The State of U.S. Power: Perceptions across the Globe

In December 2013, the Pew Research Center released data suggesting that Americans’ views of U.S. power and prestige abroad had reached a 40-year low. That poll came in the wake of the first releases of National Security Agency (NSA) documents by Edward Snowden and the August 2013 Syria crisis and amid heated battles in Washington over the federal budget. More recently, controversy over the adequacy of defense funding in the President’s FY2015 Budget Request and Russia’s annexation of Crimea have renewed concern about how the United States is perceived beyond its borders. Kathleen Hicks, senior vice president, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and International Security Program director at CSIS, recently sat down with some of CSIS’s most prominent regional scholars to discuss foreign views of the United States and practical steps we can take to improve U.S. standing in the world. Joining her were Ernest Bower, senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies; Heather Conley, senior fellow and director, Europe Program; Jennifer Cooke, director, Africa Program; Andrew Kuchins, senior fellow and director, Russia and Eurasia Program; Carl Meacham, director, Americas Program; and Richard Rossow, senior fellow and Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies.

HICKS: All of you travel extensively in key regions abroad and speak extensively with both government officials and representatives of civil society. Have you noticed changes over the past year in how the United States is viewed beyond our borders?

KUCHINS (Russia and Eurasia): In the case of Russia, elite and public perceptions of the United States have been declining since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012. Putin has successfully driven this decline in public opinion about U.S. power. Of course, Putin’s campaign was premised on anti-Americanism. You may recall that he accused former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the CIA of aiding and abetting the protesters who came out en masse to the streets in Moscow and other large Russian cities after the falsified results of the Duma elections in December 2011. This was the first significant socially mobilized opposition in Russia since the massive demonstrations leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Other states in the “post-Soviet space,” who feel more threatened by Moscow’s born-again assertiveness, find themselves in an awkward position. There is a natural inclination for them to desire stronger ties with the United States but skepticism that Washington is really prepared to deliver much of value to them. This is especially true in Central Asia where there is concern about what happens after the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Central Asian states became more significant to Washington after 9/11 because of the war in Afghanistan, but Washington’s attention may drift away again while Moscow and Beijing in their different ways are increasing their presence and influence in the region.

CONLEY (Europe): In Europe, there has been a significant and negative change in both elite and public attitudes toward the United States over the past 12 months, driven by the NSA’s surveillance and intelligence revelations. For example, a November 2013 poll found that 72 percent of Germans opposed the collection of telephone and Internet data of its citizens by an allied government, even as part of an effort to protect national security and only 35 percent of Germans considered the U.S. government trustworthy. While European attitudes regarding data privacy and security have always differed from American perceptions, the damaging revelations have significantly widened these differences and complicated future transatlantic cooperation across a range of issues.

For European elites, the NSA leaks have simply accelerated the cumulative effect of growing concern about American leadership in the world and in Europe in particular. European elites have understood for quite some time that Europe as a general matter is not of great interest to the Obama administration, and the 2011 announcement of the U.S. “pivot” to Asia only hardened these views.

COOKE (Africa): The view is a little different across sub-Saharan Africa, where perceptions of the United States remain generally positive, even as other external players continue to expand their economic and political engagement. The United State remains a vital security partner and an enduring partner on public health and development. U.S. technology and innovation, the U.S. education system, and popular culture all hold tremendous appeal for Africa’s youthful and increasingly connected populations. African governments and citizens have fairly consistently expressed disappointment that the United States has not been more active on the trade and investment front: the quality, brand recognition, training and technology transfer that U.S. companies can offer make U.S. investors the partners of choice in many sectors. But despite a general reservoir of good will, the United States is no longer perceived in Africa as the world’s undisputed superpower. Other models of governance and economic development hold appeal for some of the continent’s more authoritarian leaders who feel less singularly beholden to U.S. and Western support.

MEACHAM (Latin America): The U.S. reputation in Latin America has been vulnerable for some time to a handful of states whose priorities and beliefs largely differ from our own. Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro frequently accuses the U.S. government of subverting his authority and conspiring against his administration, and according to a recent Pew Research poll, public perceptions of the United States are lower in Argentina than anywhere else in the hemisphere. But the majority of the Latin American public sees things somewhat differently. Having moved out of the perspective that saw the United States in simplistic terms, Latin Americans have adopted a more pragmatic view of their northern neighbor and its place in the world, understanding that U.S. policy is driven by its own interests. And, whether because they see U.S. power as waning or because, more than ever before, emerging powers all around the world present a viable alternative to U.S. influence, Latin Americans decreasingly look to the United States.

