Commentary Magazine


The Global Popularity Fetish

In the spring of 2008, during the waning months of the Bush years, I was among a group of journalists, think tankers, and former government officials who met in a swank restaurant abutting the Potomac in Georgetown, on the dime of a well-endowed Washington think tank, for a discussion about America’s “standing” in the world. Data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project was shared with us that evening, and the results were far from reassuring. Fewer than 25 percent of people in Egypt, Jordan, and Pakistan expressed positive opinions of the United States; only 12 percent of Turks viewed America favorably. Sixty percent of Pakistanis said they considered the United States “more of an enemy” than “more of a friend.” Mostly, if not entirely, responsible for these negative views, we were told, were the policies and person of President George W. Bush. 

The release of a Pew report is met with widespread gravity and deference in Washington; “global attitudes” carry an almost oracular power. A seemingly endless series of panel discussions, NPR interviews, and newspaper columns are produced about Pew and other assorted international poll findings, with journalists and experts intoning on why international perceptions of the United States have improved or worsened and what the country can do to better the numbers. 

A young journalist who had just completed a reporting trip around the world, and who could provide the sort of on-the-ground anecdotes of America’s lost prestige that a dry poll analyst could only hope to relate, took the podium. If there was one story from his travels that encapsulated the consequences of the Bush administration’s international belligerence, the young journalist said, it was the encounter he had had with a bouncer at a trendy Berlin nightclub. Having waited an interminable length of time behind the velvet rope, our faithful correspondent finally approached the entrance and struck up a conversation with the doorman, who asked the visitor where he was from.

When the journalist replied “America,” he reported, the bouncer sighed and answered, “America isn’t cool anymore.”

What the Berlin bouncer’s reasons were for thinking that America had lost its cool, or why he was someone to be considered a reliable arbiter of such a commodity, or what “cool” even meant in this context—none of these questions was addressed. But the anecdote was related to the enraptured assembly as if it were proof positive of the case for Barack Obama over John McCain.

The American obsession with how we are viewed abroad is unique—and not altogether lamentable. It is logical that the world’s sole superpower would be more concerned about its international perception than would, say, Ghana. And it imposes a particular burden on American policymakers. After all, anxiety over the opinion of people in other countries is next to nonexistent in the minds of the men who work in the Kremlin or the senior figures of the Chinese Communist Party. A lack of concern about global attitudes is not limited to authoritarians. It’s hard to imagine a French president giving more than a moment’s thought to how a foreign audience would perceive policies pursed  for raisons d’état, and even more difficult to imagine the French press fretting about how the Quai d’Orsay’s support for a vicious client dictator in a former French colony might play out in the United Nations General Assembly. The money, effort, and attention devoted to the Pew polls are, in many ways, marks of a responsible world power. 

But faith in the importance of global opinion reached a near comic height in the months leading up to the election of Barack Obama, whose case for the presidency owed a great deal to a worldwide popularity that seemed unparalleled in the annals of American politics. The stature of the United States had been brought so low by the Bush administration’s “swaggering” foreign policy that only the biracial Illinois senator who was the son of a Kenyan economist and who had spent formative years of his life in Indonesia could “restore America’s place in the world,” as an Obama campaign advertisement promised. 

In July 2008, soon after becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee, Obama undertook a three-country tour of European capitals—an unprecedented move in American presidential politics. “Europe can scarcely contain itself,” Philip Stephens of the Financial Times wrote about the prospect of Obama’s election. While Democrats tend to be more popular abroad anyway, it was not just Obama’s party affiliation that won him so much love from foreigners; Pew found Obama beating his then primary opponent Hillary Clinton among the British, French, Germans, and Spaniards, all of whom were more familiar with the former first lady. Clearly, there was something special about this candidate who would fundamentally alter the course of American foreign policy and the country’s place in the world. Surely, he would alter the opinion of that bouncer in Berlin; surely, with Obama’s guidance, America would once again be cool.

Now that four years have passed since that overseas jaunt, let us reassess two crucial propositions the president and his supporters made with regard to the international standing of the United States: that the popularity of policies abroad should significantly factor into American decision-making and that Barack Obama is uniquely suited to change perceptions of the United States for the better. Neither has worked out
as promised.

_____________ 

The story that Barack Obama was a worldwide figure of admiration and wonderment was, even then, overshadowed by several inconvenient facts. A July 2008 Pew report plainly found that, while the Democratic candidate was more popular than his Republican challenger around the world, there existed “no Obamamania in the Middle East.” Only 29 percent of Turks, 25 percent of Egyptians, and 19 percent of Jordanians agreed with the statement that a new president—Republican or Democrat—“will change U.S. foreign policy for the better.” These numbers were far lower than in other parts of the world, where most people were optimistic that a President Obama would reorient the United States toward the wishes of the nebulous “international community.” 

