Public Perceptions of International Leadership in China and the United States
Many fear that with Trump taking the helm, the United States will scale back its international leadership role in global governance, leaving a void that is too big for any single country to fill. Others are hopeful that emerging powers such as China will be able to step in and provide international leadership to solve global governance challenges, from climate change to nuclear nonproliferation. In this study, we explore the Chinese and American publics’ perceptions and views on international leadership in the Trump era. Results from two parallel surveys conducted in China and the United States shed light on how ordinary citizens in these two countries conceptualize international leadership and how their views contrast with conventional wisdom and with each other. Given the increasingly larger role played by public opinion in the foreign policies of both democratic and authoritarian countries, the findings of this study will have important policy implications.
KeywordsInternational leadership Public opinion China United States Global governance
On June 1, 2017, President Trump announced that the US would withdraw from all nonbinding parts of the Paris Agreement, a global effort to tackle climate change. The US action goes against almost every other country in the world that signed the agreement, including unlikely signatories such as North Korea. Many read the US withdrawal as an abdication of a valued piece of hard-won US international leadership, the latest in a series of events that included “sowing doubt at NATO” and “killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership” (Morello and Wagner 2017). Hyperbolically, and yet with some truth to it, some even declared that “the United States [has] resigned as the leader of the free world. It is nothing short of that” (Zakaria 2017).
If the United States is relinquishing its leadership, can emerging powers such as China step in and provide international leadership to solve global governance challenges, from climate change to nuclear nonproliferation? The debate about the leadership abilities and prospects of the United States and China has already been firmly established in the literature. Some argue in the favor of the rise of China (Angang 2011; Subramanian 2011; Acharya 2011; Beeson 2013) and a critical appraisal of US power (Layne 2012), while others argue in the favor of continuing US leadership (Brainard and Lipton 2008), offering limited support for the Beijing consensus (Ambrosio 2012) or for the possibility of long-term Chinese economic growth (Lundestad 2012).
Still, for China, the world’s second-largest economy, leadership seems hardly avoidable. This presents an opportunity for key interlocutors to engage with China as it grapples with its new position in ways that support its interests and that embrace responsibility and global leadership. In today’s world, key interlocutors include a plethora of state and international actors, as well as domestic constituencies. The existing scholarship on international leadership has thus far focused extensively on the former (e.g., Destradi 2010; Gallarotti 2005; Helms 2014; Ikenberry 1996; Lake 1993; Lucarelli 2014) but paid relatively little attention to the role played by the latter. In this light, it seems cogent to look at the domestic constituencies of the United States and China, given the emphasis of the leadership literature on these two countries.
In this study, we make a first step toward understanding public perceptions of international leadership. We do so by fielding two concurrent public opinion surveys in China and the United States. The surveys elicit views about the theory of international leadership to which respondents implicitly subscribe, together with more empirical questions about their perceptions of the current and future landscape in international leadership. They also allow us to take a closer look at how ordinary citizens in these two countries conceptualize international leadership and how their views contrast with conventional wisdom and with each other.
Overall, we find considerable similarities in the understanding of international leadership among Chinese and US respondents, with a few notable exceptions. While Chinese respondents believe that international leadership is indivisible and needs to be provided by one country only, US respondents reject this idea, implying that several countries can be international leaders at the same time. Counterintuitively, more than two-thirds of the respondents in both surveys believe that other countries should help a declining leader fulfill its role and take its place. Whether China or the European countries decide to go one way or the other will have palpable consequences for the abdicating United States and for the rest of the world.
Unsurprisingly, we also find that Chinese respondents tend to consider China more of an international leader than US respondents do. The same is true for US respondents regarding the United States. Respondents in both countries are in remarkable agreement when it comes to ranking the US, China, and the other G7 countries in terms of their relative power. However, while 71 and 37% of Chinese respondents believe that China and Russia, respectively, can lead, only 23 and 11% of the US respondents agree. Instead, US respondents have much more faith in the leadership of the UK, Germany, France, Japan, and Canada than to their Chinese counterparts.
