America: A City on a Hill, Surrounded by Other Cities, Some of Them Also On Hills by mattsteinglass
April 24, 2007, 10:42 am
Filed under: United States

Barack Obama laid out his foreