If we examine the trajectory of American favorability on the global stage since World War II, two significant troughs emerge: the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the election of Donald Trump thirteen years later.
These moments, though seemingly disparate, share a common thread, portraying an America characterized by testosterone-driven decisions, bluster, xenophobia, and nativism—a nation that adheres to a “my way or the highway” ethos. In essence, theyrepresent 21st-century incarnations of the Ugly American stereotype from the 1950s.
During the Trump Administration from 2017 to 2020, U.S. favorability witnessed a decline across major global regions, especially among key security and trade partners. The country’s favorability ratings plummeted from the 70s to the 20s and 30s. Under Joe Biden’s leadership, there was a significant effort to rebuild international credibility, bringing the median favorability rating to 62%. However, recent events, particularly America’s stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict, have reignited anti-American sentiments worldwide.
President Biden acknowledged concerns about diminishing global support for the U.S. and Israel during a campaign event in December. Subsequently, a UN General Assembly vote in favor of a ceasefire in Gaza, with only 10 states, including the U.S., opposing, signaled a potential resurgence of global anti-Americanism.
The apprehension about America’s image globally is deeply ingrained in the nation’s history. Dating back to 1630, John Winthrop envisioned America as a “city on a hill,” emphasizing the scrutiny of the world’s eyes. The Founders, cognizant of the opinions of mankind, meticulously crafted a narrative that projected America as both a revolutionary force and a model for the existing world order.
Over the centuries, America’s global reputation has fluctuated, from a revolutionary upstart to a global superpower. The Cold War era cast a shadow on America’s image, characterized by perceived brutishness and heavy-handedness, diverging from the ideals it purportedly stood for. The post-Soviet era marked the U.S. as the lone superpower, promoting the “Washington Consensus” of democratic free-market capitalism for global prosperity and security.
However, the goodwill garnered from this era waned after the invasion of Iraq post-9/11. The present echoes of global disapproval surrounding America’s unwavering support for Israel parallel the aftermath of the Iraq invasion.
Public Diplomacy, as defined by Harvard professor Joe Nye, embodies “soft power”—influence through culture, music, movies, and ideas. The author, having served as President Obama’s Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, emphasizes the impact of cultural influence on international perceptions. Yet, during times of controversial policy decisions, such as the Iraq invasion or the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban,” American soft power loses ground.
The author cites an example of declining Coca-Cola sales after the Iraq invasion, highlighting a Pew survey noting global dislike for the spread of U.S. ideas and customs. Presently, social media depicts Arab boycotts of American companies, symbolized by images of empty McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Domino’s outlets across the Middle East.
The Obama administration brought a shift in Brand America, aligning it with innovation and technological prowess. However, the election of Donald Trump reversed this trend, contributing to a decline in global favorability. The U.S. experienced a notable hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, revealing a lack of manufacturing capabilities despite being the birthplace of technological innovations like the iPhone.
Biden’s presidency saw a gradual recovery in global favorability, yet challenges persist. The author underscores the indelible global image of the Capitol attack on January 6th, characterizing it as a negative-Statue of Liberty. While U.S. favorability has improved to a median of 62% across 12 nations, it no longer resonates as a model for democracy. Only 17% consider the U.S. a good example, a significant drop from the previous 57%.
The Israel-Hamas conflict has further complicated America’s image, with Israel perceived as an oppressor and the U.S. as its enabler. The strategy of normalizing relations with Sunni nations while marginalizing Palestinians has backfired, and America is losing ground in the messaging battlespace, particularly in Arab nations.
The global landscape is witnessing an existential struggle between the Western rules-based order and the Chinese/Russian might-makes-right approach. China and Russia advocate for a sphere-of-influence diplomacy, challenging the democratic ideals upheld by the U.S. This shift is part of a broader global decline in democracy, as evidenced by the decrease in the number of democratic countries over the last fifteen years.
The author highlights the contrast between the Enlightenment principles of democratic self-government and individual rights and the 21st-century authoritarianism of China and Russia. As the world grapples with this ideological struggle, the U.S. faces internal challenges, with a significant minority supporting an authoritarian leader and a growing appetite for an American “strongman.”
The article concludes by acknowledging America’s unique foundation based on uncommon ideas rather than common blood or religion. The nation’s commitment to universal human rights, even in the face of difficult choices, remains a defining aspect. However, the global narrative surrounding American exceptionalism is evolving, and the U.S. must confront the current reality where hard power choices overshadow its historical advantage in soft power.
This adaptation is derived from a speech given to the Virginia Civil Rights Law Institute.