As Obama Years Draw to Close, President and U.S. Seen Favorably in Europe and Asia
1. America’s international image
As the Obama era comes to a close, the overall image of the United States among key publics in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region is generally favorable. In addition, U.S.-led military action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria wins broad approval, and many say America is as important a world leader as it was a decade ago.
U.S. image, in part, is linked to impressions of the American people. In general, Americans are perceived as optimistic and hardworking, although those outside of the U.S. are divided as to whether Americans can be described as tolerant. When looking at negative characteristics, many people around the globe associate Americans with arrogance, greed and violence.
Favorable views of U.S. have continued throughout the Obama administration
Majorities in 13 out of 15 countries surveyed have positive views of the United States. In many of these countries, notably France, Poland, Spain, the UK and Japan, favorable views of the U.S. have endured since 2009, when President Barack Obama first took office. Today, America gets its highest ratings from Poles (74%), Italians (72%), Japanese (72%) and Swedes (69%).
In Europe, a median of 63% across the 10 nations surveyed rate the U.S. favorably. In some North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally countries in Europe, opinions of the U.S. have weakened since 2015. Positive views are down by 11 percentage points in Italy and by 6 points in Spain, although the U.S. still enjoys high levels of favorability in both countries (72% and 59%, respectively). German opinion, on the other hand, has moved in the opposite direction. A year ago, only half in Germany viewed the U.S. in a positive light, whereas a 57% majority are now of this opinion.
Greece is the only country surveyed in which a majority (58%) views the U.S. unfavorably – a position that has not changed much since 2012. Half of Chinese are positive toward the U.S., a 6-percentage-point increase since 2015, perhaps the result of bilateral meetings between the two countries’ leaders, Obama and President Xi Jinping, late last year and earlier this year.
In some countries, U.S. gets higher marks among young people, those on right
Previous Pew Research Center surveys have found widespread age gaps in views of the U.S., with younger people typically more favorably inclined toward the United States. This year, we see this pattern repeated in several countries: China, Poland, Hungary and India. The gap is most dramatic in China, where there is a 25-percentage-point difference between the majority of people ages 18-34 who have a favorable opinion of the U.S. and the minority of those ages 50 and older who agree. Sweden stands out as the one country where the age pattern is reversed: 77% of older Swedes are favorably disposed toward the U.S. compared with only 59% of younger Swedes.
In certain countries, opinions of the U.S. also differ by ideological orientation. In seven of the 12 countries where ideology was measured, people on the right of the ideological spectrum are more likely to have a favorable view of America than are people on the left. This gap is widest in France and Sweden, where roughly three-quarters of those who place themselves on the right have a favorable opinion of the U.S., compared with only about half of those on the left. Double-digit ideological gaps are also present in Greece, Australia, Spain, the UK and Canada.
Views on U.S. respect for civil liberties
Many people in America and abroad believe the U.S. government respects the personal freedoms of its citizens. In 11 of the 16 countries polled, more than half hold this view, including strong majorities in Japan (76%), Italy (75%), Poland (73%), Hungary (63%) and China (61%).
In Europe, at least, not everyone agrees when it comes to the status of civil liberties in the U.S.: In France and Sweden, for example, roughly half in each country (both 51%) say the American government does not respect personal freedoms within its borders. Slightly fewer in Greece (46%) and Spain (43%) share this view. In India, 41% think the U.S. government respects its citizens’ freedoms, but nearly as many do not offer an opinion.
Compared with eight years ago, significantly fewer in France, Germany and Poland believe that the U.S. government respects the rights of its citizens. The decline has been especially steep in France, where the share of respondents saying the U.S. respects civil liberties has dropped 21 percentage points since 2008. Over the same period, the proportion of Germans confident that the U.S. protects personal freedoms has fallen 17 points. These declines are likely due in part to revelations in 2013 about the U.S. National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. Between 2013 and 2014, during which time the NSA’s tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone was disclosed, opinion in the country on U.S. respect for personal freedoms plunged 23 percentage points.
It is possible that the critical assessment of the U.S. record on civil liberties is softening in some countries. For instance, German views have actually rebounded somewhat, with 53% now saying the U.S. government respects its citizens’ personal freedoms, compared with 43% who held this opinion in 2015.
China has also seen an improvement in the U.S. government’s respect for the rights of its citizens. A majority in China (61%) thinks personal freedoms are respected in the U.S. (an increase of 16 percentage points from 2015). Younger Chinese (67%) are even more likely than older Chinese (52%) to hold this view.
In the U.S., 58% of Americans say their government respects the civil liberties of its citizens, up from 51% a year earlier but still well below pre-NSA scandal levels (69% in 2013). Women (63%) are more likely than men (53%) to think the federal government safeguards individual freedoms. There is also a large partisan gap on this issue: 72% of Democrats say their government respects civil liberties, compared with 50% of Republicans who say the same.
American leadership in the world seen as stable over past decade
At one extreme, roughly six-in-ten Japanese (61%) say the U.S. has declined in importance over the past 10 years. By contrast, a 57% majority of Indians say the U.S. plays a more important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago.
Meanwhile, in key European nations – France, Germany, the UK, Spain and Sweden – the prevailing view is that the U.S. is about as important and powerful as it was a decade ago.
