Who Do You Love? The U.S. Public and the Alliances

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Kent Boydston (PIIE)



A recent piece in the New York Times underlines an irony of the Trump phone call with Australian PM Turnbull. In a recent YouGov poll, Australia ranks as among the best of U.S. allies and the single country with the least unfavorable image among Republicans. This piece motivated us to take a closer look at the rankings and a few things jumped out.

First, North Korea is indeed the country that the highest share of respondents identify as an enemy, and by a wide margin: 57% as opposed to only 41% for Iran and 32% for Syria. Unfortunately, two countries the U.S. is trying to support in the Middle East are next on the “enemies” list, which might help explain support for the travel ban (Iraq 29% and Afghanistan 23%). After fifteen years of fighting wars in both countries, the public still does not distinguish sharply between the governments we are supporting and the terrorists we are fighting: al Qaeda, ISIS and the Taliban.

Another curiosity is Russia, and here the partisan differences are interesting. Among Democrats, Putin’s Russia is near the very bottom in terms of the share of respondents seeing it as an enemy, just above North Korea in fact (143/144 on the list). Yet reflecting some of the strange cleavages emerging out of the presidential elections, Republicans were more favorable to Russia than Democrats by a fair amount; on the Republicans’ enemy list it ranked only 129/144. This is a shift from the results of the same poll conducted in 2014 when Republicans viewed Russians slightly more unfavorably than Democrats. A separate YouGov poll shows a clear uptick in Vladimir Putin’s favorability among Republicans and a corresponding decline among Democrats around the time of last November’s election. Nevertheless, public opinion vis-à-vis Russia does not suggest an upswell of support to normalize U.S.-Russian relations.

The steady campaign with respect to Mexico has clearly had effect: 4% list it as an enemy, 20% unfriendly, 42% friendly, with 18% identifying it as an ally. In terms of comparative friendliness rankings Mexico ranked 42 out of 144, and disaggregated by party, 32nd for Democrats and 48th for Republicans. Broken down both by party affiliation and in the aggregate Mexico fared worse in the comparative rankings than it did in 2014.

Of particular interest to this blog is the fact that Korea and Japan face some odd headwinds as well. They poll less well than Canada and our major European allies: Britain but also France and Germany. This may be an unfortunate artifact of candidate Trump’s comments with respect to trade policy and burden-sharing in the alliances. Korea might also simply suffer from confusion over North and South: 9% list South Korea as an enemy and 10% list it as unfriendly, with 29% identifying it as friendly and 32% as an ally. Japan fares slightly better: 4% enemy, 8% unfriendly, 36% friendly. But pretty much the same share (33%) see it as an ally as see Korea as one, roughly on a par with a number of smaller European countries. In the comparative friendliness rankings Korea and Japan did worse in 2017 than 2014: from 12th to 21st place for Japan, and 24th to 27th place for Korea based on population-wide surveys. The downward trend holds true across party affiliation as well.

Finally, we are not sure whether it is comforting or disturbing that the Philippines has slipped badly in the recent poll. Although maintaining a mutual defense treaty with the U.S., only 11% of respondents identified the Philippines as an ally. If Duterte wants something from this administration, the Abe strategy of providing a list of goodies on offer is probably superior to telling the US it is not wanted. Duterte and the Filipino public might find they are pushing on an open door. 

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