By Paul A. Friesen
A recent report by WIN/Gallup International gathered survey research from 65 countries around the world, asking respondents to choose whether they have a favorable or unfavorable view of leaders from the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Together, these ten states comprise 57 percent of the global GDP and 50 percent of the world's population. With respondents from 65 counties hailing from a wide range of political, social, and economic backgrounds, what factors shape their views on the standings of current world leaders?
Analysis from a similarly structured study by Harvard's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation found that the views of respondents were primarily based on geopolitical concerns and the type of political regime where the respondent resides. In order to understand such polls, we must answer what is the link between each leading nation's favorability rating and its level of human development, political freedom, and the geographic location of survey participants. The results suggest that President Barack Obama is much more popular compared to other leaders, poorer nations view all world leaders as generally favorable, and among more powerful countries, there appears a stark polarization between liberalism and authoritarian ideologies.
In the United States, President Obama remains a controversial figure with an average approval rating between 40 and 50 percent throughout his second term. However, internationally, Obama is the most popular world leader. Out of the ten world leaders, Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are the two most recognized world leaders with 88 percent and 76 percent, respectively, of respondents with opinions about either president. Though both leaders enjoy high profiles, Obama received a net positive of 30 percent of respondents viewing him favorably, while Putin received a net score of negative 10 percentage points. European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and French President François Hollande were viewed on average as more favorable, while heads of states from Saudi Arabia and Iran were viewed as more unfavorable. Respondent opinions were conflicted regarding leaders from emerging economies such as China, India, and Brazil. Overall, Western leaders appear the more popular, but is this due to their countries' advanced economies and high standards of living?
The Human Development Index display explores how varying levels of development affect citizens' perceptions of world leaders. The most notable finding from this chart is that most world leaders enjoy a positive view from less developed countries, while it seems that citizens from highly developed countries support Western leaders and appear to base their assessment on political regime type and regional affiliations. The 'average' line, which takes into account the views all respondents, demonstrates that countries placed into the low and medium Human Development Index (HDI) categories, as defined by the United Nations, have a positive view of all world leaders with an average net favorability of 15 percent. Respondents from the wealthiest countries have, on average, a negative view of world leaders of -9 percent.
In order to tease out the apparent alignments of democracies and authoritarian regimes, the Freedom House Index display organizes respondents by their home countries' freedom, based upon the 2015 Freedom House ratings. In this chart, Obama's favorability increases with the freedom of the respondent's country, while Putin conveys the opposite trend of high popularity in 'not free' nations and low favorability in 'free' nations. Leaders from emergent democracies such as Brazil and India maintain modest approval ratings from free and non-free countries alike. The close similarity between the findings organized by development standings and political freedom can be partly explained by the fact that the largest group of surveys was conducted in countries that compose "the West," a region that is both highly developed and highly democratic.
When examined through a regional lens as displayed in the World Regions chart, geopolitical leanings become clear. Countries making up the Western world portray net favorable views on their own leaders, slight negative views of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India and President Dilma Rouseff in Brazil, and are deeply unenthusiastic about the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, and Russia. Countries from Latin America largely follow the same pattern and provide strong endorsements of Western leaders. Survey countries from the Middle East exhibit negative average favorability ratings for all ten world leaders, with the Palestinian Authority most critical among them. Countries hailing from Africa and Asia, however, are generally positive of leaders across all continents and political regimes. This may be because the countries representing these two continents have, on average, lower rates of human development compared to the other regions in the sample.
Chinese President Xi Jinping receives his highest rates of approval from the African countries surveyed with a net positive of 23 percent. While analysts debate the true level of Chinese influence in Africa in light of China's growing economic investment in the region, Obama and Merkel also receive high approvals from sub-Saharan African respondent of 27 and 28 percent respectively. Gallup research also finds that averages from eleven Africans countries shows positive comparable views of both Chinese and U.S. leadership. Perhaps the most striking verdict from the regional analysis is Obama's popularity in the West, Latin America, Asia, and Africa, despite his more negative perception in the Middle East.
The averages based on a country's development level, political regime, or region mask certain geopolitical rivalries within regions, such as China and Japan in Asia, Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East, and Russia and Ukraine in Eastern Europe. However, the overall trends point to clear dichotomies within both economic and political realms regarding how citizen view other nation's leaders. As nations develop, geopolitical alignments appear to become more pronounced.
Paul A. Friesen is a Program Assistant for Southern and East Africa at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to strengthen democratic institutions worldwide. He holds a MPP with a specialization in International Development from Michigan State University and is a 2016 Sustainable Development Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.