The Obama-effect is yet to infect Brand-USA

Joel Rogers de WaalAcademic Director, YouGov
November 09, 2012, 12:00 PM UTC

This week was actually a double-victory for Barack Obama, who won both the White House and the title of first Western leader to survive re-election for some time. According to the polls, it was also a victory for America’s international appeal.

Recent YouGov polling in the UK, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway showed that if Europeans could have voted in this election, they would have cast their ballots overwhelmingly for Obama, with no more than 10% in any country saying they would vote for the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney.

Showing similar trends, YouGov recently conducted a cross-country study of public opinion in which respondents were asked what impact a Romney win would have on their view towards the United States. 47% in Britain, 48% in Germany and 38% in France said it would make them less favourable to America, versus only 3%, 5% and 4% in each country respectively who said it would make them more favourable. [Pluralities in the MENA (48% across the regional sample overall) and Pakistan (43%) said it would have no impact on their feelings towards the United States.]

In Britain’s case, this trend spanned the political divide: 40% of those who voted Conservative in 2010, along with 55% of those who voted Labour and 58% of those who voted Liberal Democrat said it would make them less favourable, while only 4%, 3% and 3% respectively said it would make them more favourable.

What this same polling also showed, however, is a potentially one-sided law about the impact of Presidential popularity on the ‘nation-brand’, namely, that while an internationally unpopular leader such as George W. Bush seems bound to have a negative impact on wider perceptions of the country as a whole, the opposite effect is apparently illusive with a conversely more popular leader like Obama.

International perceptions of America after the end of Obama’s first term suggest this period has done little to lift Brand-USA from the reputational nose-dive of the Bush-Blair era.

US Widely Viewed As Bullying, Corrupt and Lacking Morals

This particular survey was conducted for the annual YouGov-Cambridge Forum in September 2012, where RUSI was a partner.

It included nationally representative samples in the United States, Britain, France and Germany, plus a pan-regional sample of the Middle East and North African (the MENA), and samples of the online populations in Pakistan and China.

Respondents in all survey-countries (except for China) were asked to choose three or four characteristics they associate most with the United States from a list of positive and negative options including: ‘Peaceful’, ‘Democratic’, ‘On the rise’, ‘Economic leader’, ‘A force for good’, ‘Respects human rights’, ‘A sensible voice in the world’, ‘Undemocratic’, ‘Can’t be trusted’, ‘Corrupt’, ‘Declining’, ‘Lacks important morals’, ‘Religious’, ‘Weak’, and ‘Bullying’.

The only positive characteristic consistently associated with the United States was ‘Economic leader’, with the international public showing more faith in America’s continued economic leadership than Americans themselves. (Respectively selected by 29% in the United States, compared with 36% in Germany, 43% in France, 33% in Britain and 34% in the MENA)

Beyond ‘Economic leader’, the most common attributes associated with the United States overall were, ‘Can’t be trusted’, ‘Bullying’, and ‘Lacks important morals’.

In the Middle East, the US Is On a ‘Moral Par’ With China

US policy-makers should also take a note of caution if they view the recent Arab Spring uprisings as an embrace of American values. In various cases, America has a more negative reputation in the region than its closest superpower rival, China, in dimensions such as corruption, morals, trust and bullying.

All sixteen countries in the MENA ranked ‘Can’t be trusted’ as the trait they most associate with the United States, with twelve out of sixteen countries in the region including ‘Corrupt’ among the most common characteristics.

Roughly similar numbers of people in the region describe the United States and China as ‘Undemocratic’ (22% and 23% respectively).

China scores marginally higher than the United States as ‘A sensible voice in the world’, (21% v. 18% respectively), and although Washington frequently raises the issue of China’s human rights record in official meetings between the two states, it seems both countries are viewed in nearly similar terms by publics across the MENA, with 24% choosing ‘Respects human rights’ in their top four choices of words to describe the United States, versus 17% saying the same for China.

China Widely Predicted to Overtake the US – But With a Serious Soft Power Deficit

This is not to say that China is a soft-power heavy-weight in popular terms, as analysts periodically suggest.

When the same question measuring perceived characteristics was asked about China, the most common associations were, predictably, ‘On the rise’ and ‘Economic leader’. Large numbers across Britain, Germany, France, MENA, Pakistan and China believe the world’s leading power in 20 years’ time will be China. The only exception here is among respondents in the United States, where Americans are broadly divided on the question, with 32% saying the world’s leading power in 20 years will still be the United States versus 30% who think it will be China. It should also be noted that Pakistan and France stand out with significant numbers who suggest China may have already overtaken America’s leading status. (55% and 37% respectively)

Results further emphasise high levels of confidence among Chinese people towards their country’s inevitable rise as the next global hegemon. Among all counties surveyed, China shows the largest number of people – nearly 60% – who predict their country will become the world’s leading power.

In terms of hard power, therefore, China is viewed by many as on the path to pre-eminence. But this doesn’t mean China is liked in equal measure to being feared or perceived as powerful. Results further indicate that China potentially has what Joseph Nye calls a ‘soft power deficit’.

Beyond the recognition of increasing power, China’s international personality is widely associated with numerous negative traits that span different countries and regions. After ‘Economic leader’ and ‘On the rise’, the most common perceived characteristics overall are ‘Undemocratic’, ‘Can’t be trusted’, ‘Corrupt’, ‘Lacks important morals’ and ‘Bullying’. Majorities or pluralities in all countries except Pakistan also say they have little or no trust in China to act responsibly in the world.

