What worries the world?
According to a new Pew Research Center global poll, transnational challenges supersede superpowers as security threats that most concern citizens. The fear of more-amorphous forces — amid erosion in international institutions tasked with contending with these threats — may be why anxiety about global woes seems so acute across the world.
Sure, Russia, China and the U.S. — three of the eight threats that Pew polled people about across 38 nations — still cause concern. But for the most part, proximity drives the anxiety. “Russia’s power and influence,” for example, tied with “China’s power and influence” at the bottom of the Pew poll, with 31 percent naming each as “a major threat to our country.”
But proximity matters: 65 percent of Poles are worried about Russia, while 83 percent of South Koreans and 80 percent of Vietnamese voice concern over China, the regional behemoth.
In general, geography is a less-consistent factor in America being perceived as a threat, with the exception of Mexico, where President Donald Trump’s calls for a wall separating the two nations may be why 61 percent of Mexicans cite “U.S. power and influence” as a major security threat, while 38 percent of Canadians say the same.
The fact that 35 percent of global respondents expressed anxiety about U.S. power and influence should cause angst among citizens and lawmakers alike that Washington’s policies are perceived more menacingly than those emanating from Moscow and Beijing.
Equally concerning is the apparent alienation of allies such as South Korea and Japan, where 70 percent and 62 percent, respectively, consider U.S. power and influence as a major threat, and in Turkey, a NATO nation where 72 percent say the same about alliance leader America.
Overall, concern over U.S. power and influence ranked sixth. Most notably, the top five perceived security threats weren’t nations, but stateless people (39 percent worldwide cited the “large number of refugees leaving countries such as Iraq and Syria”), global economic conditions (noted by 51 percent worldwide), World Wide Web worries (51 percent perceive “cyberattacks from other countries” as a major threat), “global climate change” (61 percent) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (62 percent), whose military defeats will soon render the “state” more virtual than literal.
Just as proximity to a problem can determine responses about threats from nations, these transnational anxieties prompt different responses, too. Africans and Latin Americans name climate change as their top threat, but some Europeans do, too, including Spaniards and Swedes.
More Europeans are worried about ISIS, however, which is understandable given the horrific high-profile terrorist attacks across the continent in recent years. France, the scene of shocking slaughter on repeated occasions, is most worried about ISIS at 88 percent, compared with a European median of 74 percent.
There are notable European exceptions, however. Hungarians named refugees as their chief concern, despite — or perhaps because of — their government’s hostility to asylum-seekers. More rationally, after years of eurozone crises, Greeks listed the global economy first, reflecting a close association worldwide between perceptions of national economies with worries over global economic conditions.
Here at home, there is more economic confidence (Dow 22,000!), and accordingly global economic concerns rank lower at 37 percent.
But even that relatively low total edged the 36 percent of respondents anxious about refugees, which despite red-hot rhetoric actually ranked lowest on the threat list for Americans. Higher were Russian power and influence (47 percent), which has dominated the U.S. news narrative, and Chinese power and influence (41 percent).
But like the rest of the world, more-asymmetric threats — ISIS (74 percent), cyberattacks (71 percent) and climate change (56 percent) — led the U.S. list. That latter threat may have ranked higher as it does in many nations, but America has by far the biggest ideological split between self-identified right and left respondents in identifying climate change as a major threat. The 55-percentage-point gap (a gulf, really) nearly matches the 46-percentage-point gap in the right-left threat perception of refugees.
These ideological divides may exacerbate anxiety, since solutions are harder to come by when there’s less consensus on the extent — or even existence — of the problem. And because the U.S. historically has led global responses, the domestic divisions may make many worldwide feel less secure.
But another factor may be the very nature of these transnational challenges. Because as scary as nation-states can be, the threat is more definable; indeed, it’s intentionally identifiable in military parades displaying hardware and hardened troops ready to protect and project nation-state strength.
Conversely, ISIS isn’t uniformed, unless black hoods in propaganda videos count. Nor are hackers, often depicted as shadowy figures blurred by screens’ green glow. And bankers in pinstripes don’t seem to drive the global economy as directly as before. Tragically, refugees not only don’t wear uniforms, but they often have only the proverbial and literal shirts on their backs. And climate change, while man-made, isn’t human.
But it, too, is on the march. The global response, however, is less lockstep than needed, which adds to the anxiety. The world would benefit if it could respond to climate change, as well as all of these threats, in a more organized fashion.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.