Did Hillary Clinton Really Restore America’s Reputation in the World?

International public sentiment about the U.S. did not improve when Clinton was in charge of State, an aggregate of polls shows.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waves upon her departure from a visit to Tripoli on Oct. 18, 2011.

Photographer: KEVIN LAMARQUE/AFP/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is set to deliver a major speech on national security Thursday in San Diego, where she’s expected to outline her vision of America’s role in the world—and cast Donald Trump as a purveyor of “fear, bigotry, and misplaced defeatism.” Clinton and her surrogates often point to her foreign-policy expertise, and in particular her years as President Barack Obama’s first secretary of state, as evidence of her effectiveness as a leader.

“Hillary worked to restore America's leadership in the world, after it was badly eroded by eight years of the Bush administration's go-it-alone foreign policy,” her website says. At a Clinton rally in February, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, referring to the Bush administration, said, “They really undermined America's reputation and our position in the world. And Hillary as secretary brought us back.” Writing in Politico, New York Senator Charles Schumer, another Clinton supporter, said Clinton “did much to restore the shattered credibility of the United States, which had lost so much influence following the failed foreign policies of the previous administration.” Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said she was “key in rebuilding America’s leadership and prestige overseas after the Bush years.”

Did Clinton really rehabilitate America’s global reputation? It’s not an easy thing to quantify or definitively dispute—which makes it an attractive applause line. But there is a way to get a general idea: by looking at whether international public sentiment about the U.S. did in fact improve when she was in charge of State.

Over the past 10 years—a time period that includes the end of the Bush administration and Clinton’s years as secretary of state—three major polls have asked citizens in dozens of countries for their opinions about the U.S. To make the results comparable, we weighted* the polls by population.  

GlobeScan, a Toronto-based consultancy, conducts an annual global survey that asks people whether they think the U.S. is “having a mainly positive or mainly negative influence in the world.”

The poll conducted in December 2008 showed marked improvement in the world's opinion of America over the previous year. But that’s likely the result of the generally positive global reaction to Obama’s election: Obama hadn’t taken office yet, and Clinton wasn’t confirmed as secretary of state until a month later. During the first two years of her tenure, international sentiment toward the U.S. continued to improve in the GlobeScan poll—but then it began to decline in the second half of her term, falling nearly to the point where it was when she took office.

The Pew Research Center also conducts regular global surveys. Every year it asks respondents, “Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of the U.S.?”

The Pew survey, like the GlobeScan poll, shows the favorability rating of the U.S. rose significantly from April 2007 to April 2008. It rose even more steeply in the following year and continued to improve through April 2010. Over the next year, though, net favorability fell steeply, and continued to decline until just after her departure. 

Gallup’s U.S.-Global Leadership Project has examined America's reputation through its own worldwide survey. Its question asks, “Do you approve or disapprove of the job performance of the leadership of the United States?” This could be interpreted as more of a question on the president's performance, but it still offers a general reflection of America's global image.

The weighted data for this poll begins in August 2009, seven months after Secretary Clinton's start date. This makes it difficult to know how much America's reputation changed just prior to her appointment. 

Although we can’t see the approval rating at the start of her term as secretary of state, from August 2009 until the summer of 2011 the world's approval of U.S. leadership declined and then essentially flat-lined for the next two years.

None of this is meant to be a grading of Clinton's overall performance as secretary of state. The job requires much more than just maintaining a positive reputation for the country. Clinton's role in gathering consensus for sanctions on Iran in order to bring them to the negotiating table on a nuclear agreement is often cited as a major achievement, as is her advocacy for women's and girls' rights in the developing world. Yet the broader claim that she restored America’s global reputation may be a harder sell. If these three polls are any indication, by the time Clinton left Foggy Bottom, global opinion about the U.S. had fallen to, or below, where it was when she got there.

Methodology

Bloomberg analyzed polls from three organizations measuring the global image of the U.S. from 2007 to 2014: GlobeScan, Pew, and Gallup. Each poll was conducted annually, with results shown for each country. A country's net favorable rating of the U.S. was calculated as the percentage of respondents offering positive views minus the percentage of respondents offering negative views. We aggregated all countries' responses into a net global opinion for each year, with countries' responses weighted by population. The dates of each year's poll varied by several months, depending on the country being surveyed. An average date for each year's poll was determined, again weighting each country by population.

As not all countries were surveyed every year in each poll, minimum criteria were established to determine the universe of countries for each data set. For GlobeScan's poll, only the 20 countries that participated in the six polls from 2008 through 2013 were included. (Four of these countries each had one missing year of poll participation. For these years, the average was used between the prior and following years.) These 20 countries amounted to 60 percent of the world's population.

In Pew's poll, only the 20 countries that had data in both 2007 and 2014 were included. (Six of these countries had some missing years of poll participation. For these years, the average was used between the prior and following years.) This universe amounted to 39 percent of the world's population.

For Gallup's poll, only countries that had figures for 2009 and 2013 were included, and only if they had data for at least three of the five years studied. Poll figures for gapped years were implied using the same method as described above. This universe amounted to 88 countries, comprising 63 percent of the world's population.

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