March 31, 2009

Obama Unlikely to Find a Quick Fix for U.S. Global Image

by Andrew Kohut, President, Pew Research Center

As Barack Obama travels through Europe on his first overseas trip as president, keep your expectations modest that this is the beginning of a major revival of America’s global image. No question that Barack Obama has a great personal following around the world, especially in comparison with President Bush. But to restore the global image of the nation he now leads, the new president must overcome a number of fundamental criticisms. And issues arising from the global economic crisis and other world problems on Obama’s agenda seem likely to resonate with key criticisms about America’s leadership in the Bush years.

Judging from Pew Research’s interviews with 177,000 people in 55 nations between 2002 and 2008, topping the list of carryover complaints is the charge that America too often acts unilaterally: that it doesn’t take into account the interests of other nations in formulating policy. Closely linked to this critique is the view that the United States relies too much on military force to deal with international conflicts.

Another consistent and prevalent criticism has been that the U.S. does too little to address world problems, and what it does do has widened the global gulf between rich and poor. On matters ranging from promotion of democracy to globalization to international security, the rest of the world became openly skeptical of America’s word and intentions over most of this decade.

Although a good deal of this global hardening of attitudes was aimed directly at President Bush and his policies, the animus amounted to something larger than a thumbs down on the-then-occupant of the White House. Simply put, much of the world came to fear and resent the unrivaled power of that worrisome colossus, the United States.

While President Obama has been extremely popular personally, his international agenda may not be, given the global mindset about the U.S. Take for example his desire to gain more European support for the war in Afghanistan. In 2008 most Europeans surveyed by Pew Research, save the British, favored withdrawing NATO troops from that country. An American president urging reluctant Europeans to use force is hardly likely to allay concerns about U.S. militarism.

Then there is Obama’s economic stimulus plan encouraging consumer spending and entailing greatly increased budget deficits. This apparently strikes at least some European leaders as reckless. The new president’s efforts to sell this policy approach may well feed into the prevailing notion of the U.S. going its own way in dealing with mega international problems.

Even more importantly, blaming the U.S. for the global recession may well resonate with the broader complaint about America’s power and influence. Pew Research surveys in 2008 found publics all around the world believing that the American economy exerted considerable influence on their nations’ own economies. And the verdict, even before the severe economic meltdown, in most countries was that the U.S. economy was responsible for slumping economic conditions. And that was before the real slump!

When asked about improving the image of America at his press conference last week, the president said that he had not looked at recent polling. In fact, not much polling has been done, as more time is needed for people around the world to have a sense of Obama the president, as opposed to Obama the candidate.

But from this perspective, while it seems likely that other nations will, in general, react favorably to Obama’s style and more conciliatory approach compared with President Bush, that will only go so far and so long in changing minds about what America stands for and its global leadership. In the end, actions — and their consequences — will resonate more widely and strongly than words.