IF THE presumption of hemispheric leadership has been a backbone of United States policy in Latin America, it is rapidly slipping from its grasp.
A global survey of attitudes suggests a dramatic decline in favourable opinions of US leadership under the presidency of Donald Trump – and nowhere more so than among his southern neighbours.
According to a global Pew Research Center survey of 37 countries, attitudes towards the US everywhere have changed dramatically for the worse since 2016 – but the new president is responsible for particularly spectacular damage to America’s image in Latin America.
The research will cause serious alarm in Washington and is likely to have an enduring impact on US foreign policy positions, strengthening the hand of hawks inclined to unilateral “hard power” solutions. In particular, it confirms that the US is no longer seen as a beacon of democracy – and that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has stolen the crown as the new leader of the free world.
The Pew survey, which has examined America’s image abroad annually since 2002, shows that almost four-fifths of people (22%) across the world do not have confidence in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to international affairs. It suggests that confidence in the new US leader has been influenced by reactions both to his character and policies.
Hostility to the man
The bad news for America starts with dramatically declining global confidence in its new leader – plumbing some of the lowest levels ever recorded by Pew – and highly negative views of the personal character of Trump himself.
America’s image has been badly damaged in its closest neighbours, Mexico and Canada. Only 5% of people in Mexico have confidence in Trump’s leadership, the lowest confidence rating of any US leader in Mexico since the Pew surveys began, and the lowest among all the 37 countries surveyed in 2017.
Trump secures consistently low levels of confidence across Latin America (median of 14%) and the wider Hispanic world: only 7% of people in Spain, for example, have confidence in his leadership. Moreover, across Latin America, there is a strong belief that relations with the US under Trump will get worse during his presidency.
The new US president’s character has a lot to do with these negative attitudes and in the eyes of most people surveyed, Trump is seen as arrogant, intolerant and dangerous.
Indeed, arrogance is seen as his defining characteristic – a view shared by 75% of people across the world. This sentiment is very strong in Latin America, where data from seven countries (Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and Peru) show that 81% of people see Trump as arrogant, 83% see him as intolerant, and 68% regard him as dangerous.
In Mexico – a victim of Trump’s most offensive outbursts – 91% of people see the US president as arrogant, 85% see him as intolerant, and 83% think he is dangerous. Mexicans are highly pessimistic about the future of their relationship with the US, with two-thirds of respondents expecting this to worsen under Trump.
There is little doubt that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has stolen the crown as the leader of the free world as far as Latin America is concerned.
Asked about the leaders of three other major powers besides the US, Latin Americans expressed much more confidence in Merkel (27%), the Chinese president Xi Jinping (22%) and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin (20%) than in Trump (13%).
Hostility to his policies
Alongside Trump’s character, there is enormous hostility to his signature policies such as moves to restrict immigration from Muslim countries and to rip up the Iran nuclear deal. The Pew research suggests global levels of disenchantment with Trump’s decisions to withdraw from the Paris climate accord and to scrap international trade pacts.
The vast majority of Mexicans (80%) and Canadians (78%) are unhappy with his trade proposals: Mexico and Canada are both members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement that Trump has abandoned, and many Mexicans see the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – which Trump also proposes to rip up – as beneficial.
Trump’s stalled ambition to build a wall along the entire length of the Mexican border comes in for savage criticism and is opposed by a staggering 76% of people across the world. Opposition to the wall in Mexico is intense – 94% of people hate the idea – and it is also strongly rejected throughout Latin America where, as in Europe, 85% of people voice disapproval.
Attitudes towards Americans
Attitudes towards the US and its people have in the past tended to weather storms generated by individual presidents – but this has changed markedly since 2016. In more than half of the 37 countries surveyed by Pew, positive views of the US fell by double digits in 2017.
In Mexico, the share of the public with a positive view of the US is in freefall: Mexicans are now unfavourable towards the US by more than two-to-one (30% positive, 65% negative), and 42% of them are very unfavourable – a seven-fold increase since 2015.
Indeed, positive views of the US and its people are souring rapidly across Latin America: the Pew research shows that only half of Colombians (51%), Peruvians (51%) and Brazilians (50%) have positive attitudes towards the US as a country. While half or more of Colombians, Peruvians, Brazilians and Venezuelans are positive about the American people, that is the case only among 48% of Chileans, 41% of Mexicans and 39% of Argentinians.
Why does this matter? Soft power and democracy
A key debate in scholarship about the US relationship with Latin America since the end of the Cold War has been over the way in which Washington has adapted to a new “multipolar” world shaped by multilateralism and growing Latin American autonomy.
This debate has been reflected in security circles since the 9/11 attacks of 2001 as a disagreement about the degree of emphasis that should be placed upon the use of “hard” (ie military) versus “soft” power – the ability of a country to persuade others through the appeal of its values, ideas and culture.
While George W Bush clearly reverted to a unilateral reflex in a host of ways, there were signs under Barack Obama of a re-emphasis upon multilateralism and soft power – and this was reflected in high global approval ratings for the US president and his people.
But Trump’s posture has once again set a tone of isolationism that is likely to strengthen the hand of hawks hostile to accommodation.
Dislike of Trump abroad could easily strengthen a siege mentality in Washington that, far from empowering proponents of soft power concerned at the loss of US influence, empowers hardliners who see little point in maintaining good relations. There are already signs that this attitude has been growing in the White House, where intolerance of diplomatic disagreement over the Mexican wall and the Paris climate deal is turning to irritation.
This is likely to have an enduring impact on US relations with Latin America where, importantly, the democratic transition that took place after the 1980s was largely premised on American models of procedural democracy as opposed to European models of social democracy.
The latest Pew research, however, signals widespread disillusionment with the model of democracy long promoted by the US in the region, and confirms that its reputation – interest and faith in its democratic norms and guarantees – has been damaged by Trump.
US-style democracy fails to earn the support of the majority in any of the Latin American countries surveyed, and only 25% of Mexicans and 28% of Argentines now like US democratic ideas.
According to Pew, since 2013 the share of the public that expresses approval for US democratic concepts is down 18 points in Mexico and Brazil, 13 points in Chile and 10 points in Argentina.
Nor do many Latin Americans see the US as living up to its own professed standards on personal freedoms: only 45% of people across the region believe that America respects the rights of its own people, including just 35% in Argentina and 32% in Mexico.
The soft power potential of the US is taking a particularly heavy hit in Chile, where since 2015 the proportion of people who believe America protects the personal freedoms of its own people has fallen by 34 points – and in Mexico, where it has declined by 24 points.