clock menu more-arrow no yes

People around the world don't like or trust Trump. Here's why that matters.

"There will be rot rather than dramatic change." —Elizabeth Saunders

President Trump And Indian PM Modi Hold Joint Statement At White House Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

America’s image around the world has tanked since Donald Trump was elected president, a new Pew Research Center report reveals.

The numbers are ... bad. Actually, they’re worse than bad.

Pew asked people in 37 countries if they had favorable views of the United States and if they had confidence in the American president to do the right thing in world affairs. These questions were put to people when Barack Obama was still president, and then asked again after Trump took office.

The contrast is stunning.

In all but two countries, perceptions of American leadership have fallen precipitously. It’s especially pronounced among our allies in countries like Canada (-61), France (-70), the UK (-57), and Germany (-75). The only exceptions are Israel and Russia. In Israel, confidence in the American president has climbed 7 points; in Russia, it has surged 42 points.

If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering that this means in concrete terms. Does it matter if people around the world don’t like America or don’t trust American leadership? What does it mean for America’s ability to get things done? Does this compromise our security in any way?

To answer these questions, I reached out to Elizabeth Saunders, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Saunders is the author of Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions and an expert on international security and foreign policy. She has also written about the forces that shape mass opinion around the world.

According to Saunders, Trump’s massive unpopularity could undermine America’s foreign policy, although it would likely do so in invisible ways.

Here’s what she told me.


Sean Illing

What was your initial reaction to the Pew report?

Elizabeth Saunders

When I think about how to make sense of the Trump era, I try to first separate out trends that we could attribute to other factors, that would have been true irrespective of who won the election in November 2016. That's just the way I approach most questions about international politics today.

I look at these numbers and I say to myself, "What would be the case if you had a different Republican, not Trump?" I’m not sure how different it would be. But presidents usually get a honeymoon period, both at home and abroad, and that’s clearly not true with Trump. The drop has been pretty dramatic.

But basically people around the globe seem to recognize that the most likely thing that will happen is that relations between their country and the US will stay the same. (Pew reports that among the 37 countries surveyed, more people think relations will get worse than better, but the prevailing view is still that relations will hold.)

So these numbers probably reflect displeasure with Trump, but a sort of basic realization that presidents can only do so much, and that structural features, power, their economic relations, their country's general relationship to the international economy — those are the kinds of things that drive bilateral relations between the US and the respondent country. So people seem to be able to detach the Trump effect from these longer-term trends.

Sean Illing

So this sort of rapid decline at the beginning of a presidency is unusual?

Elizabeth Saunders

I’d say so. When Obama took over in 2009, there was a massive jump up initially. Then something of a drift down over time. That is natural, I would say. But the plummeting of public opinion toward Trump has been pretty dramatic, and I think much more dramatic than what we saw during the Bush administration. It’s also true Trump was starting from a much higher baseline give how popular Obama was.

(Pew)

Sean Illing

One thing that struck me is that the decline in trust and confidence in the American president is sharpest among our allies. That seems especially worrisome given how important these partnerships are.

Elizabeth Saunders

Where Trump is clearly different from other Republicans is that he simply doesn't buy into the notion that he should make nice with our allies and tend to alliance relationships for their own sake. He doesn't see value in that. He just doesn't value these invisible benefits that you get from alliances.

Sean Illing

What are the invisible benefits?

Elizabeth Saunders

Think about it this way: If you have a friend and you ignore them for months and months, and you never call and you never write, but then one day you need them to help you with something, they're not going to be there for you. Even though George W. Bush really did have some serious tensions with allies, they were policy tensions over particular policy issues, and they stemmed from structural factors. They were real issues.

With Trump, it’s a philosophical thing. He just doesn't believe these alliances are worth much, so he's not bothering with a lot of the niceties, and I think that is where you see the real difference, where I would tend to think the gravitational pull downward in these numbers is strongest among our closest allies.

Sean Illing

I think the key question here is what does this mean in concrete terms? Someone might see these numbers and wonder why it matters if everyday people and leaders around the world don’t trust the American president. How does this actually harm us? Or does it?

