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Even Americans don't see the U.S. as leader of the free world anymore

When the most powerful nations on earth gather Friday for the annual G-20 summit, they’ll be looking for a new leader to move the world forward: German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

That’s the main takeaway from the Pew Research Center’s annual survey of international attitudes toward the world leaders involved in the G-20. While the president of the United States is generally considered the leader of the free world, the Pew numbers show that’s not the case now, with citizens in only two of 19 G-20 countries — India and Russia — now trusting President Trump more than Merkel to “do the right thing regarding world affairs.”


Citizens of the other 17 countries are looking to Merkel for leadership, particularly Germany, France, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, who held the German chancellor in highest regard (the G-20 includes 19 nations and the EU). Even U.S. citizens have more confidence in Merkel than in Trump, 56 percent to 46 percent, though there are wide differences in perception along party lines. Pew comes up with its numbers by interviewing a sample of at least 1,000 people by phone or in person in each nation.

It’s not a totally unfamiliar position for an American president. A Pew survey taken at the end of George W. Bush’s second term in 2008 showed very little confidence in American leadership, followed by eight years of relatively robust marks for President Barack Obama. But it does put Trump in an awkward spot as second fiddle to Merkel in the West and perhaps Chinese President Xi Jinping on the world stage as the gathering begins on Friday.

“Not only does President Trump clearly have a lesser understanding of the world and its problems than his predecessor, he has presented no clear policy frameworks for the world to understand where he would like to go,” Thomas Bernes, a career foreign service officer for Canada and a distinguished Fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation, told VICE News. “The result is a global policy vacuum.”

In addition, Bernes said, Trump’s lack of appointments in his senior administration “leaves the world with very few officials to talk to.”

Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord as well as his skepticism of international trade agreements — two topics sure to be discussed at the G-20 — have met with widespread opposition from countries attending. Trump has reportedly told advisers he’s more concerned about being scolded by Merkel for pulling out of Paris than he is about his meeting with Vladimir Putin.

“Many leaders around the world who have looked to the U.S. historically for leadership are coming to the conclusion that they will now have to rely more on themselves, individually and collectively, to manage common problems,” Richard Caplan, a professor of International Relations at Oxford University who served as a specialist-adviser to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs in the U.K. House of Commons, told VICE News. “We can expect to see more G-20 countries seeking to achieve many of their goals without active U.S. support.”

One of the biggest swings in public opinion between Obama and Trump occurred in Russia. Fifty-three percent of Russians had confidence in Trump, up from a low of 11 percent toward Obama in 2015. But Russian support doesn’t do much for the U.S. and actually further erodes confidence in Trump for his siding with a country whose domestic policies often conflict with those of the G-20.

“Russian confidence in American leadership does nothing to enhance U.S. standing in the world — quite the contrary,” Caplan said. “The U.S. is likely to find its influence in international forums such as the G-20 diminished.”