What Price Popularity?

1st Nov 2009

Pursuing the favour of global publics has not shown the results President Obama heralded; it may be making things worse.

Barack Obama entered the White House riding a wave of popularity around the world unparalleled in recent political history. His margin of victory among American voters in last November’s presidential election was 6 percentage points; outside the United States, however, Obama was favored over his Republican rival John McCain by huge majorities. Obama himself seized on the global attraction to his candidacy and in July 2008 took an unprecedented break from the campaign trail to embark on a seven-nation tour. Its ostensible purpose was to demonstrate his diplomatic bona fides to voters back home, but it was also meant to give a foretaste of the international goodwill America would enjoy under his presidency. The trip culminated in a speech before an enthusiastic, 200,000-strong crowd in Berlin in which Obama declared himself a “fellow citizen of the world.”

Obama’s dominant foreign-policy promise was that he would work to repair America’s “tarnished image” and improve its “moral stature” around the world, to which so much damage had been done by the two-term presidency of George W. Bush. In his speech at the Democratic National Convention in August 2008, Obama said that, if elected, he would “restore our moral standing so that America is once more the last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future.” This, his supporters insisted, was the foremost national priority.

More than a year later, we can see that this was not merely a rousing campaign trope. Rather, it has proved to be the animating principle of the president’s foreign-policy agenda. In late September, Obama stood up to address heads of state at the United Nations General Assembly. “I am well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world,” he began.

These expectations are not about me. Rather, they are rooted, I believe, in a discontent with a status quo that has allowed us to be increasingly defined by our differences, and outpaced by our problems. But they are also rooted in hope—the hope that real change is possible. . . . I took office at a time when many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust. Part of this was due to misperceptions and misinformation about my country. Part of this was due to opposition to specific policies, and a belief that on certain critical issues, America has acted unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others. And this has fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for collective inaction. . . . We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and our work must begin now.

America, Obama insisted, had already begun to extend its hand in conciliation: “For those who question the character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months.” Obama’s list of particulars included the proposed future shutdown of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, the prohibition of “torture,” the reduction of America’s nuclear arsenal, the decision to have America rejoin multilateral bodies like the UN Human Rights Council it had left in moral disgust, the re-engineering of the Middle East peace process on a more evenhanded basis, and so on. For his steadfast commitment to the letter and spirit of such aims, the president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize only nine months after taking office.

To take the measure of Obama’s ambitious program to alter and improve America’s standing in the world, we should consider its premises. How important should overseas approval be in determining American policy? In what way, and for what precisely, has America been disliked—and by whom? Is it possible to change the world’s opinion of the U.S.? And what might the costs be of doing so?


It is undeniable that America’s global popularity dropped significantly in connection with the Bush administration’s military campaigns in the Middle East and that it has risen substantially in the relatively short span that Obama has served as president. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project—whose annual report of the nearly two dozen most populous and regionally influential countries is the bible of the American internationalist conscience—an average of 71 percent of the populations in the 21 countries surveyed in both 2008 and 2009 said they were “confident” that Obama would “do the right thing” in world affairs. Only 17 percent had expressed such confidence in Bush the previous year. The findings were most dramatic in Western Europe. Positive views of America jumped in Germany from 31 percent in 2008 to 64 percent today, and parallel trends could be seen in Britain, France, and Spain. Overall, 77 percent of Europeans said they “support” Obama’s foreign policy, dwarfing the mere 19 percent that stood behind Bush.

The commonplace opinion that the Bush presidency poisoned a deep well of good feeling toward the U.S. is thus apparently confirmed by hard data. But look more closely. Global attitudes toward America and its declared war on terror had actually begun to sour almost immediately after the initial outburst of sympathy over the September 11 attacks. A poll taken just a week after 9/11 found that only 18 percent of the British, 29 percent of the French, 21 percent of Italians, 17 percent of Germans, and 12 percent of Spaniards supported American military action against countries harboring terrorists. Further, the notion of a world that had united behind America’s just war against al-Qaeda and its Taliban patrons in Afghanistan is a post-Iraq revision of history. In the spring of 2002, a year before the invasion of Iraq, the inaugural Pew survey found that America’s favorability ratings had already fallen into the doldrums. What all this shows is that resentment toward America is deeper, more complex, and has more diverse origins than the oft-cited aversion to the supposedly unilateral and bellicose policies of George W. Bush.

