Global survey reveals that US soft power remains strong

Kerry Boyd Anderson

A recent survey of 23 countries found that a majority of people polled had a favorable view of the US. This finding suggests that US soft power – non-coercive influence, such as cultural and economic appeal – remains strong.
The Pew Research Center’s 2023 Global Attitudes Survey found that a median of 59 percent of people polled had a favorable view of the US, compared to 30 percent with an unfavorable view. In 20 of the countries, views of the US have improved since 2019; only in Italy and Hungary have they declined, while there is no 2019 data for Australia. The 2023 survey found that only Hungary had a majority (51 percent) that views the US unfavorably.
Positive attitudes toward the US were especially common in Poland (93 percent), Israel (87 percent) and South Korea (79 percent). The Pew report noted that positive views among Poles of the US, NATO and the EU increased after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, Polish views of Russia turned markedly more negative. The Polish people are clearly choosing the West over Russia. The very high level of the US’ popularity in Poland was especially notable when compared to the other Eastern European country included in the survey: Hungary. Only 44 percent of Hungarians expressed favorable views of the US. This result is at least partly linked to Washington’s difficult relations with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban; his supporters were likely to express more negative views of the US and particularly of President Joe Biden. Often, there is a close link between global views of the US and global perceptions of the American president. This continued to hold true in the 2023 survey, which found that a median of 54 percent of respondents in the 23 countries expressed confidence in Biden, compared to 39 percent who expressed no confidence in him. Interestingly, Biden appears to be more popular in the global attitudes survey than he does among Americans. The FiveThirtyEight poll tracker recently found that 54 percent of Americans disapprove of Biden’s performance, compared to 40.5 percent who approve.
In 14 countries, a majority said they have confidence in Biden “to do the right thing regarding world affairs,” compared to seven countries where majorities expressed a lack of confidence (opinions in Brazil and Indonesia were split). The survey also found that Biden in 2023 is more popular than Donald Trump was in 2019 in all of the countries except Hungary (with no 2019 data for Australia). In multiple countries, Biden is significantly more popular than Trump was. For example, 13 percent of Germans expressed confidence in Trump in 2019, while 67 percent expressed confidence in Biden in 2023. Hungary is the only exception, as 33 percent of Hungarians had confidence in Trump in 2019 but only 19 percent expressed confidence in Biden. Another important finding is that people interviewed for the survey were more likely to say that the US – rather than China – is the world’s leading economy. Among the 23 countries in the poll, a median of 41 percent named the US as the leading economic power, compared to 33 percent who put China in the top spot. This view was especially strong in South Korea, Japan and Israel, where 83 percent, 64 percent and 61 percent, respectively, named the US as the leading economy. Only a majority in Italy (55 percent) said that China is the world’s top economy, although half of Australians agreed. The Pew report noted that the percentage who perceive the US as the top economy increased over the last three or four years in 10 countries. The survey’s findings also suggest that many people around the world have a nuanced view of the US’ role in global politics and security. While 82 percent agreed that the US interferes in other countries, 61 percent also said that it “contributes to peace and stability around the world.” Indeed, 50 percent of respondents said both that the US interferes and contributes to peace and stability. Black-and-white views of US global policy as either fully good or wholly bad do not represent many people’s understanding of the country’s role in the world.
The Pew Global Attitudes surveys are always fascinating and offer important insights into public perceptions of world affairs. Of course, no poll is ever perfect. The Pew poll does a good job of including a variety of countries in terms of geographic and economic diversity. However, it is overly dependent on countries that are US allies, including European states, Japan, South Korea and Australia, and countries that have long sought a positive relationship with Washington, such as India. Key hostile countries – such as China, Iran and Russia – are not included. No Arab countries are represented in the survey. The exclusion of these and other states appears to be due to resource constraints and difficulties conducting high-quality polling in some countries; therefore, noting their omission is not a criticism of the survey but nonetheless is an important observation to make when interpreting the survey’s usefulness to understanding global perspectives. While taking such caveats into account, the survey should be reassuring for US political and business leaders. US soft power and economic power remain strong – for now.