Trump’s Europe trip highlights low global standing of ‘brand America’


Donald Trump’s second foreign foray as United States president comes at a time when people in many countries have less confidence in him than they did in George W Bush at the height of his travails as president.

He will stop off in Poland on Thursday, before heading to the G20 summit in Germany on Friday.

Given that Trump’s unpopularity is particularly marked in Western Europe, it is no coincidence that he has decided to make a Polish stop-off where Washington recently deployed hundreds of troops. The country’s government, run by the Eurosceptic, conservative and nationalistic Law and Justice Party, has been much more welcoming of Trump than many other of its European Union counterparts. Poland is one of only four Nato members other than the US that spends the 2% target of gross domestic product on defence.

Examples of the Polish administration’s affinity with Trump include its opposition to immigration, its support for burning coal and its scepticism of multilateral institutions. Right now, for instance, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo finds herself in heated battles with the EU over her administration’s refusal to resettle refugees and migrants, and her opposition to judicial changes that Brussels says will weaken the rule of law.

Recalling former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s controversial division between “Old Europe” in the west of the continent and “New Europe” in the east, Trump will also attend the Three Seas initiative. This is a conference in Wroclaw for leaders from 12 Central European, Baltic and Western Balkan states.

Despite the warm reception the US president will receive in Poland, he is likely to find himself, even here, in a significant foreign policy disagreement. That is because many in the country are concerned about Russia’s resurgence, especially given Trump’s previous scepticism of Nato and his warm rhetoric toward President Vladimir Putin.

The trip’s overall theme will be US-Polish solidarity and this will bolster Trump before the G20, which could be a significantly rougher ride for him. Criticism he could receive at that summit stems from his “America First” philosophy, including his controversial withdrawal from the Paris climate change deal, his pledge to build a “Mexican wall” and his temporary travel ban issued to six Muslim-majority countries.

The latest evidence of the extent of international disdain for Trump is found in a report, released last week by Pew Global Research. Remarkably, it found that about three quarters of the world’s nations have little or no confidence in his international leadership and policies. In many countries, public support for him is lower than that recorded for Bush in 2004 after the controversial US-led invasion of Iraq.

At least two significant countries — Israel and Russia — have much higher faith in Trump and his international leadership. But these are the exceptions in a sea of international negativity toward him, from Asia-Pacific to the Americas.

As last week’s Pew data revealed, the spike in anti-US sentiment for the first time since Bush’s presidency means Trump has the potential to become the least popular US president overseas in modern history. This could undercut much of the work that his predecessor, Barack Obama, undertook to turn around perceptions of the country.

Coming into office in 2009, Obama confronted a situation in which anti-US sentiment was at about its highest levels since at least the Vietnam War. The key factor driving this was the international unpopularity of the Bush administration’s foreign policies in the “war on terror”.

The Obama team did much to reverse public opinion. According to one research study, by Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index, which uses the same tools that consultants use to value corporate brands, the “Obama effect” was estimated to have raised the value of “brand America” by $2.1‑trillion in the first year of his presidency alone.

This reflected the substantial increase in foreigners regarding the US as the most admired country in the world. This turnaround was not only welcomed in Washington, but also in corporate America following concerns during the Bush years that US-headquartered multinationals were becoming a focus for commercial backlash from anti-US groups.

Despite successes and his generally high international popularity, Obama’s progress was uneven. Perhaps the biggest failure of his global public diplomacy had to do with what he called the Islamic world. Take the early promise of his Cairo speech, delivered in his first term, as an example. In it Obama sought to reset US relations with Muslim-majority countries. Yet there remain pockets harbouring high anti-US sentiment in several key states. This includes groups in Pakistan and Egypt.

Despite this, more than 64% of the global public had trust in Obama’s global leadership in the final year of his presidency — a far cry from the situation of Trump today.

It is clear that much of the world still wishes that Hillary Clinton was elected in November. Although she lost last year’s US election, she was the stand-out winner in last year’s poll of nearly 50 000 people in 45 countries, covering 75% of the world, by WIN/Gallup International Association. The survey found people in all but one country (Russia) wanted Clinton to win.

The WIN/Gallup poll results were similar to that of Handelsblatt, carried out last year and involving 20 000 people in the G20. Again, Russia was the only state where Trump was preferred over Clinton.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics

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Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond works from Oxford/Istanbul. PhD researcher: Islamic history and thought Turkey, Egypt, Gulf. Mideast politics. @StAntsCollege, Oxford. Previous @PembrokeOxford, BBC Arabic, @ECFR, Reuters Andrew Hammond has over 6420 followers on Twitter.

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