Furthermore, the raw economic power of China’s export growth model may sit at the centre of its international reputation. But results also indicate that China is so far failing to establish itself as a perceived hub of must-have products and recognised brands.

Respondents were asked, “If you were thinking of buying a product, from which of the following countries, if any, would you be more likely to buy that product?” Only in Pakistan did respondents rank China in their top choices. Just 15% did the same in Britain and MENA; only 12%, 9% and 7% did in the United States, Germany and France respectively.

If soft power, as Harvard University’s Joseph Nye describes, is ‘the ability to get what one wants by attraction and persuasion rather than coercion or payment’, then China could face significant challenges in the court of international public opinion as it continues to grow more powerful.

It’s Not All Bad for American Soft Power

As a leading authority on country reputations, Simon Anholt notes that nation-brands can often vary across individual dimensions. People might have misgivings in terms of perceived contribution to international peace and security, for example, while ranking a brand highly in economic or cultural areas.

Accordingly, various soft-power indicators suggest the American brand is down but hardly out in cultural and aspirational appeal. Respondents in Britain, Europe and China ranked the United States as overall first choice out of eighteen countries for where they would send their own child to receive a university education in another country.

In the MENA, the United States was ranked overall second and even in Pakistan was ranked third. Given the sheer degree of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, this suggests a remarkable depth in perceived opportunity and value linked with US education and thought-leadership.

Similarly, when asked to recommend somewhere else to live for someone leaving the respondent’s own survey-country, people in Britain, Germany, France and China ranked the United States in second place behind Australia (note again the ‘exotic effect’). Even in the MENA and Pakistan, the United States was ranked fourth and fifth respectively out of eighteen countries.

The Bigger Challenge for American Reputation – the Western Brand is Shrinking

Thinking beyond specific indicators, these are uncertain times for the management of the United States brand overall.

Ideas travel along the arteries of commerce and power, and the period of integration from Soviet to Lehman collapse duly provided a global transmission-belt for the universal appeal of Western ideas. Several assumptions in particular came to characterise the global diffusion of American capitalism and a broadly defined Western ‘brand’ of modernity: first, that where market-economies lead, democratic political systems eventually follow, making free markets and rising living standards ultimately incompatible with autocracy; second, that markets drive progress rather than governments; and third, that developing societies tend to converge towards a roughly similar format for liberal, secular modernity.

In various cases, the new social structures of information and communication are weakening these assumptions. Digital media has become central to a type of civic ‘New Deal’ between various emerging middle classes and more centralised states. Georgetown Professor of International Relations Charles Kupchan documents how autocrats are learning to co-opt professionals and business elites into a market-authoritarian status quo. In this context, for as long as authorities deliver sufficient economic growth and/or largesse, it is currently proving possible to tolerate limited measures of online freedom – social and sexual, economic and nationalist – as a useful ‘steam valve’. Dissent in the name of better services or efficiency has perversely helped in many cases to reiterate the government’s obligations, and therefore its ruling legitimacy and theory of state.

Helped along by continued stagnation in Western economies, these dynamics in turn support a rising thesis from developing regions that capitalism in a porous world is better managed with more government, more regulated markets, more planned economies, and less Western hands-off liberalism.

The realities of Internet democracy are further challenging popular faith in the ‘Google Doctrine’, as some call it. This is essentially the latest download of technological determinism, which made a media crescendo in 2011, suggesting that Facebook and Twitter are helping disparate societies to reshape along similar liberal lines.

It’s clearly more complicated. Nationalism is going through a major revival on the Web, observes Evgeny Morozov, with members of displaced nations finding each other online, existing nationalist movements delving into freshly digitized archives for their own version of history, and nations arguing about Google Earth borders and territory-listings in Facebook dropdown menus. The wild tiger of digital nationalism is nowhere more evident than in China, where leaders face an ever difficult balance between riding and losing control of it.

Meanwhile, the Arab uprisings suggest that networked empowerment is doing as much or more in some cases to accelerate national, cultural and religious differences, most notably with a new brand of Islamic modernity that breathes religious and social conservatism deep into the public space, while awakening a regional arc of illiberal, sectarian populism.

The Implications for Nation-Branding

In short, globalisation isn’t just shrinking Western material primacy; it’s also shrinking the idea of the Western brand as a universal set of political, economic and cultural aspirations.

There are clear implications for public diplomacy and ‘nation-branding’. As an embryonic industry, this has so far been roundly confused with ‘PR for countries’. But according to Joseph Nye, inventor of the term ‘soft power’, effective public diplomacy in the 21st Century involves a much larger undertaking in building relationships that facilitate ‘enabling-environments’ for policy across a complex range of today’s state and non-state actors.

As YouGov’s Head of Reputational Research, Oliver Rowe explains that research into nation brands shows a clear link between cultural or physical familiarity and favourability. In simple terms, people tend to feel more positive about places with which they hold an affinity, whether tourists, expatriates, investors, journalists and politicians.

Consequently, Western governments in the 21st Century face a more complex challenge of affinity, and finding a balance between promoting core values, on one hand, and a more inclusive definition of legitimate governance, on the other. Western public diplomacy and relationship-building need to keep step with the realities of Globalisation 2.0, including a growing diversity of alternative approaches to the civic bargain among people, state and church.

See the results of the YouGov EuroTrack survey

See the YouGov-Cambridge cross-country survey results

See the YouGov-Cambridge British sample survey results