And yet it was precisely the idea that Obama could restore America’s standing in the Arab street that made his candidacy so attractive. Obama himself appeared to make this category mistake as well. He focused his early foreign-policy efforts on winning over the hearts and minds of Arabs and Muslims, whose collective honor had supposedly been so gravely offended by the Bush administration. The campaign began immediately after Obama took office with an exclusive interview with the Saudi-owned, pan-Arabist television network al-Arabiya in which he promised to “restore” the “same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.” Other, more concrete steps were meant to boost America’s likability among Muslims: namely, a series of speeches in Ankara and Cairo, a promise to close Guantánamo Bay prison, a more confrontational stance with Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue, greater reliance on the United Nations and other multilateral institutions, and a general promise to act more “humbly” in world affairs.

Initially, these moves seemed to work. In July 2009, Pew found that “in many countries opinions of the United States are now about as positive as they were at the beginning of the decade before George W. Bush took office.” Later that year, Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, for “creat[ing] a new climate in international politics” whereby “multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play.”

Obama delivered utopian speeches pledging to realize a world without nuclear weapons, solemnly citing America’s implicitly shameful distinction of being the only country to have used one. This vision, no matter how fantastical, was met with widespread approval by the European elite and Third World political leaders for its implied dig at American global hegemony.

And yet, and yet: The same July 2009 Pew poll that registered such dramatic increases in favorable attitudes toward America found that “opinions of the U.S. among Muslims in the Middle East remain largely unfavorable,” much as they had throughout the dreaded and dreadful Bush administration.

Even with that sobering piece of data, it must come as a shock to the president and his supporters—both at home and abroad—that the United States is now more unpopular across the expanse of the Arab and Muslim world than it was during the Bush administration. But so it is. In June, Pew surveyed public opinion in six majority-Muslim nations: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey, and Pakistan. In four of these nations—Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Pakistan—favorable feelings toward the United States (already incredibly low) have slipped even further. For instance, whereas 19 percent of Pakistanis expressed favorable views of America at the end of the Bush administration, only 12 percent do so now. On the whole, Pew found a 10 percent decrease in U.S. favorability among citizens in Muslim countries over the course of the Obama administration. 

It is not only the Muslim world that is disappointed with Obama. A plurality of citizens in the world’s largest country would be happy to see him leave the White House. Thirty-one percent of the Chinese population supports Obama’s reelection, and 39 percent opposes it. This might seem strange given that Republican candidate Mitt Romney has criticized Obama for being soft on China and has gone so far as to pledge that he would declare China a currency manipulator were he to win in November. Chinese negativity toward Obama’s reelection seems to hinge more on dissatisfaction with his presidency (no doubt a function of Chinese domestic propaganda, which invariably paints any American president as rapacious and threatening to Chinese national interests) than on any particularly favorable feeling toward his Republican opponent.

The bright spot for the president is Europe, which reacted most enthusiastically to his election, and whose citizens remain positively inclined toward him. While Pew found a modest decline in favorable attitudes toward Obama (and the United States) on the continent over the four years since he took office, “attitudes toward the U.S. are generally more positive today than in 2008,” the final year of the Bush administration. The greatest overall change was registered in France, where favorable attitudes toward America jumped from 42 percent in 2008 to 69 percent today. Japan, where 72 percent of people report favorable feelings toward the United States, also witnessed a significant jump, due largely to the delivery of American aid following the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year. 

The Global Attitudes polls tell us several important things about international popularity. Surely, it ought to strike the president’s supporters as significant that the man who was touted as possessing a singular claim on the world’s hearts and minds has brought his country to even lower standing among Muslims than did his predecessor, so widely (and wrongly) derided as having “waged war on Islam” itself. More than anything, these results demonstrate that anti-American attitudes, beliefs, and prejudices are ingrained so deeply in certain societies that it will take generations—and far more than a charismatic president—to alter them for the better.

But Obama’s inability to improve global attitudes toward the United States is not due only to factors beyond his control; he has actively contributed to the situation. The most unpopular policy of the Obama administration internationally has also been its signature counterterrorism tactic: the use of remotely controlled drones to kill suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. Although drone attacks are overwhelmingly popular in the United States with both Democrats and Republicans, in not a single country polled by Pew did a majority of citizens express support for them. Indeed, in 20 of the countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center, a median of 69 percent opposed drone strikes.  Some of the highest opposition was found in Greece (90 percent), Egypt (89 percent), Jordan (85 percent), Turkey (81 percent), Spain (76 percent), Brazil (76 percent), and Japan (75 percent). Tellingly, only in India—which has long contended with violent Muslim extremism aided and abetted by India’s eternal enemy, Pakistan, the site of most drone strikes—do more people support drone strikes than oppose them.

