Leadership in the Eye of the Beholder

There was an old song, “There are more questions than answers,” that comes to mind while looking at the results of the worldpublicopinion.org poll of global opinion of national leaders on the global stage released on Monday.

While some elements are fairly predictable, and almost welcome from a liberal, social democratic point of view, like United States President Barack Obama’s star rating and the dire overall ratings for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the poll, which interrogated almost 20,000 people across the globe from April 4 to June 12 about which world leaders they trusted, raises some questions with no clear answers. The selection of world leaders about whom respondents were asked reveals some bias.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, Putin, Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ahmadinejad have certain logic. But where were Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, South African President Jacob Zuma, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other Third World luminaries?

Japan provided neither candidates nor voters it seemed. Such shortcomings notwithstanding, the poll was interesting. To no one’s surprise except for the deluded few in the US who believed their own lies, Obama’s support is much higher than George W Bush’s was.

But the results also call into question some Western media assumptions. Yes, it is possible to be repressive and popular at the same time, at home and abroad. In Russia and China, respondents supported not only their own leaders, but also each other’s, and indeed did not trust those who challenged them, with Sarkozy in particular paying the price in declining support in China.

While the Chinese were happy with Obama, in Russia the American president is mistrusted, although whether that was in his own right or as representative of the nation whose advisors and economists did so much damage to Russia, is not clear.

Obama’s high global ratings, 61%, came after his speeches in Turkey, but before he made his most definitive pitch for Muslim support in Cairo. Despite his high global ratings, there were reservations about him in Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt and the Palestinian territories, doubtless reflecting skepticism about the US role in the region and his sincerity in changing that role. On the other hand, India gave him an 80% rating, which marched strangely with the 40% for Ahmadinejad. The mainland Chinese gave him a higher rating than the Taiwanese gave Hu.

Most intriguingly of all, Hu, hardly the most charismatic leader on the bloc, came in big in, of all places, Taiwan, and even in South Korea. He had 60% confidence in Taiwan and over 90% in Hong Kong and Macau matching his 94% in the mainland. How does that reconcile with the concerns about civil liberties in those places, and the definite reluctance of Taiwanese to let Hu run their affairs?

Was this because, or despite, the squeeze on civil liberties in China? Or was it pride in the local boy whose economy was the only one left growing as all the erstwhile colonial big boys took a haircut that looked like a scalping? But then, Hu’s 80% support in Pakistan was balanced by 50% in India with the latter being interestingly high in view of the traditional rivalry. His negative ratings in the US, Germany and France (70%) almost certainly reflect concern over human-rights issues in China – along with what one suspects as some apprehension about the rising power in the East.

Almost the biggest surprise was that United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon came second. No one would suspect from the in-house gossip, Western media coverage and reportage from the UN, that Ban was so well regarded.

One suspects that part of all of this is name recognition. No other world politician got more than a 40% confidence rating and that was Ban, who has certainly been globe-trotting, and more likely to be known internationally than heads of the also-ran states in what is still a US dominated world. He was mistrusted in Turkey, Egypt, Palestine – and the US, very likely because the former see him as pro, and the latter see him as anti-Israel. Overall, the result reflects greater support for, and attention to, the UN in most of the world, which makes him much more visible in his efforts than in the US media.

Of course, the UN has had a perennial beating in the US media, but Obama even got 70% support from US respondents for his handling of world affairs – which includes a call to support the UN. And while Putin and Hu rely on their home base for the big cheers, Obama’s overseas cheerleaders overtake his domestic support. When they like him they like him very seriously, like 92% of the British. But then Brown is much more popular (64) in the US than he is the UK (46).

However, reading the Western media on color revolutions in all their rainbow hues, who would suspect that Putin, a low scorer outside Russia where he gets an almost Stalinist 85% support would be twice as popular in Ukraine (57%) as Obama (35%)? While India has had a long love affair with Moscow, his 65% rating there is almost as surprising as his support in China (64%), taking us way back before Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev started calling each other names.

