DENVER—Buried amidst rhetoric of hope and change and a unified America, Barack Obama’s campaign has also included promises of restoring America’s role in the world, winning back friends through engagement and multilateralism.
His running mate, experienced foreign policy hand Joe Biden, has also insinuated the importance of restoring goodwill around the world. In his first speech as vice-presidential candidate, he derided the Bush administration as having “shredded” America’s alliances and moral standing in the world.
While the issue is still likely to take a distant back seat to domestic issues like the economy, for the first time in recent memory, polls are indicating that Americans share a significant concern about their country’s role in the world.
According to a Pew Research Center poll released in June, 71 percent of Americans polled believed that the United States has lost respect internationally. That figure is up from 65 percent in August 2006. Among Democrats, the figure is 81 percent.
Rightfully so. The Pew Research Center’s poll on global attitudes has shown a rapid decline in goodwill towards the United States since 2001. In Great Britain, often considered the U.S.’s closest ally in Europe, favorable opinion of the United States decline from 83 percent in 2000 to 56 percent in 2006. In France, the drop was from 62 percent to 39 percent, and in Germany, 78 percent to an abysmal 37 percent in the same period.
In nations with majority Muslim populations, significant majorities not only have unfavorable views of the United States, but also see the country as a potential threat.
From Europe to the Middle East and Latin America to Southeast Asia, the United States has lost ground in the realm of soft power. The Bush administration’s War on Terror has been wildly unpopular in much of the world, as has his administration’s propensity for unilateral action. Part of the problem began even before the War on Terror, however; in the 1990s, the Clinton administration slashed funding to projects aimed at bolstering America’s soft power overseas.
Significantly, Americans are not only becoming more aware of the problem, but are also placing it higher on their list of priorities. The findings of Pew’s June survey revealed that a majority of Americans—56 percent—now view America’s loss of goodwill internationally as a major problem. In 2005, that number was just 43 percent.
How does that fare for Barack Obama, long criticized for his lack of foreign policy credentials?
A recent Gallup poll found that, while more Americans think Obama would do a good job handling domestic issues, a majority believe McCain would be a stronger commander-in-chief and be better equipped to handle foreign affairs. Obama’s selection of foreign policy veteran Joe Biden as his running mate may well help his standings in that area.
Among Democrats, however, the view is overwhelmingly that Obama would do far more to advance America’s standing in the world.
Diane Wood, a Kentucky delegate to the Democratic National Convention, says she believes Obama is the best candidate to restore America’s standing in the world.
“I don’t know how important foreign policy will be with voters, but I think it will be important for the country,” she said.
“Obama and Biden will dramatically improve U.S. soft power,” says Jeff Bleich, a California delegate. “Electing them is the only thing the U.S. can do to quickly improve U.S. international power.”
And there’s a chance he’s right. In Europe, as with elsewhere in the world, Obama is significantly more popular in the polls than he is in the United States, where he remains more or less tied with McCain. A Gallup poll released last month found that in the United Kingdom, his approval rating is 60 percent, compared to McCain’s 25. In France, it’s 64 percent. And in Germany, where a crowd of 200,000 attended a rally for the presidential hopeful last month, his popularity rating is 62 percent.
“Given their strongly favorable views of Obama,” read the Gallup report, “his election could go a long way toward restoring U.S. prestige in Europe.”
Obama’s African background—his father was Kenyan—and his childhood spent in Indonesia and Hawaii have also made him popular in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, where many take inspiration from his success.
Ultimately, however, Obama’s popularity overseas could be either a boon or a burden to the candidate, who still faces challenges casting himself as “American” enough. And come election time in November, it is up to the American people alone who will lead the world’s only superpower.