The quest for the love and support of global publics has long been an American liberal aspiration and did seem a panacea of sorts to them, and to others, once the post-9/11 reservoir of sympathy had dried up. The lack of affection for the United States, liberals and leftists were certain, was the result not of the flawed understanding on the part of these global publics but of the parlous behavior of the U.S. government. In 2007, a Democrat-led House Foreign Affairs subcommittee conducted no fewer than 10 separate hearings on the issue of international public-opinion surveys. The chairman, William Delahunt of Massachusetts, summarized the view of his liberal colleagues: “The world thinks that our conscience has indeed left us and that our physical strength has come to be seen not as a source of solace, but as a threat, not as a guarantee of stability and order, but as a source of intimidation, violence and torture.” This notion was the immediate predicate for President Obama’s apologetic overtures to the world—promising in an interview with the al-Arabiya television network just days after assuming office that he would work hard to “restore” the “same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago”; confessing to an audience in France that America had showed “arrogance” by “fail[ing] to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world”; and vowing to make America just one among many nations rather than the unambiguous world leader.


Placing such a high premium on the views of foreigners ineluctably leads to the question of what non-Americans actually consider “the right thing” when it comes to the United States. The data reveal a baleful and at times irrational set of views. In a 2006 Pew survey, a majority of respondents in 13 of 15 countries determined that the American presence in Iraq was of “equal or greater danger to stability in the Middle East than [was] the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” Majorities of Indonesians, Jordanians, Turks, and Egyptians believed that Arabs did not perpetrate the 9/11 attacks. More recently, Pew found that majorities in nearly every country it surveyed desire a full American withdrawal not only from Iraq but from Afghanistan as well. Still larger majorities in every country (except for the U.S. itself) support closing the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.

Another cause of the global confidence in Obama is the expectation that he will be tougher on Israel. “Majorities of the publics of America’s traditional allies who have thought the U.S. favors Israel too much,” Pew reports, “think that Obama will be fair in his dealing with the Palestinians and Israelis.” Of course, “fair” in this analysis means treating both sides—regardless of the legitimacy of their historical claims, past behavior, or present intentions—as interlocutors of equal moral standing. Obama has not disappointed on this front. In a gambit to win the trust of the Muslim and Arab worlds, he has put disproportionate pressure on a steadfast democratic ally to make concessions without receiving equivalent guarantees from its autocratic neighbors.

Surely the reason the American Left invests so much significance in the feelings of the global public is that they are in substantial agreement on many of these issues. A September poll found that 56 percent of Democrats now support an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. American liberals have long opposed the war in Iraq and consider it a great crime against humanity. As for the perfidy of the Bush administration, a 2007 poll found that a full third of Democrats believed it had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks and allowed them to occur. And, of course, it is no secret that liberals have become increasingly disenchanted with Israel, just as Europeans and others have come to view the Jewish state as a force for evil. The American Left shares the conviction that America has become too bullying, too unilateral, too arrogant: the problem is not that we are “misunderstood” overseas but rather that we are understood all too well.


But in fact the amorphous global public is made up of many publics, and they hardly speak in one voice. That only 4 percent of Jewish Israelis, for example, believe that Obama is “pro-Israel” does not trouble the popularity fetishists, who are more concerned with the good wishes of the Muslim street. Yet so far, increasing the pressure on Israel has availed us little. According to the latest Pew survey, America’s favorability rating in the Palestinian territories moved from 13 percent in 2007 to a mere 15 percent in 2009. In Turkey and Pakistan—two Muslim states crucial to American foreign policy—our favorability rating has respectively risen by 2 percent and fallen by 3 percent. Lebanon is the only Muslim country where more people expressed confidence in George Bush than in Osama bin Laden. None of Obama’s acts of penance, from bowing before the King of Saudi Arabia to his ingratiating speech in Cairo, has shaken impressions of the United States among the world’s Muslims to any discernible degree.
Obama’s charm offensive has had no effect in the young democracies of Eastern Europe, which have steadily grown closer to America over the past decade. In Poland, the U.S. favorability rating dropped from 68 percent in the last year of the Bush administration to 67 percent in the latest Pew poll—and that was before the Obama administration announced it would scrap a missile-defense system that the Polish government had risked much political capital to support. Critics of the previous administration often completely ignored the increasingly positive view of the United States in Africa, where President Bush enjoyed widespread popularity for championing anti-AIDS programs. Finally, even in those Western European countries where the president enjoys high international approval ratings, the support does not extend far beyond the man himself: “Views of the U.S. are being driven much more by personal confidence in Obama than by opinions about his specific policies,” Pew reports. “That is, opinions about Obama personally are more associated with views of the U.S. than are judgments of his policies.”