ROSSOW (India): India’s view of the United States has suffered a bit in the last year. Two things in particular have cooled the Indian government’s view of the United States: the arrest in December 2013 of an Indian diplomat in New York, and the yearlong assault on Indian economic policymaking by aggrieved American companies. These issues do not typically translate directly into widespread public perceptions across India about the United States (the “average Indian” would be a rural farmer with little education), but certainly perceptions about the United States would be damaged for urban Indians or rural citizens who follow international events.

In terms of measuring the Indian public’s view, the last major polls measuring how India views the United States—such as those conducted by the Lowy Institute in Australia—show that Indians like the United States more than they do most other countries. But there has not yet been fresh data reflecting the most recent events, and I will assume it has had a moderate impact.

BOWER (Southeast Asia): Confidence in the United States has also eroded in Southeast Asia over the past year. The region has tried to understand to what extent President Obama and his administration intend to follow through on the rebalance to Asia. For the countries of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN), this feels like an existential question because of China’s size, growth trajectory, investments in military capacity, including naval assets, increasingly aggressive stance regarding the South China Sea, and undeniable proximity to their shores. President Obama had to cancel his planned visit last November, and the White House seems unwilling to spend political capital on driving economic engagement and trade agenda for Asia. In Asia, an economic core is the foundation for regional security, so this is a great concern and worry for the region. Worse for these smaller countries, Beijing perceives weakness in Washington. ASEAN believes China sees an America fundamentally divided by partisan ideology, undergoing an uncertain economic recovery, and without any foundational political commitment to engagement in Asia, despite the undeniable geopolitical calculus that clearly adds up to the fact that U.S. economic and security futures are tied to what happens in the Indo-Pacific region.

HICKS: Russia’s annexation of Crimea is obviously on the minds of many in the United States. What role might that action play in further influencing attitudes about the United States in Europe and Russia?

CONLEY (Europe): Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the potential for a subsequent invasion of eastern Ukraine has been a real “game changer” for European security and has forced the Obama administration to refocus its attention on Europe. With repeated telephone calls between leaders, engaged American diplomacy, and the arrival of American military personnel and hardware in Central Europe and the Baltics regions, European leaders have been reassured—in words and in deeds—that the United States stands with them against Russian aggression. Beyond the immediacy of the crisis, it is unclear how Washington will sustain its new-found European policy focus and whether NATO can be institutionally revitalized.

KUCHINS (Russia and Eurasia): Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing intimidation of Ukraine is really a watershed event. I have been travelling to Moscow since 1979 when I was a student, and never have I seen anything close to the anti-American and, to a lesser extent, anti-European fervor being stoked by the crushing wave of propaganda from the Russian government and government-controlled media sources, especially national television. A Stalinist atmosphere of “if you are not with us, you are against us” has raised the fear levels of an already atomized opposition and any groups or individuals who may be somehow engaged with the United States. Already, numerous independent websites have been shut down and opposition politicians Alexei Navalny and Boris Nemtsov placed under house arrest. How far this goes depends really on how far Putin pushes his campaign for control, de facto or de jure, over the future of Ukraine. This episode is far from played out, but it is hard to believe that as long as Vladimir Putin is running Russia there is any chance to return to the status quo ante in the bilateral relationship—and this necessarily has negative repercussions for the image of the United States.

This dynamic is also very debilitating for Ukrainians first and foremost—but also for all other countries in the Russian orbit. These countries all the more desire American assistance as a hedge against overweening Russian military, political, economic, and intelligence tools of power, but they fear they are being left on their own. The fact that the Budapest Memorandum, which promised the security and integrity of the borders for Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine when they agreed to give up their nuclear weapons 20 years ago, has been exposed as a virtually worthless piece of paper by the signatories is a brutal blow in the region and around the world for the credibility of the United States and the integrity of its word.

HICKS: Heather Conley spoke of the critical blow dealt to European perceptions of the United States by the NSA scandal. Where has the Snowden affair or the Syrian crisis contributed to changing perceptions about the United States?

