Good Neighbors

5 minute read
Romesh Ratnesar

The world stage is not an easy place for the U.S. these days. The war in Afghanistan has become, speaking charitably, an unwinnable quagmire. Iran’s nuclear program continues to steam ahead. The Middle East peace process remains mothballed. Our closest ally seethes about the Obama Administration’s bullying of “British” Petroleum. At the World Cup, shoddy officiating nearly cost the U.S. a place in the second round. Even our wins turn into ties.

This state of affairs has caused panic among foreign policy experts, who accuse Obama of indecision and insufficient “toughness,” of betraying our friends and giving comfort to the enemy. And yet a curious thing is happening to America on the way to second-class status: the U.S. is more popular today among more people on the planet than at any other time in recent history. That’s the surprising finding from the Pew Research Center’s newly released Global Attitudes Project. Overall, 60% of those surveyed in 22 countries viewed the U.S. favorably, up 20 points since 2007. Close to two-thirds say they have confidence in the American President to do the right thing; three years ago, that number was 21%. In a majority of the countries polled, most people support Obama’s handling of the global economic crisis, compared with 46% of Americans who do.

(See pictures of the global financial crisis.)

Perhaps the most striking result of the Pew poll is our improved standing with two countries more often viewed as competitors than as allies: China and Russia. In China, the U.S.’s approval rating is 58%, the highest it has been since Pew began polling there. Some 57% of Russians view the U.S. favorably, the most since 2002. It’s not so surprising that America’s image is strong in countries like Britain (65%), Poland (74%) and Kenya (94%). But for the first time, majorities in the four most populous nations excluding the U.S. — China, India, Indonesia and Brazil — also have a positive view of this country.

The turnaround hasn’t come about by accident. The Obama foreign policy team has conspicuously adopted a conciliatory, multilateral tone in its dealings with other countries. It has soothed relations with big powers like Russia and China. Indeed, at any other time, the gains in our public esteem around the world would be cause for celebration. But don’t expect Obama to get much credit. For one, this President’s biggest asset overseas remains the dismal opinion much of the world had of his predecessor. Second, scoring well in public-opinion surveys doesn’t bring with it any tangible policy benefits; no matter how much better we look to Europeans, they aren’t going to be any more willing to help us in Afghanistan. And you don’t have to be a cynic to perceive an element of schadenfreude in the Pew results. It’s a lot easier to like a superpower when its powers don’t seem so super.

But that’s only part of the story. In the past decade, Americans have suffered a series of extraordinary blows to our self-image, inflicted by the 9/11 attacks, the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial meltdown in 2008 and now the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The sense that American power is eroding makes us even more defensive and resentful. The Pew survey found that even while people abroad rate the U.S. more favorably, 60% of Americans still think the U.S. is genuinely disliked. If America were voted class president, we’d demand a recount.

(See pictures of Obama’s trips overseas.)

The notion of a world full of adversaries hell-bent on slaying the American colossus has underpinned U.S. foreign policy in the post-9/11 era. But the Pew data suggest that it’s time to abandon that view. Power does not always translate into influence. And while a weakened America may have less swagger than it did a decade ago, it may actually be better positioned to get results. Foreign policy hawks often argue that the national interest is better served when the U.S. is feared rather than loved. But we no longer have the luxury of walking alone. The major strategic challenges facing the U.S. in the years to come — like preventing an Iranian Bomb, stabilizing the global financial system and containing climate change — will be achieved only by convincing emerging powers like China, India and Brazil that our policy goals serve their interests too. That’s easier to do when public opinion is on our side. Foreign leaders won’t always go along with Washington simply because their citizens see the U.S. in a positive light. But they may well see less to gain by openly defying us.

America, Henry Kissinger is sometimes quoted as saying, does not have friends; it only has interests. That may have been true once, at a time when the U.S. was powerful enough to shape the world on its own. But those days are gone. In order to thrive in a less heroic age, America will need all the friends it can get.

See 12 people to blame for the oil spill.

See a special report on the accued 9/11 plotters.

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