Americans and people across the globe are questioning the U.S. role on the world stage, with a median of only 49 percent of respondents across 37 countries expressing a favorable view of the United States. In that context, a new Pew Research Center survey reveals that America’s much-vaunted soft power, which has long been touted as an antidote to its oft-criticized “hard power” image, is actually enhanced more by pop-culture exports than by its reputation for protecting civil liberties or its ideas about democracy.
“With its universalistic values, open culture, and vast popular cultural resources ranging from Hollywood to foundations and universities, the United States [is] uniquely placed to affect how others [view] the world and us,” Joseph Nye -- who conceptualized and popularized the concept of soft power -- said in a recent interview.
American movies, music, and television have broad overseas appeal. Roughly two-thirds of people surveyed in 37 countries this past spring say they like American pop culture. This has been the case in nearly half of the countries surveyed this year -- and has been so since the question was first asked by the Pew Research Center in 2002.
Europeans in particular embrace U.S. movies, music, and TV, including nearly nine-in-ten Swedes and about eight-in-ten Dutch. In the Asia-Pacific region, eight-in-ten Australians and roughly seven-in-ten Japanese, Filipinos, and South Koreans like American pop culture. But such allure is not universal. In the six Muslim-majority nations surveyed, a median of just 40 percent find such cultural offerings appealing.
The image of the United States as a defender of civil liberties is less a source of soft power than is pop-culture, but it still contributes to America’s global reputation. A median of 54 percent in the 37 countries polled think that the U.S. government respects the personal freedoms of its own people.
Most publics in the Asia-Pacific region overwhelmingly see the United States as a defender of civil liberties, and America’s reputation as a defender of individual rights is also quite strong in some parts of Africa. But many Latin Americans do not see the United States as a protector of personal freedoms.
In Europe, meanwhile, doubts about America’s commitment to civil liberties have risen in recent years. In 2013, 76 percent of Europeans thought that America defended the rights of its own people. But then it was revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency had listened in on telephone conversations, even those of European leaders. Now only 50 percent of Europeans see the U.S. in a positive light on this issue. In a number of European countries, America’s reputation as a civil libertarian has not recovered. The share of publics in both France and Germany who say the United States respects the personal freedoms of Americans is down 31 points since 2013.
More broadly, reactions to American ideas about democracy are mixed: Globally, a median of 43 percent say they like these ideas, while 46 percent say they dislike them.
Skepticism about U.S.-style democracy extends to even mature democracies. In Canada, for instance, only 36 percent like American democratic ideas. And in Europe a median of only 42 percent are keen on American notions of democracy. This includes just 34 percent in France and 37 percent in Germany. The British, meanwhile, are divided: Forty-three percent like and 44 percent dislike their former colonial subjects’ style of democracy.
These views are not entirely new, but doubts about American democracy have deepened in a number of countries polled this year. The share of people saying they like U.S. views about democracy is down 9 points in France, 8 points in Germany, 6 points in Italy, 8 points in Spain, 19 points in Tunisia, 16 points in Ghana, 22 points in Kenya, 24 points in Senegal, 10 points in South Africa, 10 points in Argentina, 18 points in Brazil, 13 points in Chile, and 22 points in Mexico since 2012 or 2013, the last time this question was asked. The degree to which U.S.-style democracy has lost its appeal among these foreign publics rivals similarly negative trends under President George W. Bush.
Whether it’s the export of democracy or pop-culture, the extent of U.S. soft power also depends on broader reactions to “Americanization.” Globally, a median of 54 percent worry that the influx of U.S. customs and ideas into their country is a bad thing.
Europeans are particularly wary. Among 10 EU countries, no majorities support such Americanization. Only about a third of Dutch (32 percent) and Spanish (31 percent) and a quarter of Germans (26 percent) say the proliferation of this U.S. soft power is a good thing.
There is even less public appreciation for American ideas and customs in Latin America. A median of just 39 percent think their spread is a good thing. Mexicans (26 percent) and Argentines (25 percent) are particularly unenthusiastic, with Mexican sentiment down 15 points since 2013.
Publics in the Asia-Pacific region are generally less wary of Americanization. Roughly seven-in-ten Vietnamese (71 percent) and 62 percent of both Japanese and Filipinos say the spread of such American attributes is a good thing for their country. Over half of South Koreans (54 percent) agree. But just a third of Australians (33 percent) and 15 percent of Indonesians think these aspects of American soft power are beneficial.
One bright note about soft power -- which suggests demography may yet prove destiny -- is the appeal of U.S. attributes among young people all over the world. In 21 of 37 countries surveyed, those ages 18 to 29 are more likely than those 50 and older to say the spread of American ideas and customs is a good thing for their society. This generation gap is quite large in Japan (35 points), Brazil, Spain, and Russia (all 28 points), and Hungary (24 points). Not surprisingly, young people tend to like American pop culture more than older people. Again the age gap is often quite substantial: differences of 57 points in Vietnam, 39 points in Russia and Brazil, 36 points in France, and 34 points in Colombia.
Soft power is certainly not an American liability. And in an era of competing economic systems, governance models, and world views, American ideas, customs, democratic norms, and culture remain a powerful tool of U.S. diplomacy. But the idea that the United States is “a shining city on a hill” that others want to emulate with few if any reservations is not borne out by public opinion data. People around the world admire the United States for its strengths, but they are also wary of its flaws. Selling Brand America may be challenging in the years ahead.
Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are the author's own.