Where people want to go: In almost every nation, citizens prefer the US

This is according to a new multi-country survey which reveals stark disparities in attitudes about future world order.

A majority of South Africans still see the United States or countries in the European Union (EU) as places they would like to live, while a majority also feel they would like to see China playing a greater role in the economy of this country.

This is according to a new multi-country survey for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), which reveals stark disparities in attitudes about future world order.

As many as 47% of American citizens are “pessimistic” about the future of their country, in contrast to the widespread optimism in emerging powers, including India (where 86% expressed optimism), Indonesia (74%), China (69%), Russia (54%) and Brazil (40%).

In SA, opinions on this matter are divided – with one-third optimistic (33%), another third pessimistic (34%), about the future of their country.

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Globally, the appeal of the West – and its leadership and values – are still held in high regard. In almost every country surveyed, citizens have a preference to work with the US over China on a wide range of issues.

The single exception is on trade – where large numbers indicated a preference for greater collaborations with China than with the US.

This sentiment is strong in SA, with 60% of respondents expressing a preference for closer trade ties with China over the US. Large numbers of citizens, particularly in middle and emerging powers, are warm to the idea of greater Chinese economic activity in their country – with this view most pronounced in Russia (74% of respondents), Saudi Arabia (60%), Indonesia (53%) and Turkey (50%).


However, on security, the picture is different, with many leaning towards the leadership of the US; and, as a preferred place to live, to Europe.

The poll also shows four in 10 respondents, outside Europe, believe the EU will fall apart in the next 20 years – with many appearing to tie its fate to the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war.

South Africans are divided on this subject, with 40% considering the EU likely to fall apart against 50% thinking it unlikely.

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The survey – conducted by the ECFR in cooperation with Oxford University’s European in a Changing World project – comes against the background of conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, and a major bilateral meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping this week.

The ECFR survey pulls on Gallup International Association survey data in the US, China, India, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, SA, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and South Korea, as well as Datapraxis, YouGov and Norstat data in 11 European countries.

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It reveals that, while Western soft power (understood as the attractiveness, both of a way of life and of a set of values) is still popular on a global level, respondents are split across other areas of engagement with the West, especially on trade and China’s economic presence in their country.

It found that, on average, just 5% of citizens from non-Western countries would choose to live in China, given the opportunity, compared to 56% selecting the US or a country within the EU.

It also found, if forced to pick a side, respondents in almost every country surveyed (except for Russia) would prefer to cooperate with an US-led bloc rather than one headed by China.

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Human rights

And there remains strong alignment with the West on human rights – with majorities in South Korea (75%), India (64%), Brazil (62%), SA (54%), and Turkey (51%) noting that they are closer on this subject to Washington than Beijing; and with this also a prevailing view in Saudi Arabia (47%).

A fracturing of the bipolar order is also reflected in public attitudes towards the war in Ukraine. ECFR dataset shows that this conflict is determining, and even existential, for the West – with pluralities of, on average, 33% in Europe and 42% in the US supporting the view that Ukraine needs to regain all its territory, even if it means a longer war and more human cost.

As a matter of comparison, fewer people in the West hold an alternative view that the war should end as soon as possible – even if that means Ukraine giving up parts of its territory.

Russia-Ukraine war

However, in non-Western countries, the prevailing view is that the war should end as soon as possible – even if it means Ukraine ceding land to Russia.

Similarly, in a disconnect with the West, of those surveyed beyond the US and Europe, many express the view that the US is already at war with Russia, as if the war in Ukraine was a proxy conflict.

The strongest preference to live in Russia or China, taken together, came from South Africa, where a minority, 16%, expressed this view – against 65%, who would choose EU countries or the US.

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