stagnant ratings in the Americas, median approval inched upward to 44% in 2014. Notably within the region, there was a double-digit increase in approval in Brazil and a double-digit decrease in Haiti.
Nearly half of Brazilians (48%) in 2014 said they approved of U.S. leadership, up from 32% the previous year. This 16-point increase in approval in 2014 suggests the public’s attitudes were beginning to thaw after the serious diplomatic fallout in 2013 following revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency had spied on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
Although a majority of Haitians (56%) approved of the job performance of U.S. leadership in 2014, this is down 14 points from 2013 and is the lowest approval measured since the devastating earthquake in 2010. The lower ratings in Haiti could reflect some of the controversy regarding how organizations have handled U.S. aid to the country.
Approval ratings are not perfect barometers of “soft power,” but they do provide important information for leaders about the visibility of their leadership and illustrate how major events can shape public opinion. Although 2014 was another challenging year for the U.S. in this regard, overall, the image of U.S. leadership remained stable, and it continued to receive the highest approval rating in the world of the major world powers. Still, ratings in 2014 were a mix of ups and downs that point to areas where the image of the U.S. is strong and areas where it struggles to engage with the public.
The data in this article are available in Gallup Analytics.
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