Global Opposition to U.S. Surveillance and Drones, but Limited Harm to America’s Image
Chapter 1: The American Brand
A country’s brand is a valued commodity, especially when that nation is the world’s largest economic and strategic power. And, in 2014, America’s image remains strong in much of the world. Despite anger with Washington over U.S. spying on both foreign leaders and foreign nationals, widespread opposition to U.S. drone strikes, disagreements about what to do in the Middle East and other recurring tensions, most surveyed publics around the world still hold a favorable view of the United States. Young people, in particular, in many nations have an especially positive opinion of America. Overall, attitudes toward the U.S. are largely unchanged from 2013.
For nearly a decade and a half the U.S. global image has been on a roller coaster ride. At the beginning of the century America was seen favorably by majorities in most of the countries where comparable public opinion data are available. Over the next few years the bottom fell out of U.S. approval numbers, amid widespread opposition to the war in Iraq and other aspects of U.S. foreign policy. America’s image began to rally in some nations and to soar by the end of the decade following the election of Barack Obama, at least in Europe and parts of Asia and Latin America. After slipping a bit again in the first years of this decade, brand U.S. has stabilized and even recovered in a few nations in 2014.
Currently, majorities in 30 of 43 nations express a favorable opinion of the United States. This includes majorities in five of seven European nations, where 78% of Italians, 75% of the French and 73% of Poles voice positive views of Uncle Sam.
There is no evidence of a rise of anti-Americanism in most of Western Europe, home to great animosity toward Washington in the middle of the last decade. Only in Germany, where U.S. favorability is down 13 points since 2009, has the positive image of the United States slipped significantly. And, despite this slippage, roughly half of Germans (51%) still see America in a positive light.
The biggest decline in ratings for the U.S. is in Russia, where 71% now hold an unfavorable opinion. About half (51%) the Russian public expressed a positive opinion of Uncle Sam in 2013. In 2014, only 23% hold that view, a drop of 28 percentage points. Russians’ sentiments have been up and down in the last few years (57% positive as recently as 2010). The recent souring of the Russian mood about the United States has come at a time of growing Moscow-Washington tension over Crimea, Ukraine and U.S. economic sanctions against some Russians.
A significant number of Greeks also harbor anti-American sentiment. More than six-in-ten Greeks express a negative view (63%, vs. 34% favorable). Greeks have been quite negative the past three years at a time of growing Greek frustration over their economic situation.
In Asia, majorities in eight of 11 nations express a positive opinion of the United States. This includes 92% of Filipinos, 82% of South Koreans and 76% of Bangladeshis and Vietnamese. Even half the Chinese give Uncle Sam a thumbs up. Only Pakistanis are strongly anti-American, with just 14% expressing a favorable assessment of the U.S., while 59% are unfavorable. The median positive approval of the United States in Pakistan in 13 surveys since 2002 has been a mere 15%.
In eight of nine Latin American countries, majorities see the U.S. in a favorable light. Salvadorans (80%) are particularly positive in their assessment, as are Chileans (72%) and Nicaraguans (71%). Notably, despite all the tensions between Washington and Caracas, 62% of Venezuelans have a favorable opinion of the U.S. But less than four-in-ten Argentines (36%) are positively disposed toward Washington. In the seven surveys the Pew Research Center has conducted in Argentina since 2002, never more than about four-in-ten Argentines have expressed favorable sentiment toward their big neighbor to the north.
Africans express particularly positive views about America. Strong majorities in all seven nations surveyed back the United States, including roughly three-quarters or more of Kenyans (80%), Ghanaians (77%), Tanzanians (75%) and Senegalese (74%).
The Middle East is the sole region where anti-Americanism is both deep and widespread. Eighty-five percent of Egyptians and Jordanians and 73% of Turks voice a negative opinion of the United States. Only 10% of Egyptians, 12% of Jordanians and 19% of Turks have a favorable view. The Egyptian rating is the lowest among the 43 nations in the study. The Tunisians are divided: 42% positive, 47% negative. Israelis are the only public in the region where a majority (84%) holds a favorable opinion of America. And they are the second biggest U.S. fans among the nations surveyed, trailing only the Filipinos.