MEACHAM (Latin America): Most of the blows to U.S. prestige in Latin America can be traced back to the scandal set off by Edward Snowden last summer. Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, frequent critics of the United States, were quick to vilify the U.S. government for its alleged surveillance practices. And Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, already facing domestic pressure for public policy reforms, cancelled her planned state visit to Washington and became an outspoken advocate for international surveillance legislation to rein in U.S. intelligence efforts. The bilateral relationship, as a result, took a visible hit—and one only bolstered by Rousseff’s decision to award a lucrative military contract to Swedish manufacturer Saab over U.S.-based Boeing.

CONLEY (Europe): In addition to the NSA leaks, which have significantly damaged the view of the United States with most European publics, erratic U.S. policy toward Syria has also deepened Europe’s concern about U.S. leadership. European leaders, particularly the British and French, were firm in the belief that President Obama would penalize Syria for the repeated use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people and were caught off guard by Obama’s sudden policy change. The concern about U.S. Syria policy has played out against a long-standing backdrop of worry about the reduction of America’s military presence in Europe. Central European and Baltic allies have questioned the strength of America’s security commitment to Europe as U.S. combat brigades stationed in Europe return to the United States, American military facilities are closed, and the U.S. decision last fall to send a very small contribution of about 250 soldiers to the largest NATO collective defense exercise since 2006, Steadfast Jazz.

KUCHINS (Russia and Eurasia): Putin mobilized tremendous public support with his handling of the August Syria crisis. The image of the wise and effective Putin manipulating the bumbling Obama played very well for the Russian public and further contributed to Russian public antipathy toward Washington. Similarly, the Snowden case played very nicely for Putin to portray himself as the defender of civil rights against the intrusive behavior of the NSA. His refusal to extradite Snowden further enhanced an image of strength versus American weakness.

HICKS: The dynamic in Africa and Asia seems somewhat distant from these “headline news” stories. What are the most important issues affecting views of the United States in those regions?

COOKE (Africa): We are seeing a very different set of issues dominating African views of the United States. President Obama’s travel to Senegal, Tanzania, and South Africa in July 2013 was warmly received and to some extent allayed perceptions among African governments and publics alike that as president he has been less personally engaged with Africa than his predecessors. The Power Africa and Trade Africa initiatives announced during his trip and the large delegation of U.S. business leaders that accompanied him were seen as important steps for the United States to regain ground in the economic and investment arena. The proliferation of crises—in the Sahel, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan—and the expanded threat of violent extremism have underscored how unprepared African intelligence and security forces remain in meeting current challenges and how essential a role the United States continues to fill in providing training, lift and logistics, intelligence, and funding to national and regional security forces. There is a whole lot less criticism of the U.S. Africa Command coming from Africa these days.

A number of African governments have pushed back on the U.S. human rights and governance agenda in the past year, finding varying degrees of popular traction in calling for resistance against the imposition of “Western” values. The United States and other Western powers rebuffed the African Union’s petition to the Security Council to defer International Criminal Court (ICC) trials against Kenya’s sitting president and vice president, creating a damaging rift with an important African partner and feeding a narrative in some parts of Africa that the ICC is unfairly focused on Africans. Uganda and Nigeria both passed draconian (but domestically popular) anti–lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) legislation, despite frantic U.S. diplomatic outreach to their respective leaders to at least remove the most regressive clauses. U.S. démarches on laws or proposals to roll back media freedoms or curtail the activities of civil society and opposition groups in countries like Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, and more recently Kenya have largely gone unheeded.

BOWER (Southeast Asia): In Southeast Asia, most perceptive leaders are watching for the president of the United States and Congress to start talking to Americans about the fundamental importance of Asia to their economic future and to the safety and security of the nation and its people. This has not happened yet, and they are worried. Symptomatic of that missing foundation, the region has been shaken by Obama’s canceled trip last November, the failure to seek trade promotion authority (TPA) to drive the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, and the failure to balance strong defense and security engagement with economic and people-to-people ties.

HICKS: Did I overlook anything in this roundup of issues affecting perceptions of the United States?

MEACHAM (Latin America): I would add that the U.S. government’s failure to push through immigration reform in any form—comprehensive or otherwise—has impacted regional perceptions of the United States. The debate has been followed closely throughout Mexico and Central America, where most illegal immigrants from the region to the United States originate. Successful reform could have helped to redefine perceptions of the United States in the region, sending the message that the U.S. government recognizes the region and its people’s importance to our own prosperity moving forward. But this year’s failure to achieve that outcome has increased doubts over our willingness to work on issues important to our neighbors throughout the hemisphere, particularly when those issues stir up conflict here at home.

HICKS: You can’t please all of the people all of the time. What should we really worry about in all of this, and what concrete steps can the United States take to improve foreign perceptions of U.S. power?

