The Pew Research Center recently released a report examining what people around the world view as the largest security threats to their home countries. Across all 38 countries surveyed, ISIS and climate change topped the list.
It's pretty intuitive to predict which countries fear what. ISIS is most feared by its regional neighbors and by Western European countries that have seen high profile attacks. Muslim refugees are most feared in Eastern Europe, and the global economy is most feared by Greece.
A certain dissonance appears when you look at the category of "US power and influence" as a possible threat to national security. Before I proceed, I should note that many countries have good reason to be wary of US power. Some of the countries examined have a checkered history with American foreign policy, like Chile and Indonesia.
But those countries are not on top of the "America threatens us" list. No, the countries that most view US influence as a threat to their national security are three of our strongest treaty allies: Turkey, South Korea and Japan.
Source: Pew Research Center
Their position atop this list is perplexing. You can scarcely find a country whose security benefits more from American influence than Turkey, South Korea, and Japan. They are all definitely in the top ten.
The biggest head-scratcher comes from South Korea. US influence is the very reason for South Korea's existence in the first place. The United States created South Korea, and it is because of American military protection that it has been able to thrive relative to its northern counterpart, free from the corrupting influences of Juche and Soviet Communism. America saved South Korea from the brink of destruction in the Korean war, and the continued presence of more than 28,000 members of the American military ensures that South Korea can operate without daily fear of North Korean tanks rolling across the 38th parallel.
Next is Japan. Just like South Korea, Japan's history of benefiting from US influence begins after the second World War, when the United States took the historically unprecedented step of rebuilding a vanquished foe rather than extracting all possible value from it, as Western powers (and Japan) had done to Germany after World War I. Since that time, Japan has been covered by the absolute security promise of the United States, enshrined in two treaties from 1951 and 1960. Shifting the load of its defense to the United States allowed Japan to zoom miles ahead of the rest of the world in terms of economic growth, with Japan going from a country in total shambles to the world's second largest economy. Just earlier this year, America pledged to defend the disputed Senkaku islands, ostensibly promising to engage in military conflict with our largest economic partner if necessary.
(I should note here that while overall US influence is a positive for Japan, Japan should allow US bases to move out of Okinawa, which has shouldered an unfair burden of the military presence as the latest manifestation of Japanese subjugation of Okinawa.)
Finally, we get to Turkey. Turkey is in quite an odd position to be railing against US global influence, considering that it is a member of US-led NATO, the most elite military alliance in the world. NATO has continued to support Turkey despite increasing difficulty from the Erdogan government. Up until recently, Turkey had it pretty good — and this despite bordering the most volatile places in the world. All it had to do was sit there and enjoy the umbrella of Article 5 protection and wait to be showered with European wealth upon its eventual ascension to the European Union. But no, they just had become a quasi-dictatorship and attack US-allied forces. And then to finish it off, they have the unbelievable gall to say that the US is a threat to their security. Without American protection, Turkey wouldn't stand half the chance it does now against Russia, Iran, and ISIS.
The Inevitable Trump Connection
These rather stunning shows of ingratitude underscore how important the public perception of America is to its foreign relations. According to data from just a few years ago, the perception of America used to be much better. In a 2014 Pew report, 75 percent of South Koreans had a favorable few of the US, whereas 70 percent now few the same United States as a major threat to their country. That's quite a dive.
And this is a trend that can be seen around the world, as people everywhere lose trust in US leadership. America's favorability in global polls has dropped 15 points from the end of the Obama administration to the beginning of the Trump administration. The President's personal favorability among our closest allies has taken an almost comical drop from Obama's, as shown below. Mistrust of Trump means mistrust of America. People always say that the President is the face of the country. In foreign policy, that actually means something.
This is why we cannot easily separate rhetoric and policy. Maybe during the campaign, Trump could get away with being that guy who says idiotic things. If it was ever, that's not the case anymore. The best example of this is the slogan "America first." In reality, of course the American government considers America first, above the interests of other countries. That has been the case with every single foreign policy ever. No one sets out with the intent to do a bad job. So although Trump's pronouncement is technically accurate, the fact that he flaunts it at every point, that he goes out of his way to diminish the importance of the rest of the world, only serves to alienate potential partners.
From Obama to Trump, and before either man took office, American influence in the world has greatly benefited our allies. And I believe the people of the world have recognized that. When we do good for other people, they generally appreciate it, which has enabled America to develop an unprecedented number and depth of alliances over the past century. But when we flagrantly turn our backs on everyone else, even just symbolically, it looks like they respond in kind. Our friends are being ungrateful, and it's only because we're actively shunning them.
Photo credit US Department of Defense