Europe loves Obama. Does it matter?

By Bernd Debusmann
July 30, 2009

Bernd Debusmann- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Barack Obama’s star may be fading slightly at home but it is still so bright in Europe that  he outshines the leaders of Germany and France in their own  countries, according to a poll that shows a remarkable global  shift in attitudes towards the U.S. since he took office.

The question is: does it matter?

First, the statistics. The latest Pew Global Attitudes  Project, a widely-respected survey that has tracked  anti-Americanism around the world since 2002, polled 26,397  people in 25 nations in May and June and found that the image of  the United States had improved in all but one (Israel),  reflecting, it said, “global confidence in Barack Obama.”

The most dramatic before-and-after-Obama change, from 2008 to 2009, was noted in Britain, France, Germany and Spain. In Germany, 93 percent of those polled expressed confidence in the U.S. president’s leadership compared with 75 percent for German  chancellor Angela Merkel. In France, the score was 91 percent  for Obama and 53 percent for Nicolas Sarkozy.

In 2008, just 31 percent of Germans saw the U.S. in a favourable light. This year: 64 percent. In France, the favourability rating jumped from 42 percent to 75 percent, in Britain from 53 percent to 69 percent and in Spain from 33 percent to 58 percent. In short, “old Europe,” as former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to call it, is head-over-heels in love with Obama.

The reason for this, and the general improvement in the American image, depends on who does the explaining. For former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who co-chairs the board of the Pew project, it is a mixture of “admiration for Obama and  respect for the country that elected him.” Albright is a Democrat.

Former Senator John Danforth, the other co-chairman of the project, says Obama love stems from “telling people what they want to hear” and apologizing for past American actions. In his view neither Obama’s popularity abroad nor a better U.S. image have resulted in concrete actions. Danforth is a Republican.

He and others making that argument underrate the importance of public opinion in international relations but they do have a point: Take Obama’s call on NATO nations to provide more troops  for Afghanistan, for example. 63 percent of the Germans polled are opposed to that, along with 62 percent of French, 51 percent of Britons, and 50 percent of Spaniards.

Similarly, Europeans showered praise on Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo prison but while the European Union has agreed in principle to meet American requests to take some of  the prisoners, there has been no rush to do so.

CAN NICE GUYS WIN?

So, is this a lesson that nice guys don’t win on the foreign policy front? The gap between Obama’s ratings and those of George W. Bush could hardly be bigger. A median of 71 percent in the 2009 survey expressed confidence that Obama will do the right thing in world affairs. Bush last year drew a paltry 17 percent.

Obama has only been in office for six months and he has achieved more in polishing America’s image than a succession of public diplomacy czars who for years attempted to sell Bush’s foreign policies in a more attractive package, much like trying to market the same corn flakes in a new box. Or shining a car to  a high polish and trying to sell it – without an engine.

It didn’t work and failed to stop a relentless slide in America’s international standing from the high of almost universal sympathy for the country immediately after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.  (Memorable post-attack headline in the French daily Le Monde:  “We are all Americans”)

Now there’s a new honeymoon but concrete results of what some call Obamamania may remain elusive in Europe, where it runs strongest, and even more in places where his charisma, brilliant  speeches and brilliant smile have made less of an impression. In Turkey and Pakistan, both countries of key importance for U.S.  foreign policy, negative views of America did not change with  the election of Obama.

If history can serve as a guide, a president’s popularity abroad has limited effect.

The French celebrated John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie  like rock stars when they visited Paris in 1961 but that did  nothing to make President Charles de Gaulle less inclined to act  as a rival to his American counterpart.

Returning to the question of how much a better image matters, Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center,  has part of the answer: “The views of the U.S. are being driven much more by personal confidence in Obama than by opinions about  his specific policies.”

One of these policies, his decision to step up the war in  Afghanistan, which could eventually play as big a role in the  Obama presidency as the Iraq war played in Bush’s, is viewed  with disapproval in most of the countries in the survey.

In the end, it will be the policies that count, not affection for a charismatic leader with a compelling only-in-America life story. Or, as a 19th century European politician, Britain’s Lord Palmerston, put it: nations don’t have eternal friends, they just have interests.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)

29 comments

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Like always great article Mr. Debusmann. This is great! I had no idea that there was so much international support for Obama, even though i figured that it wouldnt hurt that our 44th pres had great iternational prowess and is extremely charming. The only thing that I feel Americans need to realize is that Obama isn’t going to change the U.S. back to normal over night. He has four years to work and so far in his first 6 months I think he has done a great job even if some of the bills being passed arent the most logical for everyone at least he is actively working with congress to make the situation in America better.

