Is Gordon Brown the Leader of the Free World?

What do Vladimir Putin and Ban Ki-moon have in common? As it turns out, they're the world's most trusted leaders, according to a new poll that assessed global opinion of public leaders. It's no surprise that George W. Bush received low marks from respondents in 20 countries, who were asked to rate the trustworthiness of seven key leaders, but his peers in democratic countries don't fare much better. The highest ranked democratic leader, the UK's Gordon Brown, garnered only a 30-percent worldwide approval rating. Steven Kull, director of WorldPublicOpinion.org and the Program on International Policy Attitudes, which conducted the survey, shared his reactions to the results with NEWSWEEK's Travis Wentworth. Excerpts:

It's shocking that some of the world's most trusted leaders are autocrats. Has a gap emerged between democracy and global leadership?
I was surprised at the low level of confidence around the world. With the decline of the U.S. President as a global leader for an extended period, you would think that some other leader would step into that breach and become a galvanizing focus as an alternative. This poll shows that this is not really the case. There is no alternative. We may have some new kind of equilibrium. Even though some leaders did mildly well, there is no clear pattern—there is no leader that has a clear international constituency. What this points to is that a new American president does have the potential for stepping back in some extent to that leadership role. I was also surprised to see that there's no clustering going on. No one leader has developed any kind of consistent constituency.

It seems there's a vacancy in global leadership. Even Ban, the most popular leader, has only a 35 percent approval rating.
It should be underscored that these are not really high numbers. Overall what I see here is a global leadership vacuum—a big empty space. There is no leader that could be called a global leader at this time.

If Gordon Brown is the highest-ranked world democrat, could he be called the leader of the free world?
Gordon Brown is not the leader of the free world, and that is nature of the free world. There's no clear leader. There are certain ideas, visions that play a guiding role, ideas of democracy, human rights, free markets, and those ideas continue to organize the world.

But British foreign policy trends are being appreciated. In the Middle East, Brown has negative ratings—there's a hangover from the history of the British Empire in that region. If you remove them from the picture, Brown's profile looks pretty good, perhaps the best. He has put himself as the leader thinking about poverty and global problems. 

So the perception of Brown as inept leader is more of a British thing?
Yes, the poll was just international perceptions, and Brown is raising the profile of issues of globalization.

No Westerner would have predicted it, but is Putin turning into one of these galvanizing leaders?
Putin has increased the respect for Russia. But the only countries in which an actual majority views Russia favorably are Ukraine, China, and South Korea. It's not a pretty picture for any leader.

Could the stability and continuity of Russia and China have something to do with their leaders' popularity?
Putin is seen as stabilizing Russia, including the Chechnya conflict. Hu Jintao guides China with something of a steady hand, and China is doing some things that engender good will around the world. They're not too highhanded in dealing with other countries. 

The leader with the highest ranking, the U.N.'s Ban, is not a head of state. What do you make of that?
I think the Ban Ki-moon result is interesting. People still look to the UN, and to multilateral cooperation.

So people still think the UN has some teeth?
I don't know if "teeth" is the word. The UN is seen as above the fray to some extent, as symbolizing the potential for cooperation—something that they look to more than any particular leader or country. It's an indication of globalization, that leadership needs to be globalized. International cooperation is not the answer to everything, but people do look to it as a major factor.

How soon could another leader occupy the role that the U.S. president used to have?
There's nothing on the horizon. It's not easy to predict how people will coalesce around a leader. Who would have thought a year ago that [Barack] Obama would have ascended the way he did?

Join the Discussion