While hardly embracing America, Palestinians’ views of the United States improved by 14 percentage points, from 16% favorable in 2013 to 30% positive in 2014, possibly the consequence of Washington’s efforts to restart the Middle East peace process, even though the attempt ultimately failed.
The global public’s view of the United States is largely unchanged from 2013. Among the thirty-five countries surveyed in both 2013 and 2014, the median favorable assessment in 2014 is 62%, unchanged from 2013.
Young See U.S. Positively
Young people are more likely than their elders to have a favorable view of the United States in many parts of the world. In 24 of 43 nations, there is a generation gap in sentiment toward America with those ages 18 to 29 far more supportive of Uncle Sam than people 50 years of age and older.
This age disparity is particularly evident in parts of Asia, where young Vietnamese (89%) look more favorably on the U.S. than do older Vietnamese (64%), a 25 percentage point difference that is possibly a legacy of the Vietnam War, which the older generation would have experienced personally.
There is a similar generation gap about the United States in Thailand (+22 points) and China (+21 points).
Ethnic and Religious Divides about the United States
In Israel, 91% of Jews have a favorable opinion of America. Just 46% of Israeli Arabs voice a positive view.
In Lebanon, Israel’s neighbor to the north, more than half of Sunni Muslims (55%) and Christians (53%) say they are positively disposed toward the United States. But only 10% of Shia Muslims agree.
Meanwhile in Malaysia, Buddhists (74%) are more supportive of the U.S. than are Muslims (40%).
And in Nigeria, 80% of Christians express a favorable opinion of America, compared with 59% of Muslims.
Obama Still Popular
The election of Barack Obama as the 44th U.S. president in 2008 was widely approved around the world, leading to high expectations for the new American leader. His election also coincided with a dramatic jump in favorability of the United States, promising an end to the anti-Americanism that had plagued much of Washington’s relations with the rest of the world for several years.
Today, Obama remains largely popular in much of the world, except the Middle East. Half or more of the public in 28 of 44 countries surveyed has confidence in him to do the right thing in world affairs. And his median positive rating is 56%.
In most nations the public’s assessment of Obama’s performance is largely unchanged since 2013. His image has dropped by double-digits in five nations – Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Russia and Japan. But it has risen appreciably in Israel and China.
Western Europeans’ views of Obama remain fairly positive. More than eight-in-ten French (83%) and seven-in-ten Italians (75%), British (74%) and Germans (71%) have confidence in the U.S. president doing the right thing.
Revelations that Washington systematically reads both Americans’ and some foreigners’ emails and listens in on their telephone conversations appears to have significantly damaged Obama’s approval in only one European Union (EU) country: Germany. Germans’ views of Obama fell 17 percentage points since last year. Nonetheless, German confidence in the U.S. president remains relatively high.
Russian (15%) faith in Obama, already quite low in 2013, is down 14 points, a likely casualty of the Ukraine confrontation. And Obama’s handling of that crisis has not won the U.S. president much support in Ukraine, where only 44% give him a positive grade.
Half or more of the publics in nine of 11 Asian nations surveyed have confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs. Such pro-Obama sentiment is particularly strong in the Philippines (89%) and South Korea (84%). About half the Chinese (51%) now approve of his conduct internationally, up 20 points in the past year. Just 7% of Pakistanis think highly of Obama, making them his most severe critic. Notably, confidence in Obama’s leadership, while still high in Japan (60%), is down 10 points since 2013.
In Africa, half or more of the public in all seven nations surveyed give Obama a positive rating. He is particularly appreciated in Kenya (78%) and Tanzania (74%).
Latin Americans take a more jaundiced view of the U.S. president. In just four of the nine countries in the survey do half or more approve of his conduct of foreign affairs. And his highest rating is a relatively modest 58% in El Salvador. Meanwhile, roughly a third rate Obama highly in Venezuela (33%) and Argentina (31%). Moreover, appreciation for the U.S. president’s international stewardship is down 17 points in Brazil and 13 points in Argentina in just the past year.