Posted by GObama | Report as abusive

Thou shall be judged by your deeds, not by your smiles.
Obama wants to tackle too much and due to his lack of experience he insults policemen because they arrested a black professor who happened to be one of his friends.

Posted by Ricardo | Report as abusive

As an American living in Europe, I recently visited NYC. It was hard not to notice the huge number of French, German, British, and other European tourists (spending money). Okay, maybe the strong Euro helps. But a year ago, when the Euro was even stronger and the economy in Europe was less of a concern than it is today, the general sentiment was that it was a “pain in the behind” to travel to the US. Customs on steriods, hawkish officials, shallow global attitutdes, etc… made for hesitant tourists. What has Obama done for the US in Europe?? Simply very good marketing.

Posted by Michael Kuhns | Report as abusive

Of course they love him -they chose him for us. His rise to the Presidency heralds a dimunition of American influence ,which was their “hope”.

Posted by Patrick in Texas | Report as abusive

Sure Obama is popular abroad. All he has done is tear this Country down and apologize for this Country. He agrees with the entire world, that this Country is derisive and bad, but now that he is in charge, he has promptly given to the world massive amounts of our childrens’ future tax dollars and promised the world leaders that he will bring this Country to its knees and he is doing just that at record speeds. He is placing this Country in danger with his policies, while at the same time his homeland security team is saying that the terrorist that they fear are the home grown ones. Those are the ones that they fear will not go after the people of this Country at large, but will come after them personally because of their selling this Country down the river and purposefully destroying the fiber that this country was built upon. Definately change you can believe in. Internal hate and rage propagated by the commander and chief himself. A Country turned in on itself is one that Obama can rule with an iron fist forever and charge the people massive amounts of money for Obama’s right to do so.

Posted by peanut | Report as abusive

President Obama is head and shoulders above his predecessor in practically every aspect, from domestic policies to foreign affairs. His charisma, his gift of the gab, and his command of facts have enabled America to stand tall again. Obama has been in office for slightly over six months and has conducted himself admirably. Of course the financial crisis has made things more difficult. Given time Obama will come out of the exercise smelling of roses.

This American agrees with the Europeans and who is glad to have Barack Obama in office. The last 8 years have been nothing but a nightmare that we are struggling to put behind us.
The man has only been in office for a few months, lets give him a break.
It makes me nuts when I hear all the bitching and moaning that goes on in regards to healthcare, the wars, the collapse of the financial and housing markets, the loss of jobs, fear of the bogeymean (pick a country). The president inherited this mess, he won’t be able to clean it up over night, and without all of our help.
Yet there are many here in the US that just love to criticize everything that is being done to right these situations. What a spoiled bunch of whiny cry babies we’ve become. Who are we to not apologize for past actions? Please I wish we could be more like Europe.

Watch the attacks after this last remark.

Posted by John LI NY | Report as abusive

John LI NY you have everything completely right. Americans need to learn from other cultures rather than thinking we are number one in everything all the time. I also agree with John that Americans have become whiny babies…If you have a problem it’s one thing but if all your going to do is complain and take no action, then you should just not complain at all.
Also look at how hard Obama is trying to connect Dem. and Rep.! I think this is one of the best things he has been doing as a predsident so far. Even though different political parties do make a lot of sense, why not have them working together to make America the best country it can be, rather than arguing about every bill that is placed in front of them. Because in the end the bills arent written up to make their lives easier! Politicians are the minority that are supposed to be making the American peoples lives easier but all they seem to care about is what will benefit them in the short term.

Posted by GObama | Report as abusive

Patrick in Texas and Peanut with the “His rise to the Presidency heralds a diminution of American influence” message seem to live in some kind of time-warp. Obama’s short presidency to date couldn’t possibly have been responsible for the export of America’s industries, or the entanglement in all the overseas adventures the US has become increasingly mired in. America’s slow decline has been happening for some time now. Personally (as a European) I’d like to see America back up to where it would like to be, but as noted by Peanut the country might be more inclined to rip itself to shreds for some numb-skull, pea-brained doctrine of delusion which revolves around fear and loathing which would be a waste.

