Public opinion is like screen resolution: the more data points you have, the more accurate your picture is likely to be. This came to mind reading Washington Post foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher’s latest post about South Korean public opinion on the eve of a visit by South Korean President Park Geun-hye to Washington. Fisher notes that South Korean approval of President Barack Obama, as measured by the Pew Research Center’s recent poll, has never been higher – at 77 percent, enviously nearly double his current 45 percent approval rating domestically.
While the President’s approval ratings are a decent barometer – a thumb’s-up endorsement of an individual at a particular point in time – they shouldn’t be substituted for a comprehensive understanding of public opinion. Our relationship with other countries is simply too complex and dynamic for the political equivalent of a movie review blurb. Fisher alludes to this at the top of his blog, but then sidesteps the obvious points – such as the dramatic change in South Korea’s approval of the American president came with a dramatic change in presidents in 2008. That occurred almost everywhere in the world at the same time. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, it’s a fact of public opinion and political science: the world swooned for Barack Obama. Huge number spikes – dozens of points in many cases between Bush and Obama – were not strictly or even partially explained by a prospective overnight change in U.S. foreign policy.
Reading The Obamas by Jodi Kantor recently one got the sense of an almost alternative reality for the First Family during the President’s first term – berated and despised at home, adored and celebrated abroad. The German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends put his approval rating among Germans at messianic levels – 92 percent in 2009, merely supermenschen at 79 percent in 2012. His approval numbers remain above 65 percent on average for the European Union and Western Europe even today.
That said, when people around the world think about the United States, they think about a lot more than just the President. The Pew polls, whose depth Fisher unfortunately ignores in his post (possibly because Pew is doling out their 2013 data set incrementally), take this complexity into account. People think about Americans, American culture, the American way of doing business, American science and technology, American ideas and customs, American democracy, and other considerations about America and Americans. Pew has polled on these questions across more than three dozen countries for more than a decade.
So South Koreans like our President, and they like us, and our technological prowess. They like our way of doing business, too, and our democracy (and at rates that would make our Congress envious). But importantly, they are considerably less enthusiastic about our culture, ideas and customs. It’s an interesting contradiction: how can you like Americans without liking who we are and what we do as a people? But that’s the way it is.
Such contradictions are rife in polls like these, but they are what make them interesting and worth learning more through other sources (Gallup, for example, and the Transatlantic Trends). They should also give us pause about making categorical judgments about how people around the world view us, because that view is decidedly mixed, fluid and contradictory. Depending on differing values and histories, people can enjoy or disdain our culture, like or dislike us, admire or reject our democracy. Every region and country is different, and people within those regions and countries are different and contradict one another.
Those are the data points that help make the whole picture. It’s a complicated, changing picture to be sure and it’s what makes international politics so volatile — but also enjoyable and hopeful.