Observations of an expat: Liking people

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People like to do business with people they like. Think about it. How many times have you returned to the same bar, restaurant, shop or café because you like the owner or the convivial waitress. You will even pay over the odds because that big smile and friendly chat with a croissant is worth the extra money. Life is just too short for decisions to be based on the saving of a few pennies.

Another much sought-after characteristic is competence. In fact, charm and competence are generally considered a winning combination. And one without the other is, well, pretty much the exact opposite.

That is why a report published this week by the Pew Research Centre is such bad news for everyone in America. It is also an object lesson for the rest of the world.

The Pew Research Centre is a Washington-based think tank that for the past two decades has conducted annual in-depth international surveys on different countries’ perceptions of the United States. Actually, the Pew people prefer the term “fact tank” which, of course, brings their reports into direct conflict with the Trump Administration who might be best described as an “alternative fact farm.”

Certainly the White House takes little comfort from this week’s Pew survey which reports that perceptions of America and its president plummeted to record lows. The President of the United States is viewed as incompetent and the country as a whole is disliked.

Twenty years ago the British people, for instance, gave the “land of opportunity” an 87 percent approval rating. Germany’s approval levels of America were at 78 percent. France, which has always had a more ambivalent attitude to the US, was a bit lower at 62 percent. At the end  of summer 2020 the approval rating of three of America’s most important allies is roughly half of what it was at the turn of the millennium– 41 percent in UK, 26 percent In Germany and 32 percent in France.

Then there is the competence issue. Here the world is – unsurprisingly – focused on coronavirus. The Japanese are the most generous on the topic. Twenty-five percent of them think that the Trump Administration has done a good job of handling the pandemic. Belgium, however, is the harshest. Only nine percent of Belgians think that Donald Trump is even coming close to coming to grips with Covid-19.

For centuries – even before 1776 – America has thrived on a reputation that has combined a dynamic competence with a strong legally-based moral undercurrent. It was – as Pilgrim Father John Winthrop hoped it would become – “The Shining City on the Hill” that attracted talent and investment from every corner of the globe.

Trump supporters argue that the opinion of the rest of the world is irrelevant. When it comes to dollars and cents they are – to a certain extent – correct.  America’s vast resources and huge domestic market means that only 12.2 percent of its GDP is export-oriented. But, since the start of the twentieth century it has been a mature economy which means that its growth has become increasingly dependent on foreign trade and international stability.

This in turn has shifted America’s interests away from its traditional cash-oriented laissez-faire comfort zone to the diplomatic sphere where approval ratings become increasingly important. If Donald Trump and his supporters want to “Make America Great Again” then they need to regain international approval for likability and competence. More importantly, they need to gain the world’s Respect.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Innocent Bystander 18th Sep '20 - 8:23pm

    In my industry we dealt closely with Japanese, European and American firms.
    Far and away the worst were the Americans. Money focused to the point of criminality, continually searching the contracts for a way to stuff the customer, in fact “customer” and “sucker” were synonyms in US eyes. Determined to take the credit for success especially when they had made no contribution at all.
    The exact opposite from the Japanese.
    I am, of course, talking decades before Trump who can’t be blamed for this long standing obsession with profit.
    I was deeply saddened by our referendum disaster. To move further from Europe and closer to America is our worst ever choice.

  • “At the end of summer 2020 the approval rating of three of America’s most important allies is roughly half of what it was at the turn of the millennium”

    At the turn of the millennium we had just finish the Bill Clinton presidency and he had followed on from Ronald Reagan – two very popular and respected presidents. During the first 20 years of this century we have had Bush, Obama and Trump. They really weren’t in the same league as earlier presidents so it’s hardly surprising America is less popular. They will recover their popularity soon, the democratic countries of the world need their leadership, although a President Joe Biden won’t help much.

  • Steve Trevethan 19th Sep '20 - 7:36am

    Might the attitudes and behaviours which have led to the reduction of the respect with which the U. S. A was formerly regarded, be attributed to its increasingly Neo-Liberal adherence?

  • John Marriott 19th Sep '20 - 9:30am

    I’m afraid that, despite over two hundred years of independence, the USA still tries to exhibit the chip on the shoulder attitude of the ‘new kid on the block’, whose institutions, like our own, are in dire need of reform and where, in many aspects of its civil and corporate life, the Wild West is not a page in its history but alive and well, and, in many areas, checking its guns and ammo ready for the upcoming gunfight at OK Corral, especially if a certain property developer loses in November.

    Yes, they did rescue us in two world wars and, yes, their cash helped to build Western Europe after the second and yes, we still rely on their military capability; but, oh, I wish they would drop this pretence that everything in their garden is rosy and that it’s always the other guy, who is to blame. Actually that sounds a bit like us Brits as well.

  • Because of lack of space there were few other bits that came out of Pew Research which I didn’t mention. One was America’s approval rating was at almost record highs during the Obama Administration. Secondly, Britain’s international approval rating was at a low 50 percent, and this was before Boris decided to ignore international law. Third, the two highest-rated international leaders are Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. Putin and Xi Jiping are almost– but not quite– as far down the list as Trump. And finally, the most respected international organisation at the moment is the WHO, which I think is interesting given Trump’s withdrawal from the organisation because of alleged collusion with Beijing.

  • Steve
    “increasingly Neo-Liberal adherence?”
    …increasingly isolationist and protectionist adherence?

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