Obama’s lowest regional approval is in the Middle East. Only 13% of Palestinians, 17% of Jordanians and 19% of Egyptians have confidence in his leadership. At the same time, 71% of Israelis give Obama a thumbs up. And that approval has risen 10 points since 2013, possibly thanks to the Obama administration’s renewed efforts to find some settlement for the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
Whatever global publics think of the American president in 2014, there is widespread disappointment in his leadership in world affairs compared with views in 2009, his first year in office.
Since 2009 Obama’s ratings have declined in 19 of 21 countries for which comparable data exist. It is up significantly in only one. And the median assessment of his global stewardship is down from 62% in 2009 to 55% in 2014. This includes a drop of 30 percentage points in Argentina, a 25-point falloff in Japan, a 23-point decline in Egypt and 22-point slides in Germany and Russia. Only in Israel has the public’s view of Obama improved significantly. Israeli confidence in him is up 15 points, from 56% to 71%, since he became president.
U.S. Drone Strikes Increasingly Opposed
Since beginning its war on terrorism more than a decade ago, the U.S. government has launched several hundred missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and elsewhere. The vast majority of these drone strikes have been carried out by the Obama administration. Such attacks are extremely unpopular.
In 37 of the 44 countries surveyed in 2014 by the Pew Research Center, half or more of the public disapproves of American drone strikes. This includes 26 where strong majorities of seven-in-ten or more are critical of this signature U.S. military action.
Israel (65%), Kenya (53%) and the U.S. (52%) are the only countries where at least half back the use of drones against suspected terrorists. Among those opposed are the publics of major NATO allies such as Spain (86%), Turkey (83%), France (72%), Germany (67%) and the United Kingdom (59%), all of which have experienced terrorist attacks on their own soil. Fully 82% in Japan, America’s principal Asian ally, are against the use of drones, as are 75% in South Korea, another major Washington regional security partner.
The use of pilotless aircraft against suspected terrorists is widely criticized throughout much of the Middle East. More than seven-in-ten in all six Muslim majority nations surveyed in the region disapprove of the policy. That includes 90% of Jordanians, 87% of Egyptians and 84% of Palestinians.
Two-thirds of Pakistanis are also against the use of drones, hardly surprising given that the preponderance of U.S. drone strikes have been aimed at targets in Pakistan. The opposition is relatively low, however, compared with that in other nations, possibly because 30% of Pakistanis declined to answer the question. In many countries where publics are already strongly opposed to drone use, there has been no significant change in attitudes since 2012 when the Pew Research first asked about this U.S. policy.
But there have been some noteworthy increases in public disapproval since 2013. Perhaps most important, Americans’ own disapproval of such missile strikes has grown 11 percentage points in the past year. Over that same period opposition has gone up by more than 15 points in Senegal, Uganda, France, and Germany.
The gender gap on this issue is particularly striking in Europe, Japan, South Korea and the United States, but not much elsewhere. Women are more likely than men to disapprove of the use of drones by a margin of 17 points in France, the UK and the U.S., and by 16 points in South Korea. Notably, nearly half (49%) of American women but only 32% of U.S. men oppose the use of drones. This gender gap is notably absent, however, in most countries.
There is also something of a generation gap on employing drones against extremists, but only in a few countries, notably the U.S. More than half (54%) of young Americans, those ages 18 to 29, disapprove of the use of drones, compared with just 32% of Americans 50 years of age and older.
There is also a partisan divide among Americans on drone use. By more than two-to-one (66% to 28%) Republicans approve of targeting extremists with missile strikes from pilotless aircraft. Roughly half (53%) of independents agree. Democrats are divided on the issue (47% approve and 47% disapprove).
Political ideology also plays a role in attitudes toward drone strikes in Europe. In Italy, opposition to such military action is far greater among people on the left (82%) than on the right (63%). This partisan split over drone use also exists in Spain (the left are 18 points more opposed than the right), in the UK (17 points), Germany (11 points) and Greece (11 points).
Spy on Terrorists, but Not Me or My Leaders
Recently the United States has monitored the communications of suspected terrorists, American citizens, the leaders of other countries and their people, according to revelations by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor.