Elizabeth Saunders

I think the effects of this might be somewhat invisible. There's two ways you can answer this question. One is to notice is that although people don’t like Trump, they basically think relations between their country and the US will stay the same. So that may reflect the sort of structural reality that it's very hard to change these relationships.

What's much more likely to happen is a kind of rot rather than a dramatic change. The hollowing out of these relationships, the fraying of bonds rather than a dramatic break. Having your country be popular just makes everything easier; it greases wheels. It's almost like a down payment on an insurance policy that you might need later, but you can function without it — you've just got to pay the piper someday.

The other place you might see this actually have an effect is anywhere that a politician is facing election, where the United States and that country's relationship with the United States is an issue. I'm thinking here of Angela Merkel in Germany. It sounds like she's doing well enough in the polls that this might not be much of an issue, but you could imagine leaders who might run on their anti-Trumpism or their "I stood up to Trump" or "I can do well with Trump and make a good deal for our country." There are places where it'll be visible, but I think the long-term effects of this are not likely to be very obvious to us until the moment when they become painfully obvious.

(Pew)

Sean Illing

Can you think of a hypothetical example of one of those “painfully obvious” moments?

Elizabeth Saunders

Well, you could imagine a leader who's not really willing to take an unpopular position that helps the United States because Trump is so unpopular, both here and in that leader’s country, in which case he or she wouldn't want to be associated with Trump in any way.

It’s a little harder to imagine, but I can also see a difficult hardcore national security issue or a more discretionary issue in which leaders won’t want to invite or work with Trump. You saw something like this recently when there were reports that the UK leader, Theresa May, didn’t want Trump to visit for fear of mass protests.

Now, that seems like a small thing, but that's an example of the kind of diplomatic maintenance that really matters. Again, it’s like paying the premium on your insurance policy or calling your friend every now and then, which allows you to go back to the bank when you really need them, when there’s a crisis.

Sean Illing

These are consequential effects, but they’re also difficult to attribute or quantify, right?

Elizabeth Saunders

Right. The damage here, if there is real damage, will mostly be seen in the rot in the relationships. A foreign leader will not be able to go to his or her public and say, "I'm doing this for the sake of our friendship with the United States, and it's led by good people." All those things that you might imagine would be easier if that person was more popular.

I have to add, though, that I don’t know if the effects are going to be that dramatic, or if we’ll ever really be able to attribute concrete damages to this particular problem, to the unpopularity of Trump.

Sean Illing

You do make an important point, which is that these leaders are responsive to their domestic constituencies in the same way that an American president is. If Donald Trump is deeply disliked or mistrusted in these countries, that gives their leaders cover to disengage.

Elizabeth Saunders

That’s true, but we should probably also note that the converse isn’t necessarily true either. After all, Barack Obama was very popular around the world, but that didn’t magically make all forms of international cooperation better.

Sean Illing

Fair enough. But it certainly feels different to see leaders of traditional allies like France and Germany openly admitting that America is no longer a reliable partner. These are hugely important partnerships, in terms of intelligence sharing and economic and military security. If these alliances erode, doesn’t that compromise our security?

Elizabeth Saunders

I agree with that, entirely. The question is, is that a question of alliances? How much of that depends on the domestic political support for Trump within the allied countries? That's the part that I think is relevant to this discussion.

Sean Illing

Well, what’s the answer to that question?

Elizabeth Saunders

Again, I think it's very hard to tell. I think another place you would potentially see it show up is when these countries are then forced to raise money and divert funds to pay for the increased spending on security because they’re less reliant on America. Who knows how that will play domestically. The fact that these publics don't feel so great about American leadership could make them more inclined to be supportive of that.

Sean Illing

In any case, as you said, there won’t be a straight causal line between cause and effect here. And while there’s no clear upside to this, there is potentially a tremendous downside. We’re talking about seemingly minor problems that could metastasize into larger ones, but even in that case, it’ll be hard to pinpoint Trump’s unpopularity as the root cause.

Elizabeth Saunders

Yeah, I'd say that the costs are likely to be mostly invisible. This is a general headwind, and will act as a stronger gravitational downward pull on America’s foreign policy, but it’s diffused and may, ultimately, not matter all that much.