ROSSOW (India): Looking ahead, India’s main concern is how we manage the transition in Afghanistan. If our transition results in destabilization, and we do not choose to reengage, India will likely view such a situation as the United States helping create a mess in India’s backyard. India has invested heavily in Afghan reconstruction and is specifically concerned that destabilization may lead to increased terror attacks in India.

Moreover, bilateral relations, and the resulting perception shifts in India, will hinge on the results of India’s national election in April-May 2014. A win by the Congress Party would likely mean “status quo”—a resumed focus by the government of India on expansion of social programs, with less energy put toward igniting economic growth, liberalizing markets, or setting out a new strategic direction. A win by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) would likely result in aggressive measures to open the economy and possibly a more forceful foreign policy with a chance to deepen engagement with the United States. But this second scenario depends on how well American diplomats can engage with the BJP’s candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi. The United States has maintained a distance from Mr. Modi following riots in Gujarat in 2002, though our Ambassador Nancy Powell recently paid him a visit and was warmly greeted.

Irrespective of who wins the election in India, the United States must be prepared to look for immediate, substantive ways to engage with the new government. There will be a race among governments to engage quickly. We need to quickly schedule the next U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue during the summer, signal our interest in concluding the long-pending Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT), and get a head-of-state meeting scheduled in Washington, D.C., around the UN General Assembly meeting.

BOWER (Southeast Asia): In response to uncertainties about U.S. intentions and political commitment, Asian countries have started to pursue hedging behavior to insure against the unwelcome possibility that the United States would either not be willing or able to continue to invest in a robust security and economic presence in Asia. For instance, the head of Malaysia’s navy publicly denied that he was surprised by China sending warships into Malaysian territorial waters, incorrectly saying both Malaysia and the United States had been notified before the ships entered Malaysia’s waters.

President Obama needs to build a political foundation for U.S. engagement in Asia by talking directly to Americans about the importance of Asia to our jobs, safety, security, and pursuit of happiness. The numbers and facts are compelling and focusing on Asia does not take away from U.S. engagement and relations in other regions of the world. In fact, the stronger the United States is in Asia, the better partner it can be for countries around the globe. The United States also has to transform its stance on trade and become a proactive trading nation, leading on economic engagement and integration. Specifically, in the near term, the White House needs to drive trade promotion authority and lead other countries for closure of good Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations. In the mid and long term, the United States needs to revise the structure of its trade policy, which is stuck in an anachronistic Cold War mode that forces a highly capable and professional Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to approach the rest of the world as if the United States was the global market of last resort. That won’t be true in the next two decades. U.S. trade policy needs to flex and become more strategic, proactive, and responsive to the requirements of U.S. workers and the market.

COOKE (Africa): The United States must increasingly compete in Africa for influence and appeal with a new set of emerging powers, influences, and ideologies. It will need to work harder in the commercial and the diplomatic realms to remain relevant and influential and to build support for its position on global norms and international governance. The U.S. assumption that democracy, growth, and development all go together is being challenged in parts of Africa. A number of authoritarian-leaning governments are posting strong economic growth rates, even as they clamp down on political space. Some, like Ethiopia, are important U.S. security partners and have an expanding array of international trade and investment partners to choose from, a fact that is not lost on their leaders.

The U.S.-African Leaders Summit, scheduled for August 2014, will be an opportunity for President Obama and the U.S. administration to lay out a more forward-looking U.S.-Africa policy that takes account of the continent’s new economic and demographic realities. It will be an opportunity to expose a broader swath of the U.S. business community to the investment opportunities in Africa and conversely to convey to African heads of state what U.S. investors look for, in terms of transparency, public investments in human capacity and infrastructure, and rule of law. More than summitry, however, the administration will need to follow up with concrete steps to build the commercial relationship and be more assertive in retaining and building market share in Africa by expanding support and risk mitigation for U.S. investors and exporters.

MEACHAM (Latin America): Most of Latin America no longer harbor illusions about the exceptional role of the United States. In the past decade alone, China has surpassed the European Union as the second-largest investor in Latin America, providing a counterpoint to U.S. activities through its own financial and commercial assistance, particularly in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and the Caribbean. The Pacific Alliance, an economic integration effort among Mexico, Chile, Peru, and Colombia, has furthered the point that big things are happening in the region—with or without the United States. And Brazil’s growing role—and its increased demands to be treated as a major player on the regional and global stages—is a reminder that the region is not as it used to be. Latin American countries expect to be treated as equals by the United States, a country accustomed to its own global exceptionalism.