How much of this actually matters? On a certain level, the relevant question should be whether global popularity helps the United States achieve its policy aims. It is all well and good that Americans traveling overseas should have to endure fewer snide comments about their president, but the true worth of popularity is in winning foreign capitals over to the aims of American statecraft, not in making life more pleasant at the George V or at Davos. By that benchmark, the returns thus far have been thin. Despite repeated entreaties, Obama has not been able to secure any meaningful troop commitments from America’s Western European allies for the mission in Afghanistan, to the point where the very future of the mission hangs in jeopardy. The Arab states have been unhelpful, to say the least, in moving the Israeli-Palestinian talks forward. As for anti-terrorism efforts, 24 percent of Pakistanis, 20 percent of Egyptians, 11 percent of Jordanians, and only 10 percent of Palestinians support them today. (Signing a document stating that the United States will no longer “torture,” only to commit ourselves to a policy of rendering foreign terrorism suspects to the care of third-world intelligence services, has, unsurprisingly, not won us new friends in the Muslim world.) The Iranian regime refuses to desist in its enrichment of uranium; despite a recent agreement to allow international inspectors to tour a heretofore hidden facility in Qom, Ahmadinejad bluntly reiterated in September that his regime would “never negotiate” on the issue. Following the president’s appearance at the UN, the New York Times observed that “even as Mr. Obama sought to signal a changed tone in America’s dealings with the world, much of his speech centered on old and intractable issues.”

Far from earning America a more prestigious position in the world, the quest for popularity would exact too costly a price if it became the be-all and end-all of American foreign policy. The United States would no doubt earn higher ratings in global public-opinion polls if it scrapped its alliance with Israel, but doing so would betray a policy rooted in American values and would lose us a vitally important ally in a crucial region. Had President Ronald Reagan failed to deploy Pershing missiles in West Germany in 1983—thereby earning the reflexive “approval” of the vast majority of people living on the western side of the Iron Curtain—the Soviet Union would not have fallen as quickly it did.

More recently, in a bid for popularity in Latin America, Obama rose to the defense of Manuel Zelaya after he was ousted from the presidency of Honduras for trying to extend his term in office in violation of his country’s constitution. Despite the patent illegality of Zelaya’s move, and the opposition of the Honduran Supreme Court, the nation’s attorney general, its human-rights ombudsman, its Congress, and the Catholic Church, what mattered more to the Obama administration was the support for Zelaya on the part of neighboring governments. Never mind that those governments have in recent years fallen under the sway of authoritarian leaders in the mold of Hugo Chavez, Zelaya’s chief patron. Instead of bringing about a peaceful and lawful resolution of the conflict, America’s stance has allowed Zelaya to dig in his heels and exacerbate the crisis. By lining up on the side of Chavez and Cuba’s Raul Castro—who did not repay the favor by dialing down their denunciations of America’s injustices—the reputation of the United States has fallen in the eyes of the region’s beleaguered democrats.

The perils of popularity politics are visible elsewhere. Unable to win support from Russia’s Vladimir Putin (whose soul George W. Bush assured us was benign, in another misbegotten example of personality-driven policy) for sanctions on Iran, the administration canceled a missile-defense shield sited in Poland and the Czech Republic, a longtime bugbear for the Russians. Yet even after this momentous concession, the Russian position did not budge. When the president did go out on a limb—as in his personal visit to Copenhagen to lobby for his hometown, Chicago, to host the 2016 Olympics—he was snubbed by the powers that be before Air Force One could land back in Washington.