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

Patrick in Texas and Peanut with the “His rise to the Presidency heralds a diminution of American influence” message seem to live in some kind of time-warp. Obama’s short presidency to date couldn’t possibly have been responsible for the export of America’s industries, or the entanglement in all the overseas adventures the US has become increasingly mired in. America’s slow decline has been happening for some time now. Personally (as a European) I’d like to see America back up to where it would like to be, but as noted by Peanut the country might be more inclined to rip itself to shreds for some numb-skull, pea-brained doctrine of delusion which revolves around fear and loathing, which would be a waste.

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

I think the comments so far have basically proved the Pew data to be correct. He enjoys much support, and suffers much derision, but its more based on feeling than fact. He is spending massive amounts of money, and the unemployment rate is still rising. Only time will tell if the former fixes the latter. For better or worse, this is “his economy” (his own words). It remains to be seen if he can even be pragmatic enough to consolidate his own political party.

After having joined the ranks of the unemployed, “hope” and “change” (loose change, that is) is all I have to put food on my table. Buyer’s remorse is definitely setting in. I don’t want to live in Europe. If I did, then that’s where I would be. So far, I would have to say he will not get my vote again in 2012.

Posted by Patrick E. | Report as abusive

Asking the question, “Does it matter?” is indicative of the self-centered attitudes that typified the latest Bush regime. George W. didn’t care what people in other countries thought about him, his policies, his government or our nation. Thanks to this insular attitude, our whole country has become more and more isolated from the rest of the world. The events of September 11 brought many countries around to our side, but George W. Bush needed only a few months to lose their support. When France wisely chose not to support our misguided incursion into Iraq, our childish leaders changed French Fries to “Freedom Fries.” The U.S. has become so isolationist that asking the question “Does it matter?” doesn’t even bother us. People in other countries like Barack Obama because they can sense that he respects their countries, something that George W. Bush and his thugs were never able to pull off, because they frankly didn’t care. The answer to the question is “yes, it does matter.”

Posted by TimmyT | Report as abusive

A better question would be:

“If Obama turns out to be a complete failure of a president, will the opinion of Europe really matter?”

Obama was swept into the White House through use of spin. Now he needs to come up with some substance, and quick. Otherwise, the mood of the voters is quickly going to sour.

There are plenty of swing voters who changed their vote based on what Obama promised during his campaign. And those voters might end up being very angry by this time next year if Obama doesn’t deliver.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

The difference between Obama and Bush is like the difference between a broad, honest smile and a contemptuous smirk. In Europe we have our own load of Bushes who cannot conceal their hubris and disdain. Give Obama a break, he’s my kind of guy.

Posted by alfie | Report as abusive

Peanut,
I hope he goes door to door to every Iraqi family who had a family member die and apologizes to their face, won’t fix the problem but it’ll keep him from pushing any more outrageous policy down our throats.

It’s all about image, Obama has zero policy difference from Bush. They’re both huge spenders, both had record federal budgets ever year, both had record “defense” budgets, record warmongering/nationbuilding budgets, both proponets of wide open borders, both big on taxing us, Obama=Bush.

The only difference is the word they use to strike fear into the American citizen, Bush used the word terrorist, Obama uses the word depression.

Dr. Ron Paul 2012, it’ll be our last chance.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

The only thing that matters is the mood of American voters on the election day. If we extrapolate the trends, Dems are up to a big disappointment in Nov.2010.
The history repeats itself. Back in 1993 there was another Democrat prez – young, smooth talking, nice looking, immensely telegenic, hugely popular both at home and overseas, and, most notably, as opposite to the Bush Administration he displaced as it gets. Also backed by majorities in both houses. Also intent on health care reform that he entrusted to none else but current Secretary of the State.
We all remember what happened next. 1994 elections brought GOP majority in both houses. The only reason he survived 1996 elections was that his opponent was so impotent he could not even sell Viagra to ED sufferers, let alone himself to the electorate.
That prez went down the history books as a total disgrace. The romp in Oval Office with the blue dress wearing intern, perjuries on top of perjuries, impeachment trial, and the burst of the New Economy bubble for a dessert.
Of course “prior performance is not indicative of future results” as hedge fund managers say before grabbing investor’s money. But if history teaches us anything we can expect very interesting elections in 2010 and especially 2012.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

I don’t think the Obama effect matters very much: it’s just a short term, shallow bump.