The overwhelming unpopularity of drone attacks, and the way in which they have redounded to the disfavor of both the president and his country, illustrate that the ineluctable realities of being the leader of the free world will always come into conflict with the ideas of the far less powerful and far less responsible “international community.” Even though Obama criticized the notion of American exceptionalism, made a hasty withdrawal from Iraq, and forced a confrontation with a right-wing government in Israel—all things designed, if not in intent then at least in effect, to win plaudits from foreign peoples and governments—none of these were enough for the transnational constituency he and many of his supporters desire to please. Indeed, short of outright sanctioning Israel or condemning it at the United Nations (actions that no American president could take without enduring a widespread and bipartisan backlash), it is difficult to see just what Obama could have done to earn more “confidence” from the Arab or Muslim world.

There is one possible exception, however, to the trend of Muslims’ disenchantment with Obama. Though they have not been polled on the subject, Libyans, I presume, hold highly favorable attitudes toward Obama and the United States—an attack on the American consulate by a handful of radicals last month notwithstanding. This was certainly the attitude I encountered while covering the fall of Tripoli last year, and it’s not hard to understand why: The United States helped depose, albeit while “leading from behind,” the murderous Muammar Qaddafi.

Ironically, then, Obama finds himself most popular with Muslims for the very Bushian action of overthrowing an Islamic dictator.

Despite what his supporters on the left and some of his detractors on the right predicted, Obama was never going to be the pacifist and unquestioningly servile multilateralist that Europeans and some Americans wanted him to be. Barack Obama remains the elected leader of a center-right nation that believes itself to be exceptional in ways confounding to many non-Americans. Polls have repeatedly shown, for instance, that most Americans believe their government should use military means to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon if such action is the option of last resort—a move that would be wildly unpopular around the world, just as the invasion of Iraq was nearly a decade ago. As long as such a disparity in attitude exists between Americans and most of the rest of the world, there will always be a ceiling on the global popularity of an American president and the country he leads. 

Indeed, it is not just drone strikes that have soured the world on Obama and, to some extent, America. According to Bruce Stokes, director of Global Economic Attitudes at Pew, “Among the 20 countries surveyed, there isn’t a single country where at least half the population believes Obama has taken their nation’s interests into account when making foreign policy.” This figure was certainly worse under President Bush, but it is nonetheless notable that the vast majority of people around the world polled on the question continue to believe that the United States is still characterized by that dreaded word unilateralist.

To be sure, these criticisms of the United States are often unfair and contradictory. “The 2009 Pew Global Attitudes survey found that many believed the new American president would act multilaterally, seek international approval before using military force, take a fair approach to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and make progress on climate change,” the 2012 report states. “As the current survey reveals, few now believe he has actually accomplished these things.” 

But this does Obama an injustice when it comes to “act[ing] multilaterally” and “seek[ing] international approval before using military force.” The president did precisely that with regard to the only war initiated under his command: NATO mission Operation Unified Protector, the effort to oust Qaddafi. Obama was reluctant to get the United States involved and only did so after facing pressure from allies Britain and France. The administration’s “leading from behind” policy allowed America’s NATO partners to earn most of the credit for the mission even though it was U.S. logistics expertise and weapons that were mostly responsible for the operation’s success. Nevertheless, despite taking such care to be a multilateralist, Obama is still seen as executing a “unilateralist” foreign policy. 

The president’s supporters argue that the reason for the world’s disenchantment with him is not that he has failed as a leader, but that the world had unrealistically high expectations for him in the fist place. In April, film director Spike Lee bemoaned Obama’s predicament, stating that people erroneously viewed him as “the savior, black Jesus.” This is pretty nervy, considering that these were the same people who told us that electing Obama would improve America’s global standing; if anyone is responsible for grossly exaggerating the international significance of Obama’s election and presidency, it was and is his domestic supporters, who endlessly bemoaned how unpopular George W. Bush had made the United States. (Here’s Lee in 2008: “It’s very simple, you have b.b., Before Barack, a.b. After Barack.?.?.?.?I think it was pre-, de-ordained, whatever you wanna call it. I’m not gonna say it’s God, but this is not a mistake this is happening now. This is not a mistake it’s happening, that he’s here when this country is at its lowest in many, many years.”)

Obama did a good deal of hyping his own transformative abilities, delivering grandiose speeches and making promises that could never be fulfilled. But the earth-shattering potential of an Obama presidency was also accomplished by painting a grossly false picture of the one that preceded it, as Obama and his supporters portrayed the Bush administration as radically out of line with the traditions of American foreign policy. That Obama continued to pursue many of the same policies Bush had inaugurated was proof of how unjust this caricature had been.

