U.S. seen positively in advanced economies for its technology, entertainment, military and universities, but negatively for its health care system, discrimination and the state of its democracy
As Pew Research Center surveys have documented, the United States’ global reputation has shifted dramatically over the past two decades, often improving or declining depending on who is in the White House and the foreign policies they pursue. At the same time, many other factors have continued to shape how people see the U.S., including its vast cultural reach, its economic model and its divisive politics. A survey of 17 advanced economies highlights the complexity of America’s international image. People in other publics find much to admire about the U.S., but they see many problems as well. Americans, for their part, also see both strengths and weaknesses in their society.
This Pew Research Center analysis focuses on views of the United States, including views of its political system and its cultural exports, among others. For this report, we conducted nationally representative surveys of 16,254 adults from March 12 to May 26, 2021, in 16 advanced economies. All surveys were conducted over the phone with adults in Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.
In the U.S., we surveyed 2,596 adults from Feb. 1 to 7, 2021. Everyone who took part in the U.S. survey is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories.
This study was conducted in places where nationally representative telephone surveys are feasible. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, face-to-face interviewing is not currently possible in many parts of the world.
Here are the questions used for the report, along with responses. See our methodology database for more information about the survey methods outside the U.S. For respondents in the U.S., read more about the ATP’s methodology.
The most positive elements of America’s image are tied to some of its most famous exports, with the U.S. receiving considerable praise for its technology and popular culture. When asked to compare American technological innovations with those of other developed nations, respondents give the home of Silicon Valley favorable reviews. Across the 16 publics polled outside of the U.S., a median of 72% say U.S. technology is the best or above average. The U.S. is, of course, also home to Hollywood, and most of those surveyed give the U.S. high marks for its entertainment, such as movies, music and television. A median of 71% think American entertainment is the best or above average.
The U.S. is also widely recognized for its military strength, with a median of 45% across 16 publics describing the U.S. military as above average and a median of 26% saying it is the best. In addition, American universities are largely praised (43% above average, 16% the best).
However, views about American 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. In Sweden, the Netherlands and Australia, more than four-in-ten think it is below average or the worst.
The U.S. health care system gets poor reviews: A median of 48% say it is below average and 18% consider it the worst among developed nations. 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.
Attitudes toward these elements of America’s image vary across the publics surveyed, with Greece, Taiwan, South Korea, Spain, Italy and Japan giving the U.S. some of its most positive reviews, while Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Sweden give the U.S. some of its lowest assessments.
The survey, which was conducted less than a year after international protests erupted following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, finds widespread criticisms about the current state of civil rights in America. 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. And while many say discrimination is also a serious problem in their own countries, they consistently say discrimination is worse in the U.S. than in their country.
Respondents who place themselves on the left of the ideological spectrum are especially likely to say discrimination in the U.S. is a very serious problem. For example, 81% of Canadians on the left believe it is a very serious problem, compared with 66% of those in the center and 52% of Canadians on the political right.
As previously reported, America’s overall image improved significantly following the election of President Joe Biden, but many nonetheless express significant doubts about the health of American democracy. Few believe U.S. democracy, at least in its current state, serves as a good model for other nations. A median of just 17% say democracy in the U.S. is a good example for others to follow, while 57% think it used to be a good example but has not been in recent years. Another 23% do not believe it has ever been a good example. Americans largely share the view that their democracy is no longer a model: 72% say U.S. democracy used to be a good example for others to follow but has not been recently. Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party are twice as likely as Republicans and independents who lean Republican to say the U.S. has never been a good model.
Americans are also critical of other aspects of their society. Roughly four-in-ten (42%) think discrimination based on race or ethnicity is a very serious problem, and 32% say it is a somewhat serious problem. Black (93%) and Hispanic (82%) adults are significantly more likely than White adults (68%) to describe discrimination as at least a somewhat serious problem. Democrats (94%) are also nearly twice as likely as Republicans (49%) to say racial and ethnic discrimination is a serious issue in the U.S.
And while they are more positive than foreign publics about the U.S. health care system, roughly four-in-ten Americans say it is either below average (32%) compared with other developed nations or it is the worst (7%). Americans actually give U.S. universities lower ratings than foreign publics do – just 47% in the U.S. say their universities are above average or the best, compared with a median of 59% across those polled outside the U.S. Like the other publics surveyed, Americans are largely positive about their technological achievements, entertainment and military. Republicans are generally more positive about these various aspects of American society, although Democrats offer more favorable reviews of the country’s movies, music and television. For more on how U.S. views of American society compare with international views, see “Americans differ from people in other countries over some aspects of U.S. ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power.”
Young Americans are often less positive about the aspects of their society included on the survey. Those ages 18 to 29 are less likely than those ages 65 and older to say the United States’ standard of living, health care system, military and technological achievements are above average or the best. In contrast, young people in many places outside the U.S. tend to be more likely to see some of these aspects of America’s image in a positive light.
