Time Of The Tough Guys

As President George W. Bush limps through his lame-duck year, it won't surprise you to read that he's hugely unpopular. Now a new poll taken in 20 countries by WorldPublicOpinion.org and released exclusively to NEWSWEEK confirms the world's low opinion of the president—but adds a twist. No other major world leader enjoys significantly greater trust abroad. In a sense, they're all Bushes now.

Just as striking are the leaders who do best, albeit by a slim margin: Vladimir Putin, Gordon Brown and Hu Jintao. That's one democrat and two dictators. In other words, the bosses of what are often cast as the biggest, baddest authoritarian states—China and Russia—are among the planet's most trusted officials. That should seriously alarm the leaders of the West, and particularly President Bush and Condoleezza Rice, his secretary of State, who have made the export of democracy a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy.

While it might be exaggerating to call this the year of the autocrats, the fact is that the poll found most of the world now seems to have more confidence in undemocratic than democratic leaders. The war of ideas may not be over, and a close reading of the poll suggests there's still room to turn things around. But at this point, the West clearly isn't winning the battle for influence—and freedom, to borrow Bush's phrase, is not reigning.

The WorldPublicOpinion.org survey, which is managed by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), asked 19,751 people in 20 countries how much confidence they have in each of seven key leaders "to do the right thing regarding world affairs." On average, only 23 percent of foreign respondents express "a lot of " or "some" confidence in Bush, and only Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does worse (at 22). Ban Ki-moon—the U.N. secretary-general—gets 35 percent (but because he's not a national leader, he belongs in a different category). Then comes Putin at 32 percent, Brown at 30, Hu Jintao at 28 and France's Nicolas Sarkozy at 26. The results aren't much different if you tally them country by country: in only two states (Nigeria and India) do a majority of people express at least some confidence in Bush. Putin and Hu each come out ahead in just five nations, and Brown in just six. (Ban gets nine.) Moreover, virtually every leader's standing slipped slightly in the past year (though WorldPublicOpinion.org didn't conduct the same poll in 2007, Pew's Global Attitudes Project, which asked the same question, can be used for comparison).

What explains this universal vote of no confidence? The short answer is a serious bout of global pessimism: most people polled seem very unhappy about the state of the world. Ivo Daalder, a former staffer on the National Security Council who's now at the Brookings Institution, argues that the numbers, as much as they measure confidence in individual officials, are also a more general "reflection of how people feel about their own conditions." Richard Holbrooke, U.N. ambassador under President Bill Clinton, says the survey shows "people's dissatisfaction with the way the world leadership is addressing the current crop of problems."

The general malaise becomes especially clear if you look at our national "crankiness index"—which shows how each country responded to all the leaders as a group. All but two of the nations were relentlessly critical. Americans were extremely negative, giving the seven leaders in the survey an average confidence rating of just 29 percent, and their own leader 42 percent. That's probably a reflection of the slumping economy and the burden at home of two wars, plus an ongoing terrorist threat and high anti-Americanism abroad. Overall, the crankiest responses came from the Arabs—the Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians—all of whom live in moribund economies with corrupt, ineffective governments that tend to blame their condition on outsiders.

Among the least negative were citizens of the world's two fastest-rising powers: China and India. Even Bush got a 41 percent confidence ranking in the Middle Kingdom, while Putin got a stratospheric 75 and Hu a 93. Steven Kull, director of WorldPublicOpinion.org, explains Chinese respondents' generosity by arguing that "when you're on the rise, there's an upbeat feeling that leads to a sunnier disposition. The Chinese feel that life is working for them." Or as Daalder puts it: "Where is the average condition of the average person looking brighter?"

It's nonetheless remarkable to see confidence ratings for major world figures cluster within such a narrow and low band. This underscores the truth in the cliché that all problems are now global, and that there's often precious little individual governments can do about them. Festering conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Congo, acute food and oil shortages, global warming—create scary headlines everywhere, feeding what may be a planetary crisis of confidence. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, put it in an e-mail, "People around the world feel themselves to be in the grip of forces larger than any leader can control." Who can blame them?

Still, the widespread pessimism doesn't explain the relatively high scores enjoyed by the autocrats. The fact that they did so well in their home countries isn't surprising. As Daalder put it, "authoritarians do well in their own countries because they have to." Government control of the media is tight in both Russia and China, and Putin and Hu are able to use the full machinery of the state to carefully groom their images. Moreover, respondents in those nations may not have felt comfortable speaking openly—and harshly—about their local strongmen. Yet there's reason to believe that even if they had, they'd have scored their leaders highly. The economies in both states are booming, nationalism in on the rise and citizens feel grateful to their national chiefs for restoring their pride and place in the world.

What's harder to grasp is why Hu and Putin did relatively well—better than any democrat but Brown—in other countries. Kull, the director of WorldPublicOpinion.org, argues that the poll shouldn't be read as reflecting a global endorsement of the authoritarians; though they did score slightly better than Bush and Sarkozy, they did so by narrow margins (less than 10 percentage points). It's also important to remember that the survey wasn't weighted by country. Craig Charney, another international pollster, points out that if the data did reflect country size, Bush's standing would be higher, since he got relatively good scores in some of the world's biggest states: China, India, Indonesia and Nigeria. Putin would do even better from such a ranking, however, since his score in India was also strong, and his rating in China (75) was commanding. The Russian leader also racked up impressive tallies in places like Ukraine (59 percent positive), South Korea (54 percent) and Iran (48 percent). And he seems to be the only major leader whose approval rating rose in the past year, by four points (based on a comparison of the WorldPublicOpinon.org survey with Pew's).