The U.S. government would be well served by developing a cohesive vision for its foreign policy in the Americas, given the region’s proximity to the United States and the prevalence of transnational crime throughout the hemisphere. Vice President Joe Biden recently expressed his hope for a region that is, for the first time, secure, democratic, and middle class—and that hope is not far-fetched. Key initiatives such as 100,000 Strong in the Americas, the Look South Initiative, and the United States’ 10 free trade agreement (FTA) partners in Latin America are all steps in the right direction, but they alone do not comprise a cohesive and comprehensive foreign policy platform for the region. That platform could take many shapes, but ultimately would necessitate action on a number of issues: immigration reform; the KeystoneXL pipeline; a clear framework for relations with Brazil oriented toward trade and commerce; the increasingly chaotic situation in Venezuela and its vast regional implications; and the evolution of trilateral North American relations. Regional trends in drug policy, particularly given Uruguay’s recent legalization of marijuana, movements toward that in many U.S. states, and several leaders’ vocal support for alternative approaches to the drug war, will create a need for the U.S. government to develop a new, flexible drug policy in a region whose security depends so heavily on the influence of drug trafficking and its ensuing violence.

CONLEY (Europe): Europe’s enthusiasm for and perception of the United States, as well as various American administrations, has waxed and waned throughout the period since World War II—yet this moment feels different. Five years of a devastating economic crisis have exacted a heavy toll on Europe, deepening its general malaise, and weakening its resilience. Europe has struggled mightily with its ability to address growing societal tension caused by its attempt to maintain global competitiveness and a generous social welfare state at the same time. The impact of the economic crisis has devastated Europe’s sense of pride and purpose as a postmodern supranational state. And now, the crisis in Ukraine has destroyed its perception of regional security, as well as its 20-plus-year policy of integrating Russia and the post-Soviet states into Europe. The powerful psychological nature of this double-blow to Europe’s raison d’être cannot be underestimated.

Europe’s profound crisis of confidence, American retrenchment, and a generational change in European leadership that is not bound by sentiment of America’s liberation of Europe, all suggest that future transatlantic unity will become more difficult to form. Ironically, President Putin’s decision to violate the territorial integrity of Ukraine may have stemmed this general transatlantic decline and dramatically repurposed the relationship, particularly NATO’s purpose. Both sides of the Atlantic have been presented with an opportunity to leave the growing list of issue bickering behind.

The allies should focus on developing a sustained campaign to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity and punish Russian aggression. This new—albeit unwelcomed—“project” would ensure America’s continued intellectual and physical presence in Europe for the long term. To improve European public opinion, the United States must find a way to alter its approach toward European intelligence gathering and surveillance that would restore some semblance of transatlantic trust. America’s image in Europe will not improve by counting the number of presidential phone calls or visits (and President Obama does both quite frequently). Transatlantic relations and the perception of America in Europe will improve only by an engaged American presence in Europe and a return to mutual trust and respect.

KUCHINS (Russia and Eurasia): First, the Obama administration must come to realize the magnitude of the stakes for U.S. power and credibility with the current crisis in Ukraine. The continuing failure to match rhetoric with deeds could lead Putin to take much more dangerous actions, with possibly catastrophic consequences not just for Ukrainians and Russians, but for European security, U.S. credibility, and ultimately the historic view of the Obama administration. Negotiating with the Russians, essentially over the heads of the Ukrainians despite all protestations otherwise, over the future of Ukraine should cease immediately. If the Russians refuse to negotiate with the government in Kyiv because they view it as illegitimate, that is their choice. But our acceptance to negotiate with Moscow, presumably on Kyiv’s behalf, is a significant step on the slippery slope of depriving Ukraine of its sovereignty. Similarly, any diplomatic solution that somehow imposes “neutrality” on Ukraine must be categorically refused, unless, in fact, this is the choice of an elected Ukrainian government.

Second, we need to take measures to improve the capacity of Ukrainian military forces to resist a possible Russian invasion. We must be more resolute, as the air of capitulation and ennui that the Obama administration is currently conveying to the region may have tragic short-term consequences and very negative longer-term effects on the role and credibility of U.S. power in the region and the world.

Critical Conversations is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Andrew C. Kuchins

Carl Meacham

Ernest Z. Bower

Kathleen H. Hicks