Anti-Americanism is very widespread and deply rooted in Europe, and takes many forms, from contempt to disdain to hatred. Americans are a convenient scapegoat, and that certainly will not change any time soon.

The alliances that once existed between the US and various nations in Europe based on mutual need have collapsed. Certainly there is no reason for Europe to have an alliance with a nation they despise.

The next set of alliances has not yet formed, or the global situation is fluid. But certainly I do not see a formalized alliance between the US and the EU or any major European nation in the future.

Posted by Tim | Report as abusive

As a European, I find it comforting to have a man in the highest office who is educated, articulate, caring about his fellow man, and determined to do his best. After the last few Presidents … the Clinton and Bush dynasties … it is refreshing and inspiring to have someone in office who didn’t get there through his family connections or the “Good Old Boys’ Club” or his affiliations to religion, but who got there through determination, hard work, passion, and the desire to bring America back as a country ripped apart by greed, immorality, and constant war mongering. Mr. Obama is a respectable man with a beautiful family who is a great future statesman. As a Republican, I am cautious, but one cannot fail to admire a man who has such fantastic energy, broad scope, and solid ability. He is a highly competent individual, and because of his integrity, I am certain he will give the job his all.

Posted by Samarkand | Report as abusive

IF Obama would be President of Germany they would not like him, or even England.

He is more like some rap star not a president.

Posted by Ian | Report as abusive

I don’t understand all the ruckus about Obama. Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on, the only thing anyone can do now is sit down and observe. Yes Obama did make an atrocious amount of promises, but who are you to criticize him 6 months later? Remember, the presidency is a term of four years. Unlike former President Bush, there is a chance this president intends to use all four of them; perhaps eight. So to all you out there who complain that Obama hasn’t fulfilled his promises I ask this question: Did you expect him to deliver on those promises in his first six months while amidst this global economic crisis? And if you can confidently say yes, then I suggest you emigrate, because there is no President capable of pleasing you here.

Posted by David | Report as abusive

I’m starting to understand the phrase:

“real power rests behind the throne”

Because the “President” changes every 4 years
but the lobbyists, insiders, and influence peddlers
never change. Has Obama changed anything?
Or has he kept with the status quo?
The real question is can he create change
when Congress is so buddy buddy with “Moneyed Interests”,
Contributors, PAC’s, Lobbyists, C street, K street, ect..

I think the heart of America (D.C.) has become a giant massive knot of Cancer.

How can anyone make a change when everyone fights change?

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive

Obama has changed little in America since getting into power. And he will not change most of the policies that are current causes of anti-americanism.

The only reason Europe’s perception of America has changed is because the US now has a well-spoken president who can manipulate a crowd. Not because of anything that president has done, or promised to do.

If that is the basis of Europe’s perception of America, then their opinion is of no more relevence then their taste in pop celebrities.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Your views on Obama!s innings in America and Europe are similar.
I agree of your sayings.
Mr.Obama is great,crowd puller among youngsters,adults,jobless middle class,and to upcoming African nations youth population.
Because of severe economic meltdown in Germany,England,Spain,Finland and in Italy,their present icon is Mr.Obama
Now, we means affected classes want to some solace words from getting rid of !recession!,!no dollar! concepts
Hope for the Best.
He may be slightly low in Popular U.S.A. Map,but other countries,He maintains same popularity in many countries.

To all the people who are self admitted Obamaholics. It is just a perception issue. His multitude of promises and immediate actions when he took office did not occur. And even the ones he is implementing, now will take years instead of months. Why is the timing important? Because unlike the EU, the US voters can see the practical results of his promises going unfulfilled. So in 2010, the DEMs could easily lose their majority. Then instead of all these “Obama has 4 years to show us his CHANGE”; it becomes the last two year are those of a Lame Duck.

So unless Obama’s popularity actual does Change The World, or even just the US, then his time of power ends November 2011. And unless the EU’s countries actually sign up for Obama’s programs, he will be seen as a failure despite having record numbers abroad.

