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Why Does the World View Canada More Negatively?

April 24, 2010

In the United States, this BBC World News Survey is making the rounds, since it (arguably) suggests that a shift in Obama’s approach to foreign policy may be having a noticeable affect on world opinion.  The “Obama Effect”, so the theory goes,  is that the President’s more collaborative approach to world diplomacy is causing people in countries around the world to view the United States more favorably.

But putting aside the Obama Effect for a moment, the BBC survey also reveals a concern for Canadians.  While opinion of the U.S. appears to be trending more positively,  there has a been a steep decline in how many people in other countries view Canada as having a “positive” influence in the world. After the jump, I try to break things down, and understand why.

Figure 1:

The downward trend appears to start in 2009 (see Figure 1) with a steep drop between 2009 and 2010, after a slow growth in “positive” views from 2006 until 2007. So what gives? What happened in 2009 to cause this dramatic drop in world opinion of the True North Strong And Free?

For the few media outlets that have noticed this issue, the received wisdom is that the drop in world opinion is “due largely to the country’s environmental policies”. That is,  the world was less than enamored by Canada’s obstruction and footdragging at the Climate Change talks in Copenhagen.  My colleague Mara made a similar case on this blog at the end of last year.

That seems like a commonsense explanation. But there are problems.  First, when you look closely at the numbers in the report itself, the drop in opinion concerning Canada was mainly in America, Britain and China.  In 2010, Americans view Canada 15% less positively, Brits 12% less and China showed the biggest drop:  21%, from 75% positive view in 2009, to only 54% positive view of Canada in 2010.  Maybe we can explain the drop in British opinion on Canada’s environmental policies and dismal performance in Copenhagen, but America and China?  Nobody obstructed Copenhagen more than China.  And the United States shouldered a lot of the blame too.   It would seem odd for people in China and America to view Canada less favorably because of Copenhagen, given each of their own dismal performances at the summit.

Second, if the Harper Government’s environmental policies were the real cause of Canada’s image problems, how can we explain the long term trend in world views (see Figure 1)?  Harper was elected in early 2006, and according to this table, world opinion steadily grew more favorably of Canada from 2006 until 2009, before the sharp drop from 2009 to 2010.   If Harper’s environmental policies were the problem, why the steady growth from 2006 until 2009?  And why the lower numbers for the Liberals under Martin (2005-2006), as the Liberals are generally seen as more credible on environmental policy?

So the received wisdom appears to be wrong.  Now, Canada’s environmental policies may still be a factor, but it is certainly not a monolithic explanation for these trends.  Not surprisingly, the explanation is likely much more nuanced and complicated, and is due to a number of different political and public policy moves of the Harper Government.  The decline in positive views in China, for example, could very well be linked to the chilly relations between Canada and China, that are only now starting to thaw.  Harper’s “neglect” of Chinese relations, his Government’s early criticisms of China’s human rights record, and decision to meet the Dalai Lama, all may have played a role in diminishing public opinion of Canada in China.

And the United States and Britain? Why the drop there?  Well, it may, as one friend suggested, have nothing to do with this policy or that, but simply a matter of contrasts.  Before with President Bush in office, who was very unpopular in Britain and among a large percentage of Americans, Canada’s Conservative but much more moderate (and perhaps banal) Government and Prime Minister seemed desirable in contrast. But with Obama now President, that contrast is now gone and along with it, Canada has lost some of its gloss.  Banality is no longer a positive, but a negative next to Obama’s star power. And the change in world opinion, particularly among Americans and the British, simply reflect this new political reality.

Maybe, maybe not.  That old adage, out of sight, out of mind, could very well explain these numbers.  Canada, after all, must now work in the broad shadow that Obama casts internationally, and people just aren’t noticing us or our international work much, if at all. And Stephen Harper’s  foreign policy, which has had a very narrow and singular focus on military involvement in Afghanistan, has not helped.

Of course, the story isn’t all bad news.  We are still one of the most positively viewed countries in the world, at least according to this BBC poll.  But we should not take that for granted, nor assume we are an untouchable quantity in world opinion.  What we do, or don’t do, matters.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    April 27, 2010 12:55 pm

    I’m glad you picked up on the results of this survey, and I agree with most of your analysis. The graph suggests, though, that the results of the survey have been quite volatile for most countries over the past few years, so perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much about the drop in Canada’s “approval rating”. Geopolitics isn’t exactly a popularity contest anyway.

    With that said, it’s interesting to speculate about possible explanations for the decline. In America, I wonder if Canada might be taking flak from both sides of what seems to be a relatively polarised electorate – liberal types who remain enthusiastic about Obama may find Canada’s leadership banal (at best) by comparison, as you say, while conservative types may be more inclined than ever to see Canada as a socialist hell-hole in the wake of their bruising defeat in the health-care debate.

    I have no idea what might be going on in China, despite the fact that I live here. For what it’s worth, I continue to get smiles and thumbs-up gestures from strangers fairly routinely when they find out that I’m from Canada. This seems to be especially true of the older generation, who had the story of Norman Bethune drilled into them. The problem with attributing the recent negativity about Canada to Harper’s criticisms of China is that he’s been taking that line for years now. Perhaps the Chinese have simply started to notice, especially following his visit to their country.

    • canworldjon permalink*
      April 28, 2010 4:58 am

      Hey Corwin, thanks for the great comment! I think your theories on the decline in America and China also make sense; it’s very easy to see Americans across the political spectrum all finding some kind of flaw in Canada. This is where environmental policy is relevant– I could see members of the American left pretty ticked at Canada’s footdragging at Copenhagen. And, of course, the health care debate was huge all through 2009, so yes, some public opinion of Canada would have declined almost as a necessary reflection of how some Americans — mainly conservative — feel negatively about domestic health care reform.

      And China — it is just plain difficult to read. But your theory on point is also plausible… because when Harper arrived in China, it generated a lot of negative headlines talking about Harper’s “neglect” of Canada-Chinese relations. Like you said, his visit just reminded China about their policy disagreements with Canada.

      Do you find the younger generation of Chinese view Canada less positively? Or they’re just less interested?

      • corsullivan permalink*
        April 29, 2010 12:33 pm

        I’ve rarely talked to Chinese people in any detail about their attitudes to Canada, but when older people (say over 40) find out that I’m Canadian it’s not uncommon for them to react positively. Younger people seem more likely to simply accept my nationality as a piece of information and go on from there. I suspect It’s more a matter of indifference than any negative feeling – just a slow fading of the Bethune effect across the generations. I have heard a couple of Chinese people say that they don’t really think of Canadians as distinct from Americans, but I’m not sure how widespread that attitude is.

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