Disappointing the World

Does international enthusiasm for Barack Obama hurt him?

Barack Obama

On the eve of the 2004 U.S. presidential election, my paper, Israel’s Ha’aretz, was one of 10 foreign newspapers that participated in a survey organized by Britain’s Guardian. The question: Who did the world want to be the next president of the United States?

The response, based on identical public opinion polls conducted in the 10 countries, was not very surprising. The world “back[ed] the Democratic challenger by a margin of two to one.” In Canada, 60 percent favored John Kerry, 20 percent George W. Bush. In France, it was 72 percent to 16 percent. In Japan, 51 percent to 30 percent. In South Korea, 68 percent to 18 percent. Russia and Israel were the only countries in which a majority supported a second term for Bush.

Americans were aware of this phenomenon. “By roughly two-to-one (43%-23%), Americans say the decline in respect for the U.S. from other countries represents a major problem,” reported the Pew Research Center just a couple of months before the 2004 vote. Americans recognized the problem, but they rejected the remedy—they went ahead and voted for Bush again.

Apparently, Americans care what the rest of the world thinks about them, but not as much as Kerry would have liked. Or Barack Obama for that matter.

“Many around the world have lost respect for America and the hope that America once gave them. That’s a tragedy,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., when he endorsed Obama in January. In all the articles published by the top-tier presidential candidates in Foreign Affairs, one of the few areas where there was almost unanimous agreement was the need to improve America’s image abroad.

“We need a president who can reintroduce America to the world and reintroduce America to ourselves,” said Leahy. Samantha Power, the Obama adviser who resigned after calling Hillary Clinton a “monster,” told Britain’s Telegraph that “Obama can go door-to-door in Europe and say, ‘Look like you I opposed the war in Iraq but what are we going to do together about Al Qaeda?’ “

Obama supporters can easily find anecdotal data to support their claim that he is the world’s favorite. When the Democratic National Committee decided to hold its first global primary earlier this year, more than 20,000 Democrats in 164 countries cast their ballots, and 66 percent of them voted for Obama. If it’s possible for Americans to be influenced by the opinions of people living in other countries, these voters would arguably be the first to fall.

Reading European newspapers and magazines only reinforces the view that Obama is the world’s favorite candidate. Consider, for example, a recent issue of Germany’s Der Spiegel, whose cover read, “The Messiah Factor: Barack Obama and the Longing for a New America.” America, observed the magazine, “wants to be loved again.” Another German magazine, the Atlantic Times, declared Obama to be “Germany’s favorite politician at the moment.” And a columnist in Portugal wrote that “[d]efinitively, Barack Obama is the candidate of Europe.” Such sentiments are often repeated in conversations with Arab columnists from all across the Middle East. “Obama seems to have the lead among Europeans and Africans,” observed the Wall Street Journal. (It gave China and Mexico to Clinton.)

In 2008, as in 2004, Americans want a president who can heal the image wounds of the Bush era. (According to Pew, a “low regard for President Bush is more heavily correlated with an unfavorability rating for the United States than is any other attitude or opinion tested.”) A poll for World Learning and the Aspen Institute found that “nearly nine in ten Americans (88 percent) believe that it is very important for other countries to have a favorable opinion of Americans.”

Presumably, Obama will be able to use these sentiments both at home, for political purposes, and, if elected, abroad, to achieve his diplomatic goals.

But Americans rarely consider world opinion when choosing their presidents—Reagan was not popular abroad, and he was re-elected; Bush senior was popular in the world when he ran against Clinton in 1992 but not in America; Gore was the world’s favorite in 2000, as was Kerry in 2004.

If he were elected, Obama’s global popularity would be tricky to leverage. Certainly, some of the premises on which his popularity rests would prove to be valid: He might handle Guantanamo better, pay more attention to global warming, speak more softly, and hide the stick—for a while. But doing those things would eventually make it more difficult for him to operate in the world of power politics.

On Iraq, as Samantha Power publicly admitted (and this was the real reason she had to resign), his plan for a quick withdrawal is no more than a “best-case scenario.” On climate change, he can talk the talk, but what exactly can be done is far from clear. And Obama, who’s smart enough to ensure that people do not see him as naive now—hence the talk about bombing terrorists in Pakistan—would surely not want to be thought unsophisticated were he to become president. Tough action would be necessary to prove his seriousness. Six months ago—when I wrote about the Darfur refugee crisis—I mentioned one such incident involving newly elected President Bill Clinton:

After CIA agents visited his house in Arkansas before he was even inaugurated, Clinton had to roll back his criticism of the first Bush administration’s strict policy against accepting refugees from Haiti. The agents presented him with satellite photos that showed tens of thousands of Haitians hacking down houses and trees in anticipation of the new, less restrictive administration.

Obama would face the same dilemma—and probably on more than one issue. If his diplomats or military advisers told him that the Iranians perceived his willingness to talk as a sign of weakness, he might reconsider his pledge to meet with the Iranian president as quickly as he now promises. Maybe when presented with confidential data gathered by eavesdropping on U.S. citizens, he would be less keen to drop all the measures taken by Bush and criticized by the opposition. Maybe his belief that “the United States needs to lead the world in ending this genocide” in Darfur would put him at odds with reality or with some members of the international community.

In each of these cases, Obama would suffer the consequences of high expectations. He would be trapped between the desire to preserve his high standing in the world and the need to act in ways that would erode that standing. Of course—his advisers would argue—it is better to have this political goodwill in the first place. But even if that were true, political goodwill should always be handled delicately. Starting modestly and building up is also an option, sometimes a better one if you aim to keep expectations realistic. (This, I think, is the way John McCain would play his cards internationally.)

High expectations could also hurt Obama domestically. If Americans expect world opinion to become pro-American if Obama wins, they will be disappointed. Opinion polls, especially in Europe, proved way before 9/11 that the world has a low opinion of America’s culture and values and that frustration with its world domination is a cause for hostility. If, on the other hand, Americans perceive Obama as someone who will act to appease world opinion, they might become angry.

So, here is one task Obama will have to shoulder if and when he becomes the nominee (the same holds true for Clinton, albeit to a lesser degree): Prepare the world for disappointment. Yes, popularity in Germany and Egypt can be flattering. Yes, initial cooperation with U.N. Security Council members might be easier than confrontation. Yes, Obama-mania is showing signs of moving beyond America’s borders and becoming a global movement.

Is this a cause for celebration? Maybe in the short term. In the long term, Obama is going to disappoint the world in one of two ways: He could go the Bill Clinton route—that is, having to choose between world popularity and tough realities. Or he could do things the Kerry way and lose to the candidate less favorable in the eyes of the world, prompting, once again, headlines like the one that appeared in Britain’s Daily Mirror the day after the 2004 election: “How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?”