Europe loves Obama. Does it matter?
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)