Opinion: U.S. global reputation

In a report issued this month, the Pew Research Center has found that the global reputation of the United States has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Results from 17 advanced industrial economies show that the evaluation of our country is far more complex than it was in the past. As Richard Wike, et al., write in the Pew report, “People in other publics find much to admire about the U.S., but they see many problems as well.” Americans, on average, seem to share that view.


Technology


Across the board, American technology is ranked better than that of any other country or the best in the world. The report states, “Outside of Germany, where only 52 percent say this, in all of the advanced economies polled, about two-thirds or more hold this view.” People in Greece, South Korea, and Taiwan (45 percent, 38 percent, and 31 percent, respectively) judge American technology as being “the best.”


Much of the credit goes to Silicon Valley and the Pacific Northwest. But Illinois, Massachusetts, and North Carolina have made giant strides during the past twenty years. Advances in military technology are also noted as getting high scores in most of the countries.


Entertainment technology is also praised outside the U.S. The report writers note, “The U.S. is, of course, home to Hollywood, and most of those surveyed give the U.S. high marks for its entertainment, such as movies and television.” On average, seventy-one percent of respondents think that our entertainment industry is the best or above average. Interestingly, slightly fewer Americans agree with the sixteen other countries. While 72 percent of other countries rank U.S. technology very high, only 64 percent of Americans give the same response. Seventy-one percent see our entertainment industry as being superior; a slightly smaller percentage (68 percent) of Americans agree.


Living standards and health


Survey returns concerning living standards are mixed. “In most countries, pluralities say that, compared with other developed nations, the U.S. standard of living is average, although in Greece, Spain, South Korea, and Taiwan about half say it is above average or the best.” However, three of the countries in the sample (Sweden, the Netherlands, and Australia) have populations in which more than forty percent think that our living standards are “below average” or “the worst.”


This is a dramatic decline from twenty years ago. And much of the drop in percentage is due to our health-care system, which often gets poor reviews. The report states, “A median of 48 percent say it is below average and 18 percent consider it the worst among developed nations.” Further, “Over the past two years, Pew Research Center polls have found that foreign publics are widely critical of how the U.S. has handled the COVID-19 pandemic, and those who believe the U.S. has done a bad job of dealing with the crisis are especially likely to give the U.S. health care system low ratings.”


But, evaluations of U.S. health care vary considerably. Greece, Taiwan, South Korea, Spain, Italy, and Japan give highly positive ranking to our health-care system, while Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, as well as Australia and New Zealand give us some of the lowest assessments.


The Pew Survey did not seem to cover the cost of health care, but that may be a factor in our comparatively low ranking. Per capita expenditures for health care in the U.S., according to Finder.com, is more than $11,000 per year. The closest country to us is Switzerland, where per capita spending is a little less than $8,000, with Germany and Norway coming in third and fourth at little more than $7,000. Finland and Iceland spend a bit over $4,000 and South Korea and Israel are below that.


Racial and ethnic discrimination


Although results of the study were released on Nov. 1, 2021, the survey was conducted less than a year after international protests took place following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Consequently, there was a great deal of criticism with regard to the state of civil rights in America.


The Pew researchers concluded, “Large majorities say discrimination against people based on their race or ethnicity is a serious problem” in the U.S., and — in most countries — majorities say it is “a very serious problem.” However, probably because of a dramatic increase in international migration, many respondents say that discrimination is also a problem in their own countries, but they think it is worse in the U.S.


Democracy in America


The current state of U.S. democracy is highly criticized both abroad and at home. The Pew researchers were interested in finding out if the U.S. is still viewed as a model for modern democracy. Their conclusion is, “Few believe U.S. democracy, at least in its current state, serves as a good model for other nations. “A median of just 17 percent say democracy in the U.S. is a good example for others to follow, while 57 percent think it used to be a good example but has not been in recent years.” Surprisingly, another 23 percent of the international sample say that the U.S. has never been a good example.


More Americans than one would expect share those views. The Pew researchers report, “72 percent say U.S. democracy used to be a good example for others to follow but has not been recently.” Democrats lean strongly toward that attitude and are twice as likely as Republicans and independents to opine that the U.S. has never been a good example.


There is a considerable difference of opinion between U.S. millennials (ages 18-29) and seniors (65 and over). Millennials are less likely to rank the U.S. standard of living, health-care, and military and technological achievements as being above average. But young people both within and outside the U.S. give American popular culture (movies, TV, music, computer games) very high marks. I worry about them being prepared for life after 40 and the retirement years.


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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.