The other reason offered for Obama’s inability to improve international views of America is the fierce and uncompromising domestic political opposition that prevented him from pressuring Israel even further into making concessions, kept him from passing more stringent cap-and-trade legislation, and made it impossible to shut down the internationally loathed Guantánamo Bay. Presumably, had Obama been able to act without a pesky Congress or populace, he would have accomplished all these things, thus boosting America’s standing overseas. That apologia is really just an indictment of American democracy itself. 

 _____________

So President Obama is not the wildly popular international leader that so many Americans (and foreigners) assumed he would be. On the contrary, far from improving global attitudes toward America across the board, his seeming similarity to President Bush has made a world already resentful and suspicious of American power even more cynical. After all, if the man who proclaimed himself a “citizen of the world” will carry out drone strikes against suspected terrorists and fail to close Guantánamo Bay, who could do otherwise?

The more important question for Americans remains: Does any of this matter? Bruce Stokes of the Pew Global Attitudes project thinks it does. In a commentary for CNN.com, he flatly declared: “Experience shows that the success or failure of [a president’s] foreign policy may depend, in part, on how it is perceived abroad.” But he provides no evidence to suggest that foreign perceptions of American foreign policy have anything to do with its success or failure. Citing Obama’s enormous popularity with Europeans as a potential stumbling point for a President Romney, Stokes writes: “In the long run, if Romney wins, none of this may matter, as Europeans get to know him. But, in the short run, it could matter. A 2005 Pew Research Center survey found that in Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands, strong majorities said the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush led them to have a less favorable opinion of the United States.”

All right—but so what? Did the British, French, Germans, Spaniards, and Dutch stop buying American products because they were so angry with George W. Bush? Did they cancel vacations to the United States or, more gravely, take up arms against it? 

“A newly elected Romney administration may have to contend with a similar European reaction if the popular Obama is defeated in what will come to a surprise to many of them,” Stokes writes, without ever bothering to say just what that “reaction” consisted of. In fact, following his reelection, Bush continued to work successfully with a variety of European leaders, from the left (Tony Blair) and center-right (Angela Merkel). If there was a leader whose relationship with Bush deteriorated, it was Vladimir Putin, and for good reason. By contrast, Putin essentially endorsed Obama’s candidacy in September, calling him a “very honest man” and rebuking Romney for labeling Russia America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” Of all the global constituencies whose favor the president ought to be seeking, Putin’s should  be near the end of the list.

Four years after he was first elected president, Obama’s global popularity (at least in contrast to his Republican opponent’s), has once again been marshaled as a decisive argument in his favor. Former New Mexico governor and United Nations ambassador Bill Richardson, citing his frequent overseas travels, told CBS’s Face the Nation at the beginning of September that “the international community wants to see this president reelected.” Appeals to the inherent wisdom of the  “international community” are always problematic, since no such constituency exists—but here it was factually in error, considering that a plurality of people in the world’s most populous country, China, opposes Obama’s reelection. But such nitpicking belies the real point, which is that it is Americans who choose their president, not “the international community.” 

To people who obsess about being popular, the persistence of negative attitudes about the United States must be dispiriting. But as in high school, there are things more important than popularity. A foreign policy predicated upon the opinion of “global publics”—whose views are often informed by false or insufficient information and whose values are often entirely different from those of many, if not most, Americans—risks jeopardizing the central role America has played in stabilizing the international order since the end of World War II. The “humility” that foreigners often insist America (and only America) display is really just a call for a greater redistribution of American-generated and -earned wealth, a lessening of American economic competitiveness, and a reduction in American military power, thus ensuring the comparative rise of authoritarian challengers such as Russia and China, not to mention Iran and Venezuela.

A closer look at the polling data, however, reveals some important findings that are often overlooked by those who like to use such surveys for domestic partisan political attacks. In 16 countries polled by Pew in both 2007 and 2012, a median of 65 percent embrace American music, movies, and television today—up six percentage points from five years ago. While much of American popular culture is loathed by many Arabs and Muslims, our way of doing business is not: In the four Arab Muslim-majority countries surveyed by Pew, most people said they think American entrepreneurship is something to emulate. (Not surprisingly, Europeans, with their dying welfare-state model, found little to like in American business practices.) And among the cohort of 18-to-29-year-olds, “American ideas about democracy” are admired by 72 percent of Tunisians, 59 percent of Chinese, 52 percent of Poles, and 51 percent of Lebanese. 

Economic opportunity, cultural liveliness, and a vibrant democracy: These are the American qualities the president of the United States, whoever he will be come November 7, should commit himself to preserving and strengthening. It is only icing on the cake that they happen to be the American qualities the rest of the world admires the most.

About the Author

James Kirchick, based in Berlin, is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to the New Republic.




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