July 14, 2014

Global Opposition to U.S. Surveillance and Drones, but Limited Harm to America’s Image

Many in Asia Worry about Conflict with China

Revelations about the scope of American electronic surveillance efforts have generated headlines around the world over the past year. And a new Pew Research Center survey finds widespread global opposition to U.S. eavesdropping and a decline in the view that the U.S. respects the personal freedoms of its people. But in most countries there is little evidence this opposition has severely harmed America’s overall image.

World Opposed to NSA Actions ... but U.S. Still Popular Explore Global Opinions of U.S. Surveillance

In nearly all countries polled, majorities oppose monitoring by the U.S. government of emails and phone calls of foreign leaders or their citizens. In contrast, Americans tilt toward the view that eavesdropping on foreign leaders is an acceptable practice, and they are divided over using this technique on average people in other countries. However, the majority of Americans and others around the world agree that it is acceptable to spy on suspected terrorists, and that it is unacceptable to spy on American citizens.

Widespread Opposition to DronesAnother high-profile aspect of America’s recent national security strategy is also widely unpopular: drones. In 39 of 44 countries surveyed, majorities or pluralities oppose U.S. drone strikes targeting extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Moreover, opposition to drone attacks has increased in many nations since last year. Israel, Kenya and the U.S. are the only nations polled where at least half of the public supports drone strikes.

Despite these misgivings about signature American policies, across 43 nations, a median of 65% express a positive opinion about the U.S. And these overall ratings for the U.S. are little changed from 2013.

Moreover, President Obama is still largely popular internationally – across 44 nations, a median of 56% say they have confidence in him to do the right thing in world affairs. And, while Obama no longer has the same high levels of popularity that he enjoyed immediately after his election in 2008, there has been very little change in his appeal over the past year.

The biggest declines in his ratings since last year are found in two nations where the U.S. has listened to the private phone conversations of national leaders: Germany (from 88% confident in 2013 to 71% confident now) and Brazil (69% in 2013, 52% now).

Obama’s favorability is also down considerably in Russia, reflecting recent tensions over the crisis in Ukraine. Only 15% of Russians currently express confidence in the American president, down from an already low 29% in 2013. U.S. favorability has also declined dramatically – just 23% of Russians say they have a favorable opinion of the U.S., less than half of the 51% registered in last year’s survey.

In spite of the unpopularity of U.S. spying and its use of drones, America also remains more popular globally than China, its principal rival in world affairs.

In spite of the unpopularity of U.S. spying and its use of drones, America also remains more popular globally than China, its principal rival in world affairs. A median of 49% of the publics surveyed hold a positive view of China. And the U.S. is still considered the world’s top economic power, although this is less true today than it was before the Great Recession. However, looking to the future, a median of 50% of those surveyed in both 2013 and 2014, up from 41% last year, see China eventually supplanting America as the dominant world superpower.

But China’s rising power also generates its own anxieties, especially in its immediate neighborhood. In particular, there are strong concerns in Asia that territorial disputes between China and its neighbors will lead to military conflict. More than seven-in-ten in the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and India say this is a concern. And two-thirds of Americans agree, as do 62% in China itself.

These are among the major findings of a new survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted in 44 countries among 48,643 respondents from March 17 to June 5, 2014. The survey also finds that in most nations, young people are more favorable than their elders toward both the U.S. and China.

The Snowden Effect

Eroding Faith in Protection of  Personal Freedoms in the U.S.Disclosures by former National Security Administration (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden about NSA spying revealed the U.S. government’s vast capacity to intercept communications around the world.

The Snowden revelations appear to have damaged one major element of America’s global image: its reputation for protecting individual liberties. In 22 of 36 countries surveyed in both 2013 and 2014, people are significantly less likely to believe the U.S. government respects the personal freedoms of its citizens. In six nations, the decline was 20 percentage points or more.

