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How Does the International Community Really Feel About Obama?

You can’t argue with success – or can you?  Newly released international opinion polls of the image of the United States bring the good news that global publics continue to view the American president and United States as a country in a favorable light.  The question that has to be asked, though, is whether this improved image is a result of a perceived new direction in American foreign policy – the Obama Doctrine –which could end up weakening American leadership as the sole remaining superpower and American national security.

According to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, Mr. Obama himself remains popular to the point of adulation among West Europeans.  As many as 90 percent of Germans, 87 percent of Frenchmen, 84 percent of Brits expressed a faith in Mr. Obama to do the right thing as an international leader.  It is worth noting, however that in every case, except two countries, some slippage from last years’ numbers were in evidence, suggesting that reality checks are setting in. The two exceptions were Kenya, Obama’s paternal homeland, where his approval rating is up to 94 percent, and interestingly Russia, where, following the START treaty negotiations, 41 percent now express a favorable view of the United States, up by 4 points from last year.  As the Russian government came out of the negotiations with significant concessions from the American side on Missile Defense, this is maybe not so strange.  Not surprisingly, Americans were less enthusiastic.  Like president’s domestic approval ratings, there was a significant downward trend. Last year, 74 percent and this year to 65 percent expressed confidence in the president when it comes to foreign affairs.

The one exception to these glowing attitudes is the Middle East, the centerpiece of the Obama foreign policy thrust when the president came into office.  In major foreign policy addresses, such as the Cairo and the Ghana speeches, Mr. Obama presented much “hope and change,” but has so far failed to produce any measurable results.  As a result, publics of largely Muslim countries continue to look at the United States in negative light.  In both Turkey and Pakistan, two U.S. allies, only 17 percent hold a positive opinion. In Egypt, America’s favorability rating dropped from 27 percent to 17 percent  – the lowest percentage since 2006 when the surveys were first done.

What is it about the Obama Doctrine that has such foreign appeal? Based on the set of strategy documents from the Obama administration released this spring, the National Security Strategy, the Nuclear Posture Review, the National Communications Strategy, and others, it is a strategy  to manage the decline of the United States as a global actor. It emphasizes soft power over hard power, as declining defense budgets and increasing aid budgets suggest. It increases U.S. reliance on international institutions, as in the new rather tame new U.N. sanctions on Iran.  And it seeks to reign in American power to present a more humble international presence, as the president’s numerous acknowledgements of American short-comings regularly remind international audiences.

(It should be noted that the Obama administration does not always adhere to its own doctrinaire pronouncements. In Afghanistan, for instance, U.S. hard power has been increased for now, not diminished. When it comes to trade, the administration seems to have no use at all for international institutions like the WTO or the Doha round of free trade negotiations. And humility flies out the window when the administration is dealing with U.S. allies, like Britain and Israel, who have been getting pretty high-handed treatment.)

For those around the world, particularly in Europe, who believe that the United States needs to be taken down a peg and even presented the severest threat to international peace under President George Bush, the Obama Doctrine is hailed with much approval.  Unfortunately, the renewed popularity of the United States and its president is coming at the expense American global leadership, which will take years to recover.

Helle C. Dale is senior fellow for Public Diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation.


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