These disclosures have led to widespread criticism of American violations of national sovereignty and personal privacy, although publics around the world generally have no objection to Uncle Sam monitoring suspected terrorists.
Majorities in 31 countries surveyed voice the view that electronic oversight of alleged terrorists is acceptable. Israelis (90%), Italians (88%) and Kenyans (88%) are particularly supportive, as are roughly eight-in-ten Russians (81%) and Tunisians (80%). Notably, Germans, who are particularly incensed about American spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel and on ordinary German citizens, have few qualms about U.S. eavesdropping on alleged terrorists: 70% support such efforts.
Americans (73%) are similarly supportive of such Washington surveillance, with older members of the public, those ages 50 and older, more sympathetic (77%) than the young, those ages 18 to 29 (63%).
In not a single country surveyed does more than half the public oppose monitoring terrorists. However, 49% of Vietnamese and 46% of South Koreas find such activities unacceptable.
However, there is widespread, overwhelming opposition to U.S. surveillance of ordinary citizens in the respondent’s country. Majorities in 37 nations find such activities unacceptable. This includes 97% in Greece, 94% in Brazil and 91% in Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia.
Notably, many Filipinos and Nigerians see nothing wrong with Uncle Sam spying on them. About six-in-ten in the Philippines (61%) and roughly half the public in Nigeria (52%) find such actions acceptable.
Americans are divided on the issue of their government spying on citizens of other nations: 49% find it acceptable and 47% say it is unacceptable. But there is a generation gap on such surveillance. Roughly half (51%) of older Americans find it acceptable, while just 39% of younger Americans agree.
There is similar public opposition to U.S. spying on the respondent’s national leaders. Majorities in 34 countries find such action by Washington to be offensive. This sentiment is particularly strong in Germany (90%), where the American government listened in on Merkel’s cellphone conversations. But there are nearly equal objections in Egypt (89%), Jordan (89%), Lebanon (87%), Venezuela (87%) and Greece (87%).
In contrast, about half of Americans (52%) are fine with Washington eavesdropping on foreign leaders. And 64% of Filipinos and 54% Nigerians say it is okay for Americans to monitor the communications of the leaders of the Philippines and Nigeria. Moreover, Italians, Salvadorans and Ugandans are divided on the topic, with roughly equal proportions of the population finding such surveillance acceptable and unacceptable.
Publics around the world also generally oppose Washington’s surveillance of Americans. Majorities in 27 nations say it is wrong. But such opposition is less intense than their criticism of U.S. spying on non-Americans. And majorities in the Philippines (69%), Nigeria (61%) and Uganda (55%) actually back Uncle Sam’s electronic oversight of Americans.
Americans see this particular surveillance issue differently. While the U.S. public is divided on their government spying on foreigners, they oppose Washington monitoring Americans: 61% find such oversight unacceptable, and just 37% say it is acceptable.
The Snowden Effect
Admiration for America’s respect for the personal freedoms of its own people has gone down significantly in 22 of 36 nations where there is comparable data for 2013 and 2014. NSA actions have particularly hurt the U.S. reputation in Brazil, where belief that Uncle Sam respects Americans’ freedoms is down 25 percentage points, and in Germany, where it is down 23 points. Washington listened in on the phone conversations of both the Brazilian and German leaders. Drops of 20 points or more are also found in El Salvador, Pakistan, Argentina, Spain and Russia.
And Americans themselves have lost some faith in their own government’s safeguards for civil liberties. The share of the U.S. public that says Washington respects personal freedoms has declined from 69% in 2013 to 63% in 2014.
Nevertheless, half or more of the public in 33 of 44 nations surveyed still think that Washington safeguards Americans’ freedoms. The U.S. image as a protector of personal liberties remains quite strong in a number of Asian nations: South Korea (91%), Philippines (87%), Japan (84%) and Vietnam (75%); and also in the Middle East: Lebanon (84%) and Israel (75%).
And in many societies, the younger generation is much more likely than their elders to see the U.S. as a defender of domestic liberties. This is particularly true in Uganda, where there is a 20-point generation gap on this measure, and Russia with a 19-point difference.