China, Russia, and the U.S. Compete for the World’s Hearts and Minds

Nations, not unlike individuals, have much to gain from being in good standing with their peers. A country with a positive image, compelling ideology, or attractive culture is likelier to enjoy more influence on the global stage, whether its visa-free travel for its citizens, trade deals, or international support for its goals.

Thus, it is not surprising that the world’s leading powers — namely China, Russia, and the U.S. — care very much about how favorably they are viewed by the international community. (Indeed, even smaller and less globally ambitious nations like Denmark, Sweden, and Singapore benefit considerably from their image and status as a role model for things like political governance and economic development.)

According to the most recent global polling data from Pew, the United States — technically the world’s sole superpower (or hyperpower) — has maintained is long-standing lead in the international popularity contest.

Nevertheless, China in recent years has risen not only economically but in terms of global standing, even managing to unseat the U.S. in some traditionally pro-American places.

Meanwhile, Russia, a rising force in the globe once more, is also making gains in soft power, although it still lags far behind its larger peers.

ft_17-08-11_china_us_russia_table

The U.S. and China are roughly on parity when it comes to global goodwill, albeit in different areas: the former is better liked in Europe and the Asia-Pacific, while the latter is more popular in Latin America and the Middle East.

Yet China has also gained strength in countries traditionally oriented towards or strong allied with America (to varying degrees of enthusiasm); these include Canada, Australia, Germany, Sweden, and the U.K.  Pew cites America’s deteriorating image across the world following Trump’s election and the subsequently bellicose and nativist tone of our foreign policy.

Conversely, China has been consciously seeking to soften its image while presenting itself as a more reliable and stable partner. It is capitalizing on America’s seeming retreat from global affairs as an opportunity to move in, be it in economic investment or combating climate change.

Here is a more detailed breakdown of where the world’s two leading powers lie:

Since the most recent year Pew Research Center polled in 36 nations – 2014, 2015 or 2016, depending on the country – the number of nations in which the U.S. holds a competitive advantage in favorability over China has halved, from 25 to 12.(Differences of less than 6 percentage points are considered ties.) Whereas the U.S. once had a 12-point lead over China in terms of a global median, that lead has shrunk in 2017 to 2 points.

In six nations – Spain, Mexico, Turkey, Australia, Peru and Senegal – the dynamic between the two superpowers has flipped, with China overtaking the U.S. in favorability.

And the United States’ once-significant lead over China in popularity has fallen to a virtual tie in another seven countries: Kenya, Germany, France, Brazil, Sweden, the UK and Canada.

Meanwhile, in 12 nations, people view America more favorably than they do China: Vietnam, Israel, the Philippines, South Korea, Poland, Hungary, Italy, Ghana, Japan, South Africa, Colombia and India.

It is worth noting that the U.S. is still by far the world’s most popular major power (although the reputation of other geopolitical rising stars like Brazil, India, and Nigeria were not measured). American music, cinema, television, art, and consumer products are ubiquitous and almost unrivaled in their popularity (except in certain niche industries, such as automobiles, arguably).

Although its image as a free and prosperous society has taken a hit since the recession, and more so since the recent election, no other major power has yet offered a viable or attractive alternative. Say what you want about the legitimacy of the American Dream or the American Creed — thus far there is no Russian, Chinese, or Brazilian counterpart that could sufficient sway the world (or, to frame it more cynically, no one else can sell or push the idea as deceptively and effectively as we can).

This takes us to Russia, the only other country in living memory to have once represented and promoted a universalistic ideological model like the U.S.. (once again, setting aside the actual attractiveness and veracity of said model). Russia no longer stands for an idea as (relatively) compelling and influential as socialism and communism — though not for lack of trying — and that partly explains why it has failed to garner the global sway and popularity it once did. But as in the case of China, America’s loss has become Russia’s gain, and the Russians have done a good job of playing a weak hand well, projecting an image of strength, decisiveness, and global engagement regardless of their limitations.

ft_17-08-11_china_us_russia_trend

America’s edge over Russia has contracted by more than 20 percentage points in 15 out of the 33 nations for which Pew Research Center has trend data on favorability toward Russia. These include Spain, France, Chile, Brazil, Italy, Australia and Tanzania.

The narrowing of the U.S.-Russia favorability gap is most striking in Mexico, where the 42-point advantage held by the U.S. over Russia in 2015 is all but gone. Mexicans now view the U.S. and Russia roughly the same.

Given how much has changed just in the past year, and the half-a-dozen other contenders for global influence, it will be interesting to see how this global popularity contest will change in the coming years and decades.

What are your thoughts?

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