That viral video of the leaders of Canada, France and the UK laughing about their US counterpart at last week’s Nato summit was vivid yet anecdotal evidence of what the rest of the world thinks of US President Donald Trump. Now comes some hard data showing America’s declining global reputation.

Not only is the perception of the US as a top ally fading, according to a new survey of 18 countries from the Pew Research Centre, but more people see the US as “posing the greatest threat” to them in the future. Even America’s closest neighbours are losing faith in their US alliance.

In Canada, the percentage of those who see the US as its top ally has fallen from 54% in 2007 to 46% in 2019; over the same period, the percentage of those who see the US as the top threat has risen from 16% to 20%. (Keep in mind that the 2007 reading, near the end of George W Bush’s calamitous presidency, already represented one of the lowest rates of global confidence and approval.)

In Mexico, the percentage of those who see the US as Mexico’s top ally fell from 35% to 27%; the percentage who see the US as the top threat has risen from 35% to a poll-topping 56%.

The results also suggest that the US is losing ground in perhaps its most important diplomatic challenge: the contest for influence and power with a rising China.

The Trump administration has paid lip service to the idea of growing great power competition, and to the need to offer an alternative to China in Africa and Latin America. Yet as the survey notes, “Across many of the Latin American, as well as Middle East and North African, countries surveyed, more name the US as a top threat than say the same of China.”

Equally disturbing is that in Nigeria, Kenya and SA — democracies that are also Sub-Saharan Africa’s three biggest economies — the share of respondents who regard China as their country’s most reliable ally is about as high as those who choose the US. In emerging markets more broadly, “China’s economic influence is seen in similar or even slightly more positive terms” than that of the US.

Principles? What principles?

It’s possible, of course, to justify these findings by saying it’s better to be feared than loved. You might even argue that the growing US isolation in the UN is a sign of America’s commitment to its principles. (In 2018, the US voted against a higher proportion of UN general assembly resolutions than any other nation; its global average voting coincidence was 31%, below the 10-year average of 36%.)

That’s certainly how Trump sees it. As he has repeatedly said, “We’re respected like we haven’t been respected in a long time.” US secretary of state Michael Pompeo has doggedly defended his boss’s in-your-face approach to foreign policy, declaring that “putting ‘America First’ means proudly associating with nations that share our principles and are willing to defend them.”

That raises at least two questions: who are these nations, and what are these principles?

In a speech titled, “Trump Administration Diplomacy: The Untold Story”, one example Pompeo offers is getting other nations to join the US in a statement rejecting a right to abortion. Consider the other signatories: Bahrain, Belarus, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Of these countries, Freedom House ranks only three as “free”, while four are “partly free”. The other 11 are “not free”, including three (Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Libya) that have the worst aggregate scores for political rights and civil liberties.

If this is what the US sees as “the trajectory for nations all across the world”, as Pompeo put it, then maybe those world leaders were laughing last week because the end state Trump has in mind is too horrible to contemplate.

• Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg Opinion.


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