The rest of this article is organized as follows. In Sect. 2, we survey the existing literature by summarizing the main theories of international leadership and the relevance of domestic audiences, stating the alternative theories of international leadership we will be investigating. In Sect. 3, we discuss the survey questionnaire and the questions designed to tap into public views and perceptions of international leadership. In Sect. 4, we provide details about participant recruitment in China and the United States. In Sect. 5, we present and discuss the most relevant findings, in light of the prevailing and alternative theories of international leadership. The final section concludes.
2 Literature Review
According to Northouse (2010), leadership is a process that is concerned with influence, occurs within a group context, and involves goal attainment. The fact that leadership occurs within a group suggests a fundamental role played by the interests of followers, independently—at least in principle—of the material resources of the leader (Weiner 1995). There is a diffuse consensus that international leadership is mainly about two things: facilitating the solution of collective action problems (Tallberg 2010) and providing public goods in specific issue areas (Ikenberry 1996; Arce 2001). In other words, such leadership is not just about power and the self-interested purpose of attaining material gains (Ikenberry 1996) but entails leading the international community in solving global issues that can include, but are not limited to: political and economic stability, environmental protection, and transnational terrorism.
A very influential typology suggested by Ikenberry (1996) distinguished three types of leadership: structural—based on material power; institutional—based on rules and procedures; and situational—based on individual actors and specific actions. This view has since been contested. More recent categorizations of leadership tend to focus on two types only: structural leadership, based on material power, and behavioral leadership, based on actual actions (Helms 2014). This typology is closer to the Northouse’s (2010) definition, with an emphasis on the relationship between leaders and followers, and highlights the capacity of the leader to transform its resources into the ability to lead while others are willing to follow (Lucarelli 2014).
The emphasis on the followers means a country’s superiority in terms of material capabilities alone does not automatically translate into leadership (Helms 2014), because the latter needs purpose around which followers rally (Destradi 2010). In other words, there can be some form of power that comes from ideas even when the country may lack the power of position (Schmidt 2010). A prime example is soft power, the ability of a country to persuade others to follow by setting examples without having to resort to force or coercion (Nye 2004). According to Arce (2001), leading by example stabilizes the system and produces efficient outcomes with minimal transaction costs. In addition to soft power, Vu (2017) urges us to look at “leadership projects,” namely projects in which resources are mobilized by the leader to achieve a common goal (which could be inclusive or extractive in nature). Leadership projects are relevant for the response they elicit from followers—they follow or do not.
Empirically, however, few studies carefully and systematically try to gauge the causes or effects of international leadership, whether concerning formal or informal international leadership (for one exception on formal leadership, see Tallberg 2010). This may be due to the nature of the topic and its debated boundaries, especially with respect to hegemony.
According to the international relations literature, it is not always clear how to distinguish in practice a leader from a hegemon. For Destradi (2010), whose typology is based on Ikenberry and Kupchan (1990), the main difference concerns not the means (both may use coercion) but the end: a hegemon’s goals are primarily self-interested, while a leader’s goals are generally of a more collective nature. In practice, however, these may be difficult to distinguish: if collective goals advance the interests of the leader more than anybody else’s, is that hegemony? This goes back somewhat to the classic argument by Gilpin (1981), according to whom hegemonic states provide public goods but then recuperate some of the costs from non-hegemonic states.
In the economic sphere, Lake (1993) argues that the difference is between the maintenance of the international economic infrastructure (leadership) versus the maintenance of economic openness (hegemony). While for Kindleberger, a single leader is necessary to provide the public good of international stability, Lake (1993) argues that a single leader is neither necessary nor sufficient for the provision of an international public good. Note that free trade is not a public good (excludable and rival), which makes the argument consistent with the definition of international leadership in terms of public good provision. Along the same lines, Ikenberry (1996), who agrees that America’s relative material capabilities and power position has been declining, nonetheless argues that this does not impact its current international leadership.
An alternative to the hegemonic stability theory and its variants is the proposal by Gallarotti (2005), who argues that secondary powers can serve important leadership functions even if they have a primary interest in their domestic politics over foreign policy. He refers to the leadership functions of the Bank of France as a “limited lender of first resort” under the classical gold standard (1880–1914), even though Great Britain was the undisputed leader and hegemon. He argues that leadership is more relevant than hegemony as a concept in international relations, because it occurs more often than hegemony.