And if the spirit of non-alignment is so high in India to give Ahmadinejad his only non-Muslim country star status (42% positive, 30% negative) in India, then how come the country has just elected and allegedly pro-Western free economy government whose vote in the International Atomic Energy Agency was instrumental in getting Iran on the Security Council agenda? Indeed, maybe this is the basis for peace talks between the two sub-continental giants since 75% of Pakistanis were also rooting for the Iranian leader – as were, understandably, the Palestinians, whose friendlessness could easily lead them to embrace any oasis in a desert.

So are there conclusions? A poll like this deals in broad-brush strokes. One can support the foreign policy stand of a leader without endorsing domestic policies, so for example, Taiwanese partiality to Hu may reflect a recent lack of bellicosity from China and the improvement in cross-strait relationships. In the Muslim world, perceived attitudes to the Israel-Palestinian problem are clearly the big issue – Sarkozy and Brown for example, are punished for their support for Israel. Obama certainly knows that and is acting on it.

In China and Russia, national pride is a big factor, which is why, whatever you think of his principles, Sarkozy has blown it with the Chinese, between meeting the Dalai Lama and the boycott threat to the Olympics. In contrast, India wants it all ways and seems to have taken sentimental alignment with all as the logical extension of its non-aligned history.

The numbers do suggest a hard core of mistrust for the US, and indeed the West, in major parts of the world. It is clear that in many places democracy and human rights are not as big an issue either in country or in assessing other countries’ leaders as Western politicians and policy makers would assume.

That is not just the neo-conservatives but genuine human-rights advocates and so the figures would tend to support Obama’s neo-realist foreign policy of negotiating with regimes that he would otherwise deplore. World public opinion seems to support those who do not threaten with missiles, which is, as they say, hardly rocket science. But it is a lesson that seems to bear constant repetition in some quarters.

Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world, ranging from the Australian, to The Independent, the Financial Times and the Guardian. Read other articles by Ian, or visit Ian's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on July 4th, 2009 at 10:39am #

    What these results really mean is that the cold war is over and they are surprising only when they are filtered through the star-spangled lens of cold war prejudice.

  2. beverly said on July 4th, 2009 at 6:28pm #

    The results are dependent on people’s access to unfiltered, both sides of the story information. Since such access is lacking – not just in countries with “repressive regimes,” but especially in those so-called nations with a free press (Hello, USA) these poll results are no surprise. It just shows the western media is doing an excellent snow job on citizens world wide.

  3. daniel guimond said on July 6th, 2009 at 12:16pm #

    The Cold War unfortunately is an ever-ongoing tale to keep certain nations in check, or rather in mate! There are no countries, only the UN, and today the war is over there, tommorow it will be HERE… Then the people from There will say, everything is okay, the programs are on TeeVee, not to worry; the War is Over there!!! This has been ongoing for millenia… We are only awakening to the Unthinkable: being that what was There Yesterday, is here NOW!!!

  4. daniel guimond said on July 6th, 2009 at 12:35pm #

    UN, US, USSR, it’s even spelled out for us… Anybody who moved to Europe during the Cold War US-USSR, saw that there never ever was a Cold War, except in the minds of the US… In french UN, is ON_U, in french UN means ONE… They chose their acronyms well… The fact is, that the wealth moves around the planet, America had their day, now its China, and the time is come to rid the Planet of the Tan people, Irakistan, Afghanistan, etc. It’s time to start seeing 4 when we read 2 plus 2… When I say time to wake up; how many fingers do we see?

  5. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on July 6th, 2009 at 2:04pm #

    it might be china if ruling class provides or is able to provide free higher education for all those who want it.
    with pop over 1.2 bn, china cld school at least 50mn young people.
    in US, because it takes money to get higher schooling, much, too much talent is latent instead of potent.

    as an aside:
    china may even, as a counter weight to israel, find a country for gypsies. The problem may be that gypsies may not care even for a house of their own let alone homeland or country. tnx
    you got to hand it to the gypsies: they are most peaceful and compliant people in the world.
    ‘jews’ cld learn a thing or two from them