However, young people both in and outside the U.S. are particularly fond of American popular culture. In every public surveyed – including the U.S. – people ages 18 to 29 are more likely than those ages 65 and older to rate U.S. entertainment as above average or the best. For example, 84% of those ages 18 to 29 in Taiwan hold this view, compared with just 39% of those ages 65 and older.
These are among the key findings of a Pew Research Center survey, conducted from Feb. 1 to May 26, 2021, among 18,850 adults in 17 advanced economies. The survey also finds that about six-in-ten across the publics surveyed say the U.S. government respects the personal freedoms of its people. In countries where trends are available, people generally give the U.S. higher marks for respecting individual liberties than they did in 2018, during Donald Trump’s presidency. However, in several nations, the U.S. still gets more negative ratings on this question today than it did during former President Barack Obama’s time in office.
Most praise American technology, entertainment, military and universities
Roughly half or more in every non-U.S. society surveyed describe American technological achievements as above average or the best, compared with other developed nations. Outside of Germany, where only 52% say this, in all of the advanced economies polled, about two-thirds or more hold this view. In Greece, 45% specifically describe American technological achievements as the best, as do 38% in South Korea and 31% in Taiwan. Few or none describe American technological achievements as below average in any place surveyed.
American entertainment, including movies, music and television, is also well-regarded: Around two-thirds or more in most publics surveyed describe it as at least above average. Around a third in Greece, Japan and Singapore even describe American cultural exports as the best, while around a quarter or more say the same in Spain, Belgium, South Korea and Canada. In no place surveyed do roughly one-in-ten or more say American entertainment is below average.
Around six-in-ten or more in every advanced economy in the survey describe America’s military as at least above average. U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region are somewhat more likely to praise the American military: for example, 42% of South Koreans describe it as the best, and 37% in Taiwan, 29% in Singapore and 27% in Japan echo these views. Among Europeans, a quarter or more in Greece, Spain, Italy and Sweden also label the U.S. military as the top in the world.
Roughly half or more in 15 of 16 non-U.S. publics surveyed describe American universities as at least above average. Greeks, South Koreans, Japanese and Singaporeans are particularly effusive, with around a quarter or more calling U.S. universities the best relative to other developed nations. Germans and Australians, on the other hand, offer more mixed evaluations, standing apart as the only two places where fewer than half describe U.S. institutions of higher learning as above average. Still, no more than 14% think American universities are below average in any of the publics surveyed.
Evaluations of American standard of living are mixed, and few praise the health care system
No more than 15% in any of the publics surveyed describe America’s standard of living as the best among developed nations. And only in Taiwan, South Korea and Spain do more than half describe it as at least above average. Rather, in about half of the places surveyed, a plurality labels the American standard of living as solidly “average” – including around half who give it this rating in Germany and Singapore. Around half of Swedes and Dutch even call U.S. living standards “below average” or “the worst” relative to other developed nations, while more than a quarter in Australia, Belgium, New Zealand, Canada, Germany and France say the same.
When it comes to the American health care system, evaluations are even poorer. In most places, a majority says the American health care system is at least below average, including around two-in-ten in Australia, Belgium, Spain, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, New Zealand and Sweden who say it is the worst among developed nations. Only in Taiwan, Greece, Japan and Singapore do at least a quarter describe it as above average or the best.
When it comes to evaluations of the U.S. across these dimensions, a few patterns stand out. First, younger people tend to be more complimentary than older people. For example, younger people are more likely to describe American entertainment products as above average than older people. Age differences can be substantial: In Taiwan, for example, 84% of adults under age 30 describe American entertainment products as above average, compared with only 39% of those ages 65 and older who say the same.
Younger people in some places are also somewhat more likely to praise the American military, universities and technological achievements. For example, two-thirds of New Zealanders under 30 say American universities are the best or above average, while only around four-in-ten of those 65 and older say the same.
Those with higher levels of education also tend to see America in a more positive light. This is particularly the case regarding American technological achievements and entertainment but also true in some publics – and especially those in the Asia-Pacific region – when it comes to evaluating American universities or its military. Wealthier people, too, tend to evaluate all of these same dimensions more positively than those who are less well off financially.
Men are also somewhat more likely to describe many things about America as above average than are women. (Women are also somewhat less likely to provide an answer to some of these questions.)
Those who think the U.S. has a serious problem with discrimination are also more likely to evaluate America’s health care system and standard of living negatively. In America’s neighbor to the north, Canada, 74% of those who think the U.S. has a very serious problem with discrimination against people based on their race or ethnicity say American health care is below average, while only 48% of those who think it is a less serious problem agree. Canadians who see racial and ethnic discrimination in the U.S. as a very serious issue are also more than three times as likely to say America’s standard of living is below average as those who say it is less of a problem (40% and 12%, respectively).