Even if we can agree on the definition of international leadership and set aside its difference from hegemony, a more controversial question is the relationship between secondary powers (some of which are potential future leaders) and the current leader. When an international leader (or hegemon) is in decline, either unable or unwilling to take on its leadership responsibilities, will it be in the interests of other states to bear the costs of supporting the system? This question has never been more relevant than in today’s world. Some argue China is in a good position to lead (Acharya 2011; Beeson 2013); others believe that the US can still lead (Brainard and Lipton 2008). Still others argue that countries such as Japan and Germany could be a viable option to take on leadership roles if they were willing to bear the costs—for example, by opening their markets to foreign competitors (Ikenberry 1996).
It may well be the case that we are transitioning into a world of collective leadership, with different countries taking on leadership roles in different issue areas. As the number of potential international leaders increases, it may be appropriate to ask how to recognize a global leader, as opposed to a hegemon or other kind of influential actors (Helms 2014). The key is followership. Followers may indeed be as important for leadership as the leaders themselves, or even more, when looked at from a historical perspective (Kellerman 2008). Clark (2011) argues that the potential succession from the US to China as an international leader will depend more on the followers than on material capabilities.
Yan (2011) has argued that the evolution of international norms is determined by both international and domestic factors. This is also true for international leadership. Surprisingly, the relevance of the domestic context for international leadership has not received much attention in the literature. Not until recently have scholars been probing the role domestic factors play in international outcomes through international leadership (Kaarbo 2015; Lantis 2005). Helms (2014), for example, argues that truly global political leadership overcomes the separation between national and international politics. McCormack (2011) similarly provides historical evidence that US leadership after WWII was based on the domestic context in European countries at that time—not on the international position of the USSR. International leadership “must begin at home,” it must be rooted in domestic politics. In this light, it seems cogent to look at the domestic constituencies of the United States and China in particular, given the emphasis of the leadership literature on these two countries.
3 Research Design
We explore the public’s perceptions on international leadership by fielding two parallel surveys in China and the United States. Practically speaking, public perception of international leadership matters to potential or actual international leaders so long as public opinion may constrain the viable number of options available to decision makers in these countries (Shirk 2007; Helms 2014). Recent evidence suggests this is the case for both the United States (Carson 2016) and China (Steinberg and O’Hanlon 2015). There is also evidence that the public is aware of its relevance, direct or indirect, for foreign policy—as are decision makers (Tomz et al. 2017). The literature on audience costs (Fearon 1994; Schultz 2001) further suggests that public opinion could spur governments to action out of concerns for electoral loss (in the case of the US) or regime instability (in the case of China).1
If a country is an international leader, whatever it does is leadership.
If a country shows leadership at any time, it becomes a leader.
Strong international leadership needs to be provided by one country only.
If a country is an international leader, it has a responsibility to maintain international order and stability—bearing the costs.
To be an international leader, a country needs to open its market to foreign goods and capital.
If a country is an international leader, it is up to the country to initiate a relationship with followers.
If a country is a follower, it should initiate a relationship with a country which is a leader.
Even if a country is an international leader, it should always worry about its citizens first and foremost—even at the expense of citizens of other countries.
If the leadership of a country is declining, other countries should help it fulfill its role.
If the leadership of a country is declining, other countries should take its place.
If a country is an international leader, its citizens can limit the viable options the country can pursue internationally.
If a country is an international leader, the viable policies it can pursue domestically increase.
We designed these questions in correspondence to earlier discussions on theories of international leadership, including: whether international leadership can be thought of more as “structural leadership,” based on power, or as “behavioral leadership,” based on actions (Helms 2014); whether international leadership is indivisible or can belong to a group of countries (Lake 1993); who should initiate the leader–follower relationship (Destradi 2010); what the responsibility of the leader is in terms of solving collective action problems and bearing the costs (Ikenberry 1996; Gallarotti 2005); and whether being in a position of international leadership enlarges or shrinks the policy options available to domestic policy makers (Shirk 2007).
