The Obama Watch

Obama in the Coils of Foreign Opinion

Obama's courting of world opinion hasn't produced much -- but that would be true of any president.

By 6.28.10

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Pew Research has come out with its latest sampling of international public opinion, espousing the prevailing establishment view: that people in foreign countries like Obama and as a result like the United States -- although perhaps not as much as a year ago -- and that such opinion benefits us, especially in comparison with the era of George W. Bush.

Pew's own press release declared "Obama More Popular Abroad than at Home, Global Image of U.S. Continues to Benefit." The New York Times story dutifully quoted Johannes Thimm, described as an expert on American foreign policy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, that "…it's remarkable that the general bounce back from the Bush administration in the negative standing of the United States has held up."

What is one to make of this apparently scientific polling? Not much. If Pew had chosen to look at polls going back decades -- Pew only started global polling ten years ago -- it could have explained that new presidents frequently get higher favorability ratings for the U.S. than their predecessors and that such ratings decline as the general dislike for the United States as a super power asserts itself. Pew's surveys show that U.S. favorability ratings are higher today than at the end of Bush's term, but other Pew surveys show that the U.S. favorability ratings today, in Obama's second year in office, are roughly the same as in 2002, Bush's second year in office. While favorable attitudes towards the U.S., according to Pew, are today slightly higher than in 2002 for France, Germany, Lebanon, South Korea and Kenya, they are actually lower for Great Britain, Russia, Turkey, Japan, and Mexico. Local surveys in Israel show that Obama is very unpopular in that country; but Pew, which previously has included Israel in its surveys, did not include it in the new one.

What international opinion pollsters rarely point out is that attitudes towards the United States have generally been low since we emerged as a superpower in the 1920s. (Admittedly, polling wasn't as scientific back then.) The only historic exceptions are where the public detests a dictatorship and looks to America as the exemplar of freedom, as Poles did in the communist era, or where we have defeated and then treated generously a country after war, for example, Germany and Japan.

There may be upticks in the first few months of new administrations, when foreigners, like Americans, welcome new Presidents. And yes, there are downticks when the American superpower takes military initiatives, for example, in Vietnam and Iraq. But overall opinion of us remains surprisingly and consistently low, particularly among the beneficiaries of American help.

The current hostile reaction of the Pakistani public to American largesse is not too different from the reaction of the European public after the United States helped win World War One with both troops and loans. This is when denunciations against "American imperialism" came into vogue, leading Will Rogers to say that "The only way we could get in worse would be to help them win another war."

We soon did that, and Gallup Surveys show that by 1945, the favorable French opinion of the isolationist America recorded in the 1930s, was sinking again. The advent of economic aid under the Marshall Plan did not change negative opinion toward us and Field Marshall Montgomery offered a worried Secretary of State Dean Acheson a simple explanation: "your handing out all these gifts." The public of most countries resent a liberator or occupier, a creditor or aid giver, no matter how beneficial or benign the "helper" may be, although this doesn't mean that such help isn't in America's self interest.

That Pew or other opinion firms believe that President Obama has ushered in favorable attitudes towards the United States should not concern us except that the President, himself, seems to place great stock in such perceptions. He was the first President to campaign abroad, drawing rapturous crowds from Berlin to Paris to London. And during his first year in office he proudly boasted about U.S. foreign opinion ratings, while disclaiming that he read such surveys. His speeches to the world have courted public opinion.

A President that makes policy based not on our own interests and ideals but on foreign opinion would certainly be different. Perhaps some of our decisions would be better, although many, I suspect, would be worse. We would have hesitated about liberating France, abandoned the Marshall Plan, and softened our stance towards the Soviets. We would have gotten into Iraq and Afghanistan -- and then quickly gotten out. Obviously we would have ditched our alliance with Israel long ago.

One thing is certain: that appealing to foreign opinion does not necessarily mean that the particular foreign government will pursue policies more favorable to the U.S., unless we use that opinion to bring about regime change in a democratic direction. Iran is the prime example. Even in more democratic countries, studies show that governments are less inclined to follow public opinion in foreign than in domestic affairs.

It is hard to see where Obama's courting of world opinion has produced much. Pledging to close Guantanamo was popular, but it did not move foreign governments to take more Guantanamo prisoners or send more troops to help us in Afghanistan. Pledging to push nuclear disarmament was popular too, but aside from some reductions by Russia and the United States that don't alter Russia's capacity to destroy us, no nation has offered to eliminate or sharply reduce its stockpile. Other nations do what we want when it is in their own interest.

Foreign opinion may be of modest use in deciding how to implement a U.S. strategy. It is important to know that Afghani opinion overwhelmingly rejects the Taliban while distrusting its own government.

Used properly, such surveys may be of limited help to American Presidents in pursuing our interests and ideals. The question remains as to whether President Obama understands these limits.

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About the Author

John R. Miller, a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at Berkeley and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, occasionally writes about foreign opinion and U.S. foreign policy.