Views of the U.S. political system
Ratings of the political system in the U.S. are generally lukewarm across the 16 advanced economies surveyed. People are split on how the U.S. political system is functioning, with a median of 50% saying it works well and 48% who disagree. Assessments vary widely, ranging from 80% in South Korea who rate the U.S. political system positively to only 30% in New Zealand.
And very few in any public surveyed think American democracy is a good example for other countries to follow. A median of just 17% hold this view. Most people say democracy in the U.S. used to be a good example but has not been in recent years (a median of 57%). A median of about a quarter (23%) say American democracy has never been a good example for other countries to follow. (For more on views of the U.S. political system and its democracy, see “America’s Image Abroad Rebounds With Transition From Trump to Biden.”)
Still, on balance, publics say the U.S. government respects the personal freedoms of its people. About half or more across each public surveyed agree that Americans’ personal freedoms are protected by their government. But a substantial minority – a 16-public median of roughly four-in-ten – believe the U.S. does not respect personal freedoms, including almost half in Australia and New Zealand.
These numbers represent an upward trend. Between 2013 and 2018, there was a steady decline in the share who said the U.S. respects the personal freedoms of its people in many places surveyed, reaching its low point at the end of that period. But in Canada and across Europe, the share who say the U.S. government respects personal liberties has significantly increased since the last time the question was asked. This rebound was particularly large in Spain, where the shares who say the government respects Americans’ freedoms roughly doubled between 2018 and 2021.
A majority of Americans (63%) believe their government respects personal freedoms, although a sizable minority (35%) says it does not. Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party (71%) are more likely than Republicans and independents who lean Republican (56%) to say the U.S. government respects the rights of its citizens. Those with at least a bachelor’s degree or more are more likely than those with less schooling to say that the U.S. respects personal freedoms (72% vs. 57%).
Yet, despite relatively positive views when it comes to American personal liberties, publics express a great deal of concern about discrimination against people based on their race and ethnicity in the U.S. The survey was fielded nearly a year after anti-racism protests broke out across the globe, sparked by the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police.
Between 82% and 95% in every public outside of the U.S. believe this kind of discrimination is at least a somewhat serious problem, and more than four-in-ten call it very serious. A median of only 9% say discrimination in the U.S. is not too serious or not a problem at all.
The level of discrimination against people based on their race or ethnicity reflects poorly on the political system in the U.S. People who think discrimination is a very serious problem are less likely to think the U.S. government respects the personal freedoms of its people. And in every public surveyed, people who think discrimination is a very serious problem in the U.S. are less likely than others to say the political system works well and to think democracy in the U.S. is a good example for other countries to follow.
In many places, adults under 30 and women are more likely to say discrimination based on race or ethnicity is a very serious problem in the U.S. than older people and men, as are people who place themselves on the left of the political spectrum. A median of 71% of those on the left say discrimination is a very serious issue in the U.S. By comparison, a median of 49% of those on the right hold this view. For example, in Sweden, 60% who place themselves on the ideological left say discrimination in the U.S. is a very serious problem, compared with only 35% on the right who say the same.
Overall ratings for the U.S. improved following Biden’s election
Beyond attitudes toward American society and politics, opinions about U.S. presidents and their foreign policies can also affect how people see the U.S. As a previous report illustrated, America’s overall international image has improved significantly since the election of President Biden.
Across 12 nations surveyed in both 2020 and 2021, a median of 75% said this spring that they had confidence in Biden to do the right thing in world affairs, while a median of just 17% said this about Trump in 2020. Overall ratings for the U.S. improved substantially as well – a median of 62% across the 12 countries said they have a favorable opinion of the U.S., up from 34% in 2020.
Comparing Biden to Trump, people see the current president’s leadership traits in a much more favorable light. They are much more likely to consider Biden well-qualified and to see him as a strong leader and are much less likely to describe him as arrogant or dangerous.
Most support key elements of Biden’s initial foreign policy agenda. When asked about four of Biden’s specific foreign policy goals, majorities in all publics surveyed express approval for each. Support for the U.S. rejoining the World Health Organization is highest, with a median of 89% saying they approve of this policy, followed by support for the U.S. rejoining the Paris climate agreement and hosting a democracy summit. Biden’s policy of allowing more refugees into the U.S. also elicits approval from a median of 76%. (The survey was conducted before Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by Aug. 31, 2021. For more on American reactions to that policy, see “Biden Loses Ground With the Public on Issues, Personal Traits and Job Approval.”)
Despite the widespread support for the U.S. rejoining the Paris Agreement, adults in most publics surveyed are more likely to say the U.S. is doing a bad job handling climate change than they are to say the U.S. is doing a good job, and at least a fifth in 12 countries say the U.S. is doing a very bad job. Swedes and Germans are especially critical, with three-quarters in both countries disapproving of the United States’ climate change response. Only in Singapore and the U.S. itself do about half say the U.S. is doing a good job.