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

The wording was a bit strange……..Obama’s popularity might be slipping a bit? Obama’s popularity is dropping like a rock. The “honeymoon” is certainly over and with the President’s thuggish, Chicago gangster type arm twisting in an attempt to get what he wants, he is beginning to show the public the attitude behind the mask.

It absolutely astounds me that the media (almost in it’s entirety) actually lies for the man. Oh, no, Obama never intended for health care to be government single payer. I challenge anyone to read page 16 of the bill and try to sell that point of view!!

Posted by OregonStorm | Report as abusive

Everyone views President Obama’s actions and politics in general through the lens of their own political party. It’s time for everyone to start thinking for themselves instead of just parroting whatever Fox or MSNBC said to think. The party is over for America. Our future is not a sporting event. Can’t get a good job? It’s time to hit the books or turn on the computer and learn something that an employer can actually use. Like it or not, we now compete with the entire world, much of which is willing to work for far less. No protectionism or any government policies can change that. For a century our prosperity has been based on cheap energy. That no longer exists. We’ve been putting off things we should have done decades ago and now everybody is whining about how painful it is. We have gotten fat, lazy, and dumb. Instead of whining about Bush or Obama, let’s take a long realistic look at ourselves and take action to do better! The real power is within each of us!

Part 1:
This could answer one with , if onw considers wich most Europeanians are not interest in the american policy.
Also I heare something out from its article disappointment over the political point of view of europeanians. With legal, then I think.

If my person as an european also – our hope, -fairy policy obtain and so on speak of, then is not only cliches.My hopes in president Obama go by, wich it we say times better in the chaos of the inheritances and still fast produced organized economic crisis where everyone the debt assigns, wich the predecessors (Funny Bush aera)behind read only somethings clears up.
The Obama administration is to that extent for Europe and the German linguistic aera important, because europe
- if i freely express myself being allowed ..to the simple form of primitivy (regarding criminal ones and violent ambition to his own population and so on) completely particularly in the leading positions of any economics and branches of Politics/party by the simple government coworkers continues to spread always.
End Part 1:

Posted by Ingeborg Metag | Report as abusive

Part 2:
This international of destruction of economcs,politics and the normal population where the juridical system already capitulated,rights of any forms are ignored (I think there also of mean)and one as an citizien meanwhile
faith likes that communism with the help of the criminal Psychos and primitiv fellow citiziens slowly its introduction into our allegedly in such away civilized european society holds introduction.
Not to omit the global terrorism, wich could to be taken as we nevertheless meanwhile all to the knowledge,Europe
indifferent to seem not whole is.
The differentiated similarieties between Europe and the United States of America and with security also different
states, forces to communicate to us simply somehow nevertheless with one another.

A solution is not to be expected naturally on the fast one, where nevertheless between communication always still the question is mor therefore is recognized.The field would like understandably to leave relucantly america to the europeans, Russia or the muslim states.
End part 2:

Posted by Ingeborg Metag | Report as abusive

Part 3:
Long I do not have noticed that at all global internet my
personal attitude find amusing, but there is the right of free expressions of opinion in a portal that was for this created itself and I thus thinks I do the journalistics truth and ethics for adhering and no hate messages like other Users also still their identidy masking.

Why does it matter that Europe love Obama,read furhter.
The Crime to also the slave trade heard distributed long
introduction into ranges taken, within wich one would never assume it, like also in our law courts with its Attorney’s external areas, authorities like evenly our political economy, wich one believes wich one so daily
to noticing in must such a way, these only of week-intimitate and criminal one citiziens consist. The german so highly preised precisly diligence one any longer does not exist more.
To the conclusion I would like to bring president Obama again to the expression the hope for change of the hate gape of the world among themselves am expected, since america stands as guidance power in world politics evenly bevore Russia,China and the Saudi’s.
Also my person expects assistance and assisted on the part of american policy, public security,justice and the understanding american one citizien of any skin color and
nationality.
Who can write white like for a long time I still in such away and thanks America that Mr.Moore despite any scold you he this clearing up work and all journalists take with important one activity implement to let him not to arresting, humiliating,take this existens and so on. :)

In the conclusion I thank the author for this article on wich I already for a long time waited and now my political situation in Europe and the United States of America with contributing was allowed.
End/fin 3/3.
Love Greetings

Posted by Ingeborg Metag | Report as abusive