Published on 27 November 2022
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Is the world dividing in two? How people across the globe view China, Russia, and the United States

The ramifications of today’s geopolitical divide are uncertain, but a report on the public opinion towards Russia, China and the West, sheds light on the key role that public opinion plays in drawing the dividing lines.

Leaders from across the world met earlier this month for the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia. Yet while politicians and diplomats attempted to project an image of unity and cohesion, our research shows societies across the globe are coalescing into two opposing blocs.

On one hand, western democracies stand more firmly than ever behind the United States. However, opinions in developing nations are more evenly split, with slightly more people favourable towards China (62%) than towards the US (61%), and even higher margins among countries supported by China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

These are among the key findings of our latest report – A World Divided: Russia, China and the West – in which we examine how public opinion towards the world’s major international powers is evolving in response to recent events, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Global opinion divided over Russia, Western opinion not

As part of our research, we collected and harmonised data from more than 30 survey projects covering 137 countries. We also included surveys fielded since February 2022 across 75 countries, allowing us to track how national publics have reacted to the Ukraine conflict.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in most countries, a majority of the public now views Russia negatively, including almost all western democracies. But more surprising is that attitudes to Russia remain favourable across continental Asia: notably in China, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

Thus if Putin thought that by invading Ukraine, he would divide the West – similar to how countries reacted to earlier actions in Georgia or Crimea – this has been proven wrong. Western public opinion shows little dissent in its support for Ukraine. Rather than divide the West, however, the invasion of Ukraine has produced a new schism between countries – and this divide is a global one.

Origins of the divide

While the war in Ukraine has exacerbated the global divide, it has been a decade in the making. Across a vast span of countries stretching from continental Eurasia through the Middle East to the west of Africa, we find societies that have moved closer to China and Russia. Meanwhile, western democracies are coalescing behind the US – and are being joined in their pro-American stance by middle-to-upper income democracies across South America, Asia-Pacific, and Eastern Europe.

As a result, we find that among the world’s liberal democracies (population of 1.2bn), three-quarters (75%) now hold a negative view of China, and 87% have a negative view of Russia. On the other hand, the inverse holds for the 6.3bn people living in the rest of the world. In these societies, 70% feel positively towards China, and 66% towards Russia. In short, it appears that the world is divided between two opposing camps: a maritime alliance of democracies, anchored by the United States; and a Eurasian bloc of illiberal or autocratic states, led by Russia and China.

Two opposing societal models

Behind the divide in allegiance, there is a more fundamental divide in beliefs and values.

On the one hand, countries leaning towards the United States constitute a “maritime alliance” of societies with an attachment to the free flow of trade and ideas, and the protection of individual rights. These countries include much of Europe, the Americas and Australasia. Large majorities in these countries view the US in a positive light and hold negative attitudes to Russia and China.

The opposing cluster is centred on a “Eurasian bloc” anchored by China and Russia, with links across the continent to Central Asia, Iran and the Arab Middle East, as well as large parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.1 As noted, developing country opinion as a whole has tipped toward being more favourable to China than the US and among the 4.6bn people living in Belt and Road Initiative Countries, almost two-thirds hold a positive view of China, compared to just a quarter (27%) in non-participating countries.

However, this boost in approval across the Global South has come at the cost of a dramatic collapse in support for China in developed nations. Whereas just five years ago, two in five (42%) western citizens held a positive view of China, today the figure is just half that amount (23%).

Russia too has lost its already low support within western democracies. Over the last decade, the proportion of western citizens with a positive view of Russia had already fallen from two in five (39%) to less than a quarter (23%) by the eve of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine – and now stands at just one in eight (12%). Russia’s popularity has also diminished among formerly sympathetic European countries, including Greece (down from 69% to 30% favourable), Hungary (from 45% to 25%) and Italy (from 38% to 14%). Despite Russian efforts at fostering disinformation and ties to extremist parties, the country enjoys little support from within western electorates. However, the real terrain of Russia’s international influence lies outside of the West. 75% of respondents in South Asia, 68% in Francophone Africa, and 62% in Southeast Asia continue to view the country positively in spite of the recent geopolitical developments.

Political and ideological divides

Using this evidence, we suggest that this new cleavage cannot be reduced to simple economic interests or geopolitical convenience. Rather, it follows a clear political and ideological divide. Across the world, our findings show that the strongest predictors of how societies align respective to China or the US are their fundamental values and institutions – including beliefs in freedom of expression, personal choice, and the extent to which democratic institutions are practised and perceived to be legitimate.

Perceived democratic shortcomings are associated with greater public receptivity towards authoritarian powers. Our analysis reveals that a majority of the public is dissatisfied with democratic performance in seven out of ten countries that are majority-favourable to Russia. Meanwhile, most of the public feels positively towards China in three-quarters (73%) of countries where most of the public are dissatisfied with how their democracy is performing. We also find that some electoral democracies struggling with corruption and democratic legitimacy, such as Indonesia, India, and Nigeria, are highly positive about Russia and China.

Thus, it is not too exaggerated to say that we are seeing the emergence of a new “Cold War”. Today’s geopolitical divide finds its basis within politics and political ideology: namely, whether regimes are democratic or authoritarian, and whether societies are liberal or illiberal in their fundamental view of life. The ramifications of today’s geopolitical divide are uncertain, but our report sheds light on the key role that public opinion plays in drawing the dividing lines.

Report: A World Divided: Russia, China and the West

News: War in Ukraine widens global divide in public attitudes to US, China and Russia


1https://www.theguardian.com/cities/ng-interactive/2018/jul/30/what-china-belt-road-initiative-silk-road-explainer

Authors

Han Isha 

Han Isha is an economist with a MA in Public Policy from the University of Cambridge, and a MSc in International Economics, and Accounting and Finance from Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research...

Dr Xavier Romero-Vidal

Research Associate

Xavier Romero-Vidal is a Visiting Scholar at POLIS, studying the drivers of democratic legitimacy across countries and over time. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the Leuphana University...

Dr Roberto Foa

Assistant Professor in Politics and Public Policy

Roberto Stefan Foa is an Assistant Professor in Politics and Public Policy, and Co-Director of the Cambridge Centre for the Future of Democracy. He obtained his BA from the University...

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