Does The World Really Think Less Of The U.S. Due To Obama’s Foreign Policy?
There's little evidence for the conservative contention that the President has damaged America's position in the world.
When one listens to Republican criticisms of the President’s foreign policy, a common refrain these days, along with the general criticisms about the President’s weakness in the face of Russia, Iran, and other threats, is the idea that our nation’s image around the world has been diminished thanks to the President’s foreign policy. There is, of course, a large degree of chutzpah in this statement given the fact that, by the end of the Bush Administration, America’s image around the world had declined precipitously thanks to the Iraq War, the Bush Administration’s use of torture in the interrogation of prisoners, and what many around the world saw as the inhumane conditions at the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. Indeed, at least initially, President Obama’s election and Inauguration were greeted in many parts of the world with much acclaim and, in at least some measurable ways, the reputation of the United States around the world did in fact increase.
Since then, conservatives would have us believe, the President’s foreign policy has caused the world to lose respect for the United States, and for dangerous states around the world from North Korea, to Russia, to Iran to take advantage of that fact. To some extent, there does seem to be some truth in this statement, at least as far as the Islamic world is concerned. In that part of the world, the combination of the U.S.’s continued support for Israel and the President’s drone war against al Qaeda and its affiliates has kept public opinion about the United States relatively low. As Peter Beinart notes at The Atlantic, however, a look at the numbers shows that there isn’ t much merit to the contention that America’s image abroad has been damaged by Obama’s policies:
[W]hen Cheney says world opinion is “increasingly negative” and Rove detects “declining confidence” in the United States, it’s hard not to ask the obvious question: compared to when? In fact, while faith in the United States, and in Obama personally, has declined modestly since 2009, it is still dramatically higher than when Cheney and Rove roamed the West Wing.
For more than a decade, the Pew Research Center has been asking people around the world about their opinion of the United States. The upshot: In every region of the globe except the Middle East (where the United States was wildly unpopular under George W. Bush and remains so), America’s favorability is way up since Obama took office. In Spain, approval of the United States is 29 percentage points higher than when Bush left office. In Italy, it’s up 23 points. In Germany and France, it’s 22. With the exception of China, where the numbers have remained flat, the trend is the same in Asia. The U.S. is 19 points more popular in Japan, 24 points more popular in Indonesia, and 28 points more popular in Malaysia. Likewise among the biggest powers in Latin America and Africa: Approval of the United States has risen 19 points in Argentina and 12 points in South Africa. (For some reason, there’s no Bush-era data on this question for Brazil or Nigeria).
In his Hannity interview, Cheney attributed America’s supposedly deteriorating reputation to Obama personally. “If we have a problem with weakness,” he explained, “it’s stemming from the White House.” But, in fact, the guy in the White House retains a personal brand that outshines America’s as a whole. And when you compare global perceptions of Obama to global perceptions of Cheney’s old boss, the gap is jaw-dropping.
Again, the numbers come from Pew, which has been asking people in key countries every year whether they have “confidence” in America’s president to “do the right thing in world affairs.” Obama’s popularity is down since 2009. Still, in Mexico and Argentina, the president’s 2013 numbers (the most recent we have) are 33 percentage points higher than Bush’s in 2008. In South Korea, the margin is 47 points. In Japan, it’s 45 points. In Brazil, it’s 52 points. In Britain, it’s 56 points. In France, it’s 70 points. In Germany, it’s 74 points.
In case you’re reading quickly, 74 points isn’t Obama’s approval rating in Germany. It’s the gap between his approval rating and Bush’s. In George W.’s final year in office, 14 percent of Germans had faith that the president of the United States would do the right thing internationally. Last year, 88 percent did.
And the difference is just as stark when you look at the difference between world public opinion today and during the Bush Administration, as this chart from Pew poll demonstrates:
When you look at numbers then, the argument that President Obama has damaged the standing of the United States around the world doesn’t really seem to hold water. In fact, worldwide public opinion about the United States seems to have improved markedly since the Bush Administration and does not seem to have declined precipitously under Obama. This is somewhat surprising, perhaps, given the generally negative opinion that other nations have regarding the U.S. drone war, and the overwhelmingly negative reaction in Europe to last year’s revelations about National Security Agency spying on European civilians and leaders. Obviously, there are still many countries where the general opinion of the U.S. is negative, but beyond those specific cases there’s simply no support for the contention that Cheney and others have made that the President’s policies have damaged the country.
As Beinert goes on to note, though, the conservative critique of Obama goes beyond the issue of international public opinion:
In his Hannity interview, Cheney cited discussions he’d had with world leaders, who supposedly pine for the Bush era. There may be some. Certainly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would love to turn back the clock to a time when the United States made little effort to midwife a Palestinian state. The Saudis and some other Gulf monarchies might have been happier before the U.S. began serious diplomacy with Iran, since an American-Iranian rapprochement would leave the United States less dependent on them.
But in most of the world, popular opinion influences policy. When Obama wants the assistance of Indonesia or Malaysia or South Africa in fighting jihadists or cracking down on Iranian banks, it helps that their leaders aren’t embarrassed to be seen with him.
Or consider the recent crisis between the West and Russia, in which the United States successfully pushed Germany and Britain to back sanctions aimed at preventing Putin from destabilizing Ukraine, even though those sanctions interfere with Germany and Britain’s lucrative ties to Moscow. There is evidence that those sanctions helped convince Putin to back off.
Could George W. Bush have pushed the Europeans as far? I doubt it. Remember that in 2002, Bush was so unpopular in Germany that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder made his opposition to the Iraq War the centerpiece of his reelection campaign. When Schroeder won, Bush declined to offer him the customary congratulatory phone call. Schroeder’s justice minister compared Bush to Hitler. And to the delight of most Europeans, Germany allied with France to thwart America’s effort to get United Nations support for an invasion of Iraq.
In that environment, would Bush really have managed to convince Berlin to slap sanctions on Russia that cut against Germany’s short-term economic self-interest, as Obama has? I doubt it, because Germans wouldn’t have seen much of a difference between what Putin was doing and what Bush was.
One response to Beinart here that seems fair, of course, is to point out that Bush ended up having a far better relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she came to power in 2005, and the relationship between the United States and Germany improved significantly at that point. At the same time, I suspect that Beinert is correct that, principally because of the Iraq War, Bush would have had difficulty pulling reluctant allies along on an issue like sanctions against Russia. It might not have been impossible, but it most assuredly been much more difficult thanks to the fact that much of the moral credibility that the United States had was squandered on a foolish expedition in Iraq.
There is plenty about President Obama’s foreign policy to be concerned about, and plenty about it that has been less than successful in recent years. However, if we’re talking about the question of whether or not the ability of the United States to work together with the rest of the world to achieve common goals has been harmed or improved over the past five years, the argument that his policies have harmed the influence of the U.S. in world affairs seems to lack any concrete evidence outside of the claims of a former Vice-President who, in all honesty, doesn’t have all that much credibility himself.
H/T: Andrew Sullivan