In contrast to these stylized and somewhat abstract statements, the second set of questions is more grounded in empirical perceptions. First, we asked respondents: “In your opinion, comparing the United States, China, and the European Union at the moment, who plays more of a leadership role” in five crucial areas of global governance: maintaining international security, protecting the global environment, sustaining the global economy, fighting transnational terrorism, and promoting universal human rights?2 The same question is repeated later in the survey but with a future time frame (“in 10 years”). We then asked respondents to rank China, Russia, and the G7 countries (except Italy) on the basis of their perceived power and asked which of these countries is/are more likely to be followed if leading by example. We used these questions to check whether the most prominent power is always perceived as the leader (Vu 2017). Finally, respondents were asked to rank the importance of five leadership qualities: economic power, military power, number of other countries that follow the leader, number of citizens of other countries that follow the leader, and ability to launch projects that address global problems.
These two sets of questions were asked one after the other. The order was randomized to avoid the potential risk that (1) having been asked about specific countries, the respondents’ theoretical responses would be driven by the countries we presented as possible answers and (2) having been asked about theoretical questions, the respondents’ the empirical responses would be driven by the theoretical options we suggested (i.e., by making a specific respondent think of a specific country). The options presented in the answers were also generally randomized (e.g., the initial list of countries to be ranked) to avoid systematic influences arising from the order. At the end of the survey, respondents were asked a series of standard sociodemographic questions such as age, gender, education, and income.
4 Participant Recruitment
We fielded the surveys simultaneously in China and the United States. We used a market research firm for participant recruitment in China and a crowdsourcing platform in the US. Respondents were randomly drawn from the firm’s/platform’s online subject pool in the two countries. The China survey was in the field between May 30 and June 5, 2017, yielding a total of 713 responses, most of which were collected on May 31. The US survey was in the field between May 28 and June 1, 2017, yielding a total of 501 responses, with nearly all of them collected in the first 2 days.
The average age of our Chinese respondents is 39.1 and 64% are male. The vast majority are Han Chinese (97.3%) and urban residents (87%), based on their household registration status. Over 40% of our respondents come from Beijing (12.4%), Shanghai (18.5%), and Guangdong (12.8%), and no respondents are from Guizhou, Yunnan, Tibet, Qinghai, or Ningxia. More than three-quarters (75.3%) of the respondents have college degrees, and the average number of years of schooling is 15. The median household income reported by the respondents is between 100,000 and 200,000 Yuan; 13.8% of the respondents reported an annual household income less than 30,000 Yuan and 18.3% over 300,000 Yuan. In addition, 38.6% of the respondents work in the state sector and 27.2% are Communist party members. In terms of the knowledge relevant to our study, 91.4% respondents answered that they are very or fairly interested in China’s foreign affairs and that their primary source of news is the Internet and social media.
Our average, US respondents are about 34 years old, with half of the respondents being at least 30 years old. Respondents come from 47 US states or territories; nine of the first 10 most populous states are also the states from which we received the most responses. Over 75% of the surveyed sample has 1 year of college or more. About 50% are self-employed or employed full-time, and they are generally spread across the spectrum of professions. The income distribution is a bit skewed to the right, with about 50% of respondents earning between $10,000 and $60,000 USD a year. The majority of our respondents are Democrats (43%), followed by Independents (27%), and Republicans (16%). Hence, it not surprising that more respondents identified themselves as liberal (59.5%) than conservative (22.5%). More than 65% of the respondents reported dealing with news about international affairs at least once a day. On average, a respondent is also more likely to get her news from online sources rather than radio or the printed newspapers and magazines; social media and discussion with other people are also a relatively frequent source.
Overall, both of our samples represent younger, richer, better informed, and politically more active portions of the Chinese and American populations than the average person. These demographic profiles are similar to online samples drawn in other studies conducted in China (Huang 2015; Tai and Truex 2015; Li and Zeng 2017) and the United States (Huff and Tingley 2015). While recent works in public opinion research confirm that online samples in the US tend to differ from population-based samples on many demographic and political variables (e.g., Berinsky et al. 2012; Clifford and Jerit 2014; Krupnikov and Levine 2014), these same authors also show that researchers can still make credible and generalizable inferences based on online samples. Similarly, in the case of China, a recent study concludes that online samples are more representative of Chinese netizens than of the general population (Li et al. 2017). However, one could argue that they are in fact the more politically attentive segment of Chinese society, who are more likely to express discontent with the government and whose opinions tend to have more influence on policy decision-making (Shirk 2007).