Continuing support for military action against ISIS
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that large majorities in Europe see ISIS as a major threat. And in most of these countries, there is overwhelming support for U.S.-led military action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The French are the most supportive of such action, with 84% saying so. Roughly the same share (81%) held this view in 2015, prior to the November 2015 Paris attacks, for which ISIS claimed responsibility.
Backing is also strong among the other members of the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes in Iraq and Syria: Netherlands (77%), U.S. (76%), Australia (75%), the UK (71%) and Canada (68%). Roughly eight-in-ten (81%) in Sweden, not a coalition member, also stand behind the U.S.-led effort against ISIS.
Majorities support U.S.-led efforts against ISIS in Germany (71%), Italy (67%), Poland (65%) and Spain (62%). Greeks are split, with 48% in favor of and 45% against the military campaign to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
In 10 of the 15 countries in which this question was asked, men are more likely than women to support anti-ISIS efforts led by the U.S. The gender gap is widest in Japan, Canada and Spain. The narrowest gender gap is in the United States.
Americans perceived as optimistic and hardworking
In addition to questions about the U.S., the survey asked respondents about their image of Americans. When asked whether Americans are optimistic and hardworking, majorities in nearly all countries answer “yes.” However, when asked if Americans are tolerant, views are mixed.
American optimism is alive and well in the eyes of those surveyed in North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific. Majorities in every country except for China and India believe that people in the U.S. tend to look on the bright side.
Seven-in-ten or more in all 10 European nations surveyed associate optimism with Americans. Fully 80% of Spanish, Poles and Swedes say this. Overwhelming shares of Japanese, Australians and Canadians also describe Americans as hopeful in their outlook.
Americans are also widely viewed as having a strong work ethic. In 14 of 16 publics polled, majorities describe Americans as hardworking. The Spanish are particularly impressed, with 86% associating Americans with hard work. This represents a 12-percentage-point increase from 2005, when the question was last asked in Spain. At least 57% in each of the other European countries surveyed also ascribe industriousness to Americans, although that reputation has slipped slightly in France (-8 percentage points) and Germany (-7) over the past 11 years.
In North America, both Americans (80%) and Canadians (76%) associate people in the U.S. with hard work. Across the Pacific, majorities in Australia (68%) and India (56%) agree; however, only minorities in China (39%) and Japan (26%) describe Americans as hardworking.
The image of Americans as tolerant is less firmly implanted than either a reputation for optimism or hard work. Besides the U.S. (65%), only in Poland (70%), Japan (59%), Germany (51%) and Italy (51%) do roughly half or more describe Americans as tolerant. Some publics are divided on the issue, but in China (59%), Sweden (58%) and Australia (56%) majorities do not associate Americans with tolerance.
Within some countries, views on American tolerance divide sharply along ideological lines, with those on the right of the ideological spectrum more likely to say people in the U.S. display this trait than people on the left. This is the case in Australia (18 points more likely), France (+15), Canada (+14) and Spain (+12).
Many associate arrogance, greed and violence with Americans
The survey also asked whether respondents associate three negative traits – arrogance, greed and violence – with Americans. A median of 54% think arrogance is an attribute of Americans, and nearly as many say the same about greed (median of 52%). Slightly fewer across the countries surveyed think Americans are violent (median of 48%).
Majorities or pluralities in nine countries associate haughtiness with people in the U.S. Roughly seven-in-ten Greeks, Canadians and Australians associate a sense of superiority with people in the U.S. and six-in-ten or more in the UK (64%), Spain (62%) and China (60%) agree.
A 57% majority of Americans admit that the stereotype of the greedy American fits. Roughly the same portion of Spaniards (59%), Dutch (59%), Canadians (58%), Australians (58%), British (56%) and Swedes (55%) agree that Americans are greedy. In Greece, an even larger share (68%) associates Americans with avarice. Elsewhere, the survey finds roughly half or fewer agreeing that Americans are greedy. This view is least common in Italy, with just 21% ascribing avarice to people in the U.S. Meanwhile, the share of Poles (-13 percentage points), Brits (-9), and Chinese (-8) ascribing greed to people in the U.S. has dropped considerably since the last time this question was asked in 2005.
Across the countries polled, substantial percentages describe Americans as violent. In four nations this constitutes a majority view: Australia (68%), Greece (63%), the UK (57%) and Spain (55%). The last time this trait was tested was in 2005, against the backdrop of the U.S.-led mission in Iraq. The share of people in France describing Americans as violent was 15 percentage points higher (63% vs. 48%). Smaller but still significant gaps are evident in Canada (64% in 2005 vs. 53% today) and China (61% vs. 52%).
U.S. Republicans, Democrats disagree on many American traits
In the United States, Democrats sometimes have a less favorable view of Americans compared with Republicans. Democrats are less likely to describe Americans as tolerant and more likely to associate Americans with greed and arrogance. The largest perceptual divide, however, is over violence. By a margin of 21 percentage points, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to describe Americans as violent.
Although both Republicans and Democrats associate Americans with hard work, this accolade is more widespread among Democrats (85%) than Republicans (75%). The one positive characteristic Republicans and Democrats agree on is optimism. Roughly three-quarters of both Republicans and Democrats say people in their country are hopeful.