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Trump makes longtime allies nervous. Here’s how we measured this.

- August 31, 2018

President Trump spent a lot of time on diplomacy this summer — and seemed to get along better with adversaries of the United States than allies. Trump has labelled traditional U.S. allies like the European Union as global foes, while reserving kinder language for traditional rivals like China and Russia.

Trump’s rhetoric represents a dramatic departure from past presidents. Some critics have even called Trump a bully of U.S. allies.

Yet for a president obsessed with his own popularity, there is some logic to Trump’s actions. Unlike previous presidents, Trump is more popular in countries that do not align with the United States in foreign policy.

Here’s how this plays out, as the figures below show clearly. They are based on survey work by the Pew Research Center, which asked individuals around the world whether they have confidence that the U.S. president will do the right thing in world affairs.

Data: PEW Research Center. Figure: Michael Bailey, Cathy Lee, and Erik Voeten
Data: PEW Research Center. Figure: Michael Bailey, Cathy Lee, and Erik Voeten

The vertical axis in each figure plots the mean scores for George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump. On the horizontal axis is the degree to which countries have voted with the United States in the U.N. General Assembly. The Trump administration has suggested that this is an indicator for whether a country is friendly to the United States.

We estimated how far each country’s voting pattern is removed from the U.S. stance (the “ideal point gap”). Countries with a larger gap vote less frequently with the United States in the United Nations.

Under the Bush and Obama administrations, there was a negative correlation between the perception of the president and the foreign policy gap with the United States. That is, there was on average more confidence that the president would do the right thing in countries that voted more frequently with the U.S. position.

Trump, in contrast, is on average somewhat more popular in countries that have bigger foreign policy gaps with the United States. What does this mean, exactly? There is slightly more confidence that Trump will do the right thing in countries that are less aligned with U.S. foreign policy positions.

Confidence in the U.S. president has declined more in U.S. allies

Moreover, the decline in confidence from Obama to Trump was especially pronounced among U.S. allies. The next figure plots only those countries that were surveyed under both Obama and Trump.

Russia is the only country where confidence in the president increased in 2017 compared with the mean score when Obama was president. This popularity is reciprocated: Russian President Vladimir Putin has become much more popular among Trump supporters.

In Israel, confidence in Trump is about the same as was confidence in Obama. In all other countries, confidence in the U.S. president has declined. The sharpest decline has come in the Western democracies that have traditionally voted with the U.S. position in the United Nations.

We can’t tell from this data whether changes in public confidence in the U.S. president have made traditional allies less supportive of U.S. foreign policy objectives. On the one hand, international politics isn’t reality TV — nobody votes the least popular country off the planet. Governments have interests that lead them to cooperate with the United States even if they don’t like the president. For example, shortly after being labeled a “foe,” the European Union still agreed to a tentative trade deal with the United States.

These findings suggest Trump makes many countries nervous

But on the other hand, many of these countries are democracies — where leaders have to consider public support when taking major foreign policy decisions. Trump’s unpopularity in democracies may make it harder to sell tough foreign policy choices. By contrast, many of the U.S. traditional foes are authoritarian states where public opinion is a less important driving force. The president’s popularity in Russia may not help the United States as much as his lack of popularity in Germany hurts.

More generally, these figures illustrate the current anxiety about the future of the U.S.-led Western liberal order. The point is not just that Trump’s actions and rhetoric have created doubts about U.S. commitment to that order. Trump has become so unpopular in countries that have long been traditional U.S. allies that these leaders may see domestic political incentives to look for alternatives to cooperation with the United States, as French President Emmanuel Macron did this week.

Michael A. Bailey is the interim dean of the McCourt School of Public Policy and the Colonel William J. Walsh Professor of American Government in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. 

Cathy Lee is a graduate student at Georgetown University. 

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh Professor of Geopolitics and Justice in World Affairs at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and Government Department.