We first examine public perceptions about the theoretical questions on international leadership in the first part of the survey. To do so, we calculate the percentages of responses (“Strongly agree,” “Somewhat agree,” “Somewhat disagree,” “Strongly disagree,” and “Don’t know”) for each statement from the Chinese and American respondents and place them side by side for comparison. We also fit a series of ordered logit models to explore which individual-level factors affect respondent choices.3 In the models for US respondents, we include age, gender, education, income, party affiliation, news readership, source of news, and a measure of political ideology. In the models for Chinese respondents, we include age, gender, education, income, CCP membership, household registration, interest in international affairs, and source of news.
Overall, the above comparisons show considerable similarities in the understanding of international leadership among the Chinese and US respondents, with one notable exception. While Chinese respondents believe that international leadership is indivisible and needs to be provided by one country only, US respondents reject this idea, implying that more countries can be international leaders at the same time. In terms of demographic variables, political ideology is significant in the majority of the models with the US respondents. Conservatives, not surprisingly, are more likely to think about US interests first in responding to the questions, rejecting the notion, for example, that an international leader has a responsibility to maintain international order and stability and to bear the costs in doing so. In the models with the Chinese respondents, the one consistently significant variable (in 10 out of 12 models) is the respondent’s interest in international affairs, and the effect is always positive—that is, more interest in international affairs makes the respondents more likely to agree with the statements.
The perception of EU leadership is also different, with US respondents being more likely than their Chinese counterparts to report the EU as the current international leader across all five areas of global governance, compared to their Chinese counterparts. Notably, US respondents are twice as likely to pick the EU as the international leader in protecting the global environment and four times as likely in promoting universal human rights.
US respondent are more likely to see the US as the international leader in fighting transnational terrorism, maintaining international security, and promoting universal human rights. Interestingly, Chinese respondents are more likely than US respondents to attribute international environmental leadership to the US. About the same percentage of US and Chinese respondents agree that the US is the international leader in global economy—but about twice as many US respondents compared with Chinese are unsure about international leadership in the economic sphere.
In this study, we have explored the Chinese and American publics’ perceptions and views on international leadership in the Trump era. Overall, we find both similarities and differences among the Chinese and US respondents in their understanding of international leadership and perceptions about the current and future landscape in international leadership. Given the increasingly larger role played by public opinion in the foreign policies of both democratic and authoritarian countries, the findings of this study will have important policy implications.
Two more points are worth noting. In the short term, working on international events is like riding the crest of a wave—everything is continually evolving, and it is difficult to keep steady. As we ran the surveys, the US president decided to pull out of the Paris Agreement. This means that both US and Chinese perceptions of US international environmental leadership could have shifted following the event. Researchers may shed light on this aspect in the near future. Our study can provide the baseline against which future studies of international environmental leadership may stack their findings.
In the longer term, our surveys raise questions about secondary powers. Are the preferences of Chinese respondents representative of the peculiarities of China, or are they more representative of the structural condition of an up-and-coming power? Similarly, is the concern of US respondents about leadership project greater than their Chinese counterparts’ due to the US context, or is it part of a structural concern of undisputed hegemons, like the UK under the classical gold standard? Analogously, what about the greater concern of Chinese respondents regarding military power? These kinds of questions will likely require a much longer time frame to answer. The present study can only offer suggestive evidence on them.
Government sometimes may drive public opinion to strengthen its bargaining position (Weiss 2014). The strategic manipulation of public opinion is more likely in China, given the government’s control over information (Keefe 2002); however, the rise of the Internet and social media has made it easier for news to spread and spark online outrage, forcing Chinese leaders to react (Shirk 2014).
Due to political sensitivity, in the Chinese survey “universal human rights” was changed to “global justice.”
For brevity, we only report the key findings from these models. Full estimation results are available upon request.
Concerning environmental leadership, it would be interesting to consider whether news about the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement would change anything in this regard.
For this question, respondents could pick more than one country.
Funding was provided by University of British Columbia's Hampton Research Grant (Grant no. F14-01146).
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