Residents in Closest Allies Have Doubts About U.S. Democracy

Residents in countries that are longtime members of perhaps the most important military alliance for the United States are among the most skeptical about the health of American democracy, according to a newly released U.S. News global survey.

As part of the 2021 Best Countries report released this month, more than 17,000 people in 36 countries were asked whether they agreed with the statement, “The United States is a good role model in a functioning democracy.” Just under 22% of Norwegians agreed with the statement, the lowest level of agreement in countries that joined NATO before the end of the Cold War.

Residents in other longtime NATO member countries also registered low levels of agreement about the U.S. being a role model for a healthy democracy: 32% in Canada, just under 36% in Germany, and about 38% in France and the United Kingdom. Elsewhere across Europe, Italians had the greatest percentage of respondents expressing confidence in the U.S. democratic model, at 48.5%, followed by Spain with 45.7%.

On average, just under 42% of European respondents said they believed the U.S. was a good example of a functioning democracy, the lowest level among the regions surveyed by the Best Countries report.

By contrast, roughly 2 out of 3 U.S. survey respondents agreed with the statement, echoing another finding in the Best Countries survey: Americans said they saw the U.S. as more politically stable after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, a marked departure from respondents in other countries. Respondents from Turkey expressed the next-highest vote of confidence in the U.S. as a functioning democracy, with 51.6%.

Overall, just 52.5% of the 17,000 respondents to the Best Countries survey agreed with the U.S. being a good role model for democracy. The lowest levels of agreement were found in Finland (17%) and New Zealand (19%), while the highest levels of agreement were found in India (83%) and Nigeria (about 82%).

Dan Hamilton, director of the Global Europe Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says respondents from skeptical nations may be especially wary of democratic turbulence in the U.S. because their own histories have taught them what it’s like when a democracy comes apart.

“Sometimes the question about the strength or fragility of democracy makes [people in these countries] reflect about their own histories,” Hamilton says. “I think Germans are very sensitive to that. They have seen democracy fail in ways Americans haven’t really.”

Some of the most pressing political issues in the U.S. have made allies wary about its potential for engagement with the rest of the world, he says. Allies have been distressed by “worsening political polarization, continuing societal violence, the massive social reckoning that swept the country over the past year in terms of racial inequity, [and] the growing inequality documented in socioeconomic terms.”

But the new administration of President Joe Biden presents an opportunity to address these problems and have the U.S. rejoin its traditional community of partners. “Clearly, our priority is to move our society and our economy from sickness to health,” Hamilton says. “The health of our society, health of our economy, our climate — weave those things together into a set of initiatives that will move all of that forward. I think the world welcomes that different type of narrative.”

The previous administration of Donald Trump was caught unprepared to manage the coronavirus pandemic and also saw racial tensions explode across the U.S., Hamilton says: “Our democracy has been bent, but it didn’t break.” Meanwhile, he says, most U.S. partners in NATO “have been heartened by the results of the election, but they’re still quite wary.”

And much of that European response, Hamilton says, stems from Biden’s tone when speaking about the transatlantic military alliance, which is markedly different from Trump’s. “Biden has called NATO a ‘sacred duty,’ and said Europe is the cornerstone of U.S. engagement with the rest of the world. In his first speech at the Munich Security Conference a few weeks ago, he highlighted that NATO was a key issue” for the U.S.,” Hamilton notes.

The Biden administration’s progress in putting down the COVID-19 pandemic will in turn put the U.S. in a stronger position to help other countries, Hamilton says.

“There’s some concern that because the U.S. has so many issues right now … it’s not stepping as quickly on international affairs,” he says. “If we can’t help ourselves, we’re not going to be able to help anybody else. First thing, we have to get back on our feet, and then we’re going to be in a much better position to help others out.”

The future of American engagement with the world rests on the health and economic recovery at home, Hamilton adds. “We have to make sure that the U.S. and allies are healthy again. Getting from sickness to health is the underpinning of everything.”

More from U.S. News

How the Capitol Riot Tarnished America’s Global Image

10 Most Politically Stable Countries, Ranked by Perception

The 25 Best Countries in the World

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