International opinion of the United States slides thanks to the coronavirus pandemic

Presented with evidence that America’s standing in the world has eroded, the response is simple: Other countries are finally being held to account, so of course they’re frustrated with the United States.

“Respect” then becomes unmeasurable, dependent on how Trump reads the numbers. If countries view us positively, it’s because Trump engenders respect. If they view us negatively, it’s because they offer a new, grudging form of respect. It’s similar to how he’s used the number of apprehensions on the border with Mexico as proof that he’s doing well, regardless of how high or low they are.

The problem is that sometimes there are obvious triggers for views of the United States, like the coronavirus pandemic. And, suddenly, the idea that the United States is the subject of newfound respect collapses.

New data from Pew Research Center shows that many of the countries that have traditionally been the United States’ closest allies are now far less likely to view the country with approval.

In 11 countries for which there are more than five years of data, the percentage of people viewing the United States with approval is at a recorded low in nine. The median percentage expressing favorable views of the United States across each of the countries surveyed is also at a record low, with about a third of respondents holding a favorable view. There’s a wide range: More than half of South Koreans view the United States favorably, compared with about a quarter of Germans.

Still, that downward turn — after a slight improvement relative to the decline that greeted Trump at his inauguration — is stark, and broadly so.

What spurred it? Certainly one factor is how the coronavirus pandemic unfolded in the United States. This country now has about a fifth of all recorded cases and recorded deaths, about five times the scale one would expect given how many Americans there are. Pew’s polling finds that at least half of respondents in 11 of the 13 surveyed countries think that the American response to the outbreak has been “very bad.”

Interestingly, the exceptions are Japan, where the pandemic was well controlled, and Sweden, where it wasn’t.

It’s important to remember that the Pew polling focuses on perceptions of the United States and not just Trump himself. Asked about their confidence in various world leaders to “do the right thing” on world affairs, Trump’s median score is lower than any of the other leaders included in Pew’s survey.

Broadly, he engenders about as much confidence as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is viewed with far more confidence, by contrast. In 10 of the 13 surveyed countries, Trump is viewed with less confidence than the other four leaders. The three exceptions are South Korea, Japan and Australia — all nations more directly in China’s geographic region of influence. (Xi is the lowest-rated leader in each of those countries.)

Again, though, the spin Trump can apply here is obvious. Pew was asking about doing the right thing on “world affairs”; his focus is on putting “America First” and undercutting what he calls “globalism.” Again, this become unfalsifiable: If he’s disliked on the international stage, it’s because he’s fighting for America — but if he’s liked internationally, it’s because he’s liked.

So far, that latter scenario hasn’t emerged.

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