by Derek Davison
Barack Obama has destroyed America’s image all over the world. By turning away from the wildly successful foreign policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama has undermined American power, weakened America’s stature, and caused the United States to lose its international prestige. For some reason, perhaps related to his mysterious and/or vaguely sinister upbringing, Obama has chosen to coddle America’s worst enemies while abandoning its best friends and allies. And where he hasn’t actively coddled those enemies, he’s instead allowed them to take advantage of his naivety and passivity. In short, a world that respected the United States and its place in the world eight years ago now views America with something like disdain.
If the previous paragraph reads to you like it was ripped from an article written in some bizarre alternate universe, then it’s likely that you haven’t spent the last eight years sheltering inside the right-wing/neoconservative echo chamber. There’s virtually no difference between that paragraph and, for example, the following, written by Hoover Institution fellow Bruce Thornton for FrontPage Magazine in 2012:
The short-lived restoration of American prestige wrought by George Bush’s routing of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the destruction of the Hussein regime in Iraq soon dissipated in the administration of Barack Obama and his promise to “embrace a new era of engagement” and a “new way forward” with America’s enemies. In practice this has meant his solicitous “outreach” to thug regimes like Iran and Syria, the appeasing and unreciprocated “reset” of relations with Russia, the Carter-like pledges that America would be a “partner mindful of his own imperfections,” the undercutting and hounding of stalwart allies like Israel, the craven apologies to the Muslim world for a “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims,” and the abandonment of unsavory allies like Hosni Mubarak, who nonetheless better served America’s interests than the Muslim Brothers soon to run Egypt are likely to.
The Prestige Problem
The argument that Barack Obama’s foreign policy is diminishing American prestige abroad is one of the right’s longest-running criticisms of his administration. This criticism is so long-running, in fact, that it actually pre-dates most of Obama’s foreign policy. Just months after Obama took office, former Bush adviser Karl Rove lambasted the new president over a series of speeches in which Obama attempted to reset American foreign policy, or what Rove called his “apology tour” (this was, to be charitable, a misleading description). Obama’s early decision to abandon plans for a “missile defense shield” in Europe was similarly criticized for weakening American prestige, emboldening a geopolitical rival (Russia), and abandoning American allies in Europe.
Since those early days, right-wing observers and on occasion by more mainstream media have constantly told us that Obama is diminishing the United States in the eyes of the rest of the world. America’s “prestige” is always at risk. Obama’s failure to arrest Edward Snowden cost American prestige. His unwillingness to go to war with Russia over Crimea took another bite out of U.S. prestige. Ditto his reluctance to go to war with Iran over Iran’s nuclear program. Obama’s efforts to “gut” the U.S. military are costing America its prestige, even though it’s not really clear how Obama has actually “gutted” anything. The “red line” episode over Syria’s chemical weapons cost America a lot of prestige. The Islamic State? Its very existence is a huge blow to American prestige. Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens has written a whole book, America in Retreat, on the very subject of America’s lost international prestige. The thorough reader of this genre should be forgiven for wondering how the United States could possibly have any prestige left, given how much of it Obama seems to squander on a daily basis.
Given that the right has been pushing this “lost prestige” talking point since virtually the day Obama took office, you might expect that most Americans have taken it to heart. A Pew poll taken in 2013 found just that:
Indeed, for the first time in surveys dating back 40 years, a majority of Americans say the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago, according to the latest Pew poll “America’s Place in the World,” a quadrennial survey of foreign policy attitudes conducted in partnership with the Council on Foreign Relations. The share saying the U.S. is less powerful has increased 12 points since 2009 and has more than doubled—from just 20 percent—since 2004.
An even larger majority says the U.S. is losing respect internationally—fully 70 percent say the United States is less respected than in the past, almost identical to the level reached late in former President George W. Bush’s second term. The public’s sense that the United States has lost respect is up 15 percentage points since early 2012.
How bad has it gotten? Even Europe has “lost trust” in Obama, according to The Wall Street Journal. Europe! They really used to respect us, didn’t they?
What Do Europeans Think?
Well, amid all this handwringing about how foreigners no longer respect the United States because they no longer respect the U.S. president, it doesn’t seem like anybody has bothered checking with the foreigners in question. At least, nobody seems to have asked any Europeans. A new Pew survey, released just last week, finds that as we enter the final six months of the Obama administration, Europeans remain broadly well-inclined toward the U.S., in most cases far more than they were when George W. Bush was in office:
Majorities in 13 out of 15 countries surveyed have positive views of the United States. In many of these countries, notably France, Poland, Spain, the UK and Japan, favorable views of the U.S. have endured since 2009, when President Barack Obama first took office. Today, America gets its highest ratings from Poles (74%), Italians (72%), Japanese (72%) and Swedes (69%).
These ratings are “consistently higher,” to use Pew’s language, for President Obama than they were for former President Bush. Obama himself scored very highly when respondents were asked if he could be trusted “to do the right thing regarding world affairs,” especially when compared to some of his fellow world leaders, like Germany’s Angela Merkel, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and China’s Xi Jinping. And as that chart also shows, respondents in every country Pew surveyed have more confidence in Hillary Clinton to “to do the right thing regarding world affairs” than they do in her likely 2016 general election opponent, reality TV star and Republican nominee Donald Trump.
Perhaps in part because Europeans appear to respect President Obama so much, they also tend to respond favorably when asked about America’s ability to lead a global campaign against the Islamic State. Majorities in every country surveyed, save Greece, said that they “support the U.S.-led military actions against the Islamic militant group in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS,” a somewhat surprising result judging from the hair-pulling commentary here in the U.S. about how Obama is “sympathetic” to IS, or (worse) how he’s failed to use the right magic words when discussing the terrorist threat. Although recent IS attacks in Paris, Brussels, Orlando, Istanbul, and now Dhaka have raised the Islamic State’s international profile and may be fueling some of the support the anti-IS campaign is getting, far more people, at least in Europe and Asia, seem to be supporting American counter-terrorism actions today than were, say, 10 years ago.
Critics of Obama’s foreign policy may dismiss Pew’s findings as irrelevant. After all, who cares what average European or Japanese citizens think about Barack Obama’s job performance? But it’s an odd definition of “prestige” that leads to the conclusion that America had more of it a decade ago, back when its leaders were mostly unpopular around the world, than it does today, when, at least in most of Europe and parts of Asia, its leaders have largely regained that popularity.
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 2013.