Most Say U.S. Respects  Personal FreedomsStill, the U.S. has a relatively strong reputation for respecting personal freedoms compared with the other major nations tested on the survey. A median of 58% believe the American government respects individual liberties, while 56% say this about France, 36% about China, and only 28% say it about the Russian government.1

And while the Snowden revelations have harmed aspects of America’s image, overall ratings for the U.S. remain mostly positive. Globally, the U.S. has a higher favorability rating than China. This is especially true in Europe – across the seven European Union nations surveyed, a median of 66% express a favorable opinion of the U.S., while just 39% feel this way about China. The U.S. is also considerably more popular in Latin America, while both countries receive mostly high marks in Asia and Africa.

The Middle East is the clear exception. China’s favorability in the region is not especially high, but is higher than that for the U.S. Anti-Americanism has been common in many Middle Eastern nations throughout the Obama presidency, as was the case during the George W. Bush era. And again this year some of the lowest ratings for the U.S. are found in the region. Only 19% of Turks and 12% of Jordanians offer a favorable opinion of the U.S., and at 10% Egypt gives the U.S. its lowest rating in the survey.

U.S. Seen More Positively than China in Europe, Latin America, but Not in Middle East Global Indicators Database: Image of the United States

Asia in Focus

One of the challenges for China’s image is the anxiety its neighbors feel about Beijing’s territorial ambitions. Territorial disputes ring much of China’s periphery, and rival claims by China and neighboring countries have inflamed tensions throughout Asia in recent years. These disputes include a long-running controversy with Tokyo over small uninhabited islands in the East China Sea known as the Diaoyu Islands in China and as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, as well as disputes in the South China Sea with Vietnam and the Philippines. In addition, Beijing claims that the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh actually belongs to China.

A 2013 Pew Research poll found that many in Asia considered territorial rows with China a major problem for their country, and this year in all 11 Asian nations polled, roughly half or more say they are concerned that territorial disputes between China and its neighbors will lead to a military conflict. This includes a remarkably high 93% of Filipinos, 85% of Japanese, 84% of Vietnamese, and 83% of South Koreans.

China's Border Disputes with Its Neighbors

When Asians are asked about their top allies and threats, China is listed as the greatest threat in three countries that have major territorial grievances with China: Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. In contrast, Pakistanis, Chinese and Malaysians name the U.S. as the biggest threat to their country.

Outside of China, Malaysia and Pakistan, every Asian nation surveyed considers the U.S. its top ally (Indonesians actually see the U.S. as their main ally and their main threat). For their part, Americans look outside of Asia for their number one ally (the UK) and greatest threat (Russia).

Which Country Is Greatest Ally/Threat?

Balance of Power

While China’s increasing power generates concerns among some in Asia and around the globe, its economic growth also presents opportunities for many. Across the nations surveyed, a median of 53% say that China’s growing economy is a good thing for their own country; just 27% describe this as a bad thing.

China’s economic rise, coupled with the challenges that have plagued the U.S. economy since the onset of the Great Recession, have led to shifting views about the economic balance of power in the world. Looking at 20 countries surveyed in spring 2008 – before the depths of the financial crisis – and again this year, the median percentage naming the U.S. as the world’s leading economic power has dropped from 49% six years ago to 40% today. During the same period, the percentage naming China has risen from 19% to 31%.

China Gaining on U.S. as Top Economy & Superpower Global Indicators Database: World's Leading Economic Power

Europe Sees China, Not U.S., as Leading Economic PowerThis shift in perceptions has been especially strong among some of America’s top allies in Europe. In 2008, across France, Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK, a median of 44% considered the U.S. the world’s top economy, while just 29% said it was China. By 2012, the percentage naming the U.S. had declined to 28%, while the share saying China had nearly doubled to 57%. Today, China is still seen as the clear economic leader in these nations, although over the past two years the numbers for the U.S. have increased slightly, while the percentage naming China as the leading economic power has declined somewhat.

More broadly, many around the world believe that at some point China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower. In 2008, global public opinion in these 20 nations was divided on this question, with 41% saying China will eventually replace or has already replaced the U.S. as the dominant superpower, and 39% saying China will never supplant the U.S. Today, 50% say China has replaced or will replace the U.S., while just 32% believe this will never happen.

  1. For more on global views of Russia, see “Russia’s Global Image Negative amid Crisis in Ukraine,” released July 9, 2014.