This owes, in part, to dumb luck. Russia is a big winner in the dead-dinosaurs sweepstakes: it sits on huge carbon reserves at a time when oil and gas prices are skyrocketing. That's produced a stunning turnaround in the Russian economy and an overall boost in Moscow's power and prestige. Minxin Pei, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., argues that this unprecedented wealth helps explain the autocrats' confidence rating abroad. "Normally we'd expect undemocratic leaders to do more poorly," he says. "But it happens that the economies of their countries are on the upswing, while the democracies are on the downswing. So it cancels out the traditional 'terror discount' "—which would otherwise depress the rankings of strongmen like Putin and Hu.

Larry Diamond of Stanford's Hoover Institution, a foremost democracy expert, suggests another, more worrisome reason for Putin's popularity. Writing recently in Foreign Affairs, he argued that the wave of liberation that followed the end of the cold war has stalled, leading to a "democratic recession." Rights have been rolled back in Russia, Thailand, Venezuela, Bangladesh, the Philippines and elsewhere, and other new democracies have hit hard times. In January, a Freedom House survey showed that for the first time since 1994, freedom around the world had declined in two successive years. Add in the damage that the Iraq War has done to U.S.-style democracy promotion, and the result is a global slide in the public's faith in democracy as a system—and in democratic leaders as individuals. More and more voters are embracing tough officials (like Putin or Venezuela's Hugo Chávez) at home and abroad. And while majorities worldwide still think democracy is the best form of government, that support is also dropping.

Putin profits from still another worrisome dynamic: the global surge in anti-Americanism. (One other sign of this trend: the third most unpopular leader in the poll is France's Sarkozy, who has stuck close to Bush in foreign policy; his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, pursued a much more independent course and scored almost 10 points better in a 2006 Pew poll.) A survey released last week by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that in 21 countries, including traditional U.S. allies, most populations now have overwhelmingly negative views of America. Meanwhile, as Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations puts it, Russia's prime minister has turned himself into an appealing icon for all those who object to the perceived arrogance of Washington and its allies. "If you think about who has really stood up to the West and become a poster boy for the rest, it's Vladimir Putin," he says, pointing out that in recent years, Moscow has blocked U.S. diplomatic efforts on Kosovo, Mideast peace, arms control, missile defense and Iran.

On might think this logic would apply to Hu Jintao as well. In fact, given China's generous aid programs, its firm commitment to nonintervention and state sovereignty, and the efforts Beijing has made to portray its growth as nonthreatening (touting the slogan "peaceful rise"), you'd expect Hu to poll even better than his Russian equivalent. Yet Hu's actual score on the survey was lower (four points) than Putin's. Several factors explain this. First, while the Russian has used his time in office to build a towering cult of personality, Hu is part of a huge party machine and the head of a vast bureaucratic state. The Chinese Communist Party, much more than any one leader, is the real power in China today, and Hu's confidence ranking reflects this. Putin has made himself the public face of Russia; Hu still lacks global name (and face) recognition.

Economic factors also make China more intimidating than Russia, no matter how hard Beijing works to charm the world. While most people benefit from the availability of cheap Chinese goods, the mainland manufacturing juggernaut also represents a terrifying threat to industries and workers across the globe. Daalder says that "cheap goods mean taking jobs away. China's booming economy and increasing geopolitical clout are seen as frightening. For all of China's attempts to present a smiling face to the world, the reality is that the Chinese are cleaning everybody's clocks, politically and economically. The Russian impact is much smaller."

If this all sounds like bad news for the West, it is. Yet there's one hopeful sign in the numbers if you look hard enough. The one major democrat who did score well was Britain's Gordon Brown (never mind that his numbers are tanking at home). That's important, for Brown happens to be the one national leader who's staked his reputation on finding new, cooperative solutions to a range of global ills. As Holbrooke puts it, "Brown is the person on the list who's by far the most identified with solving transnational problems, such as climate change, HIV/AIDS, African development and so on." Princeton's Slaughter agrees: "Brown is less interested in his country's narrow interests than genuinely trying to address" global crises. Britain's prime minister, she argues, "is giving effective voice to the aspirations of the world's poorest people, to billions who often feel they have no say."

That's good news for London; pushing for more aid for Africa and working hard to meet its Kyoto goals have clearly paid off internationally, if not at home. But the finding also represents an opportunity for other officials, should they follow Brown's lead. The prime minister's global standing suggests a keen worldwide appetite for a politician who will act on the range of present dangers. As Daalder puts it, there's a "yearning for new leadership" to help the planet through its multiple messes. Anyone who takes up the mantle is likely to be rewarded.

Especially if he's American. The fact that all top officials were rated so poorly suggests that the old job of leader of the free world—or, at least, its most popular, inspiring or trusted head of state—remains wide open. Despite its recent decline, only one nation has a plausible shot at filling that bill. Kull says that while Bush has bungled the job, "no other leader has stepped into the breach. No one generates confidence from the world. If an American steps in and says, 'I'm going to play by the old rules; here's an agenda for how we can work together,' that will be attractive everywhere." Nothing's guaranteed, of course, and digging the United States out its hole won't be easy. But the right person with the right message—say, a certain young senator who preaches a gospel of hope, or his colleague from Arizona, who's promised to take on "restore the world's faith" in the United States and its principles by working closely with U.S. allies—may find a surprisingly attentive audience.