We focus on the popularity of the United States and its presidents at the expense of more important measures. Feelings toward America are elastic and shift dramatically in response to the events of the day. In the big picture, things are not bad at all by any reasonable political and historical measure. In 2007, majorities or pluralities in 34 of 46 nations surveyed said that immigrants to America lead better lives than in their country of origin. In 2008, a Reader’s Digest poll found that 52 percent of French citizens “would be interested in moving to America if economic and political barriers were non-existent.” American culture and technology remain without rival in terms of popularity and influence on every continent.

Even the most controversial American actions have had the effect of changing views in a way that benefits the United States and redounds to our national benefit. In 2006, Pew found that “majorities or pluralities in five [of six] Muslim countries said democracy was not appropriate just for the West but could work for them as well.” Perhaps the most telling finding in all the Pew surveys has been the tracking of Muslim support for suicide bombing, which has dropped dramatically since its high in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Across the Muslim world, Pew now finds a widespread revulsion for the tactic; whereas 74 percent of Lebanese supported it in 2002, for instance, only 38 percent do today. On the whole, this trend does not correlate with perceptions of the American president. Support for such extreme terrorism fell under Bush and “has not fallen further in the past year.” The same goes for Muslim views of bin Laden, whose popularity has also decreased substantially since 9/11 but by no significant measure in the period since Obama’s election. One can only hope that this all reflects a larger ferment in the culture of the Middle East.

The pollsters did not study the effect of the American-led liberations of Iraq and Afghanistan and the slow instantiation of representative governments these have had on Muslim public opinion, but it is reasonable to assume that declining support for Osama bin Laden and suicide-bombing among Muslims has something to do with the toll that his tactics have taken on their co-religionists. With the wages of Islamism—and the successes of liberal-democratic alternatives—laid bare for all to see, the ideology is slowly destroying its appeal among Muslims. For that beneficent trend, we have President Bush, far more than President Obama, to thank.

The simple and unwelcome fact is that anti-Americanism existed long before the administration of George W. Bush, remains a potent force around the world today, and will likely survive even the presidency of Barack Obama—however much he believes that it was only in the years immediately preceding his inauguration that “many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust.” In 1945, a Gallup poll found that 54 percent of the French people expressed disfavor with America, this after the United States liberated them from Nazi rule. Anti-Americanism often thrives on a suspicion of capitalism, the exertion of military force, and the natural resentment that a superpower breeds.


The inanity of much anti-Americanism aside, much of it is hopelessly contradictory. The Muslims whose negative views of the United States are so persistent seem to see no inconsistency in their earnest belief that the effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power represented a “war on Muslims” even as the United States has repeatedly risked blood and treasure to save Muslims around the world in places like Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and East Timor. And though Muslims often cite our continued support of dictatorial regimes in the Middle East as a reason for their displeasure with us, it was our removal of a genocidal dictator in Baghdad that drove up our disapproval ratings in the region.

A year after Obama’s election, the fruits of pursuing global popularity at the expense of national interest are evident for all to see. Iran is hurrying toward the creation of a nuclear arsenal. Russia makes intimidating gestures toward neighbors and maintains thousands of troops on sovereign Georgian territory. The Taliban is increasing its attacks on American soldiers. North Korea kidnapped two American citizens, eliciting a groveling apology from Bill Clinton for their trespasses, and then tested a nuclear weapon. Obama’s humble speech at the UN earned cheers from Hugo Chavez (who claimed that he detected the aroma of “hope” at the dais) and Fidel Castro (who applauded Obama for his “courage” in making such a “brave” gesture) but a stinging rebuke from French President Nicolas Sarkozy for slighting the threat of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And it is on the question of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons where the unwillingness to buck world opinion would be most pertinent; a Pew Research poll last month found that 61 percent of Americans would support a military strike to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons should sanctions fail.

The quest for global popularity does matter in one vital sense: its effect on those who long for its attainment. That the United States is more popular than it was last year is almost entirely a reflection of the promises made by Barack Obama, and by his comportment and attitude. But if the loudest foreign publics overwhelmingly hold positions whose implications adversely affect American national interests, how can we ever hope to change their views about the United States—other than by following their radical prescriptions? One would think it did not need saying, but our president should be guided by the national interests and universal ideals of the nation that elected him, not those of the transnational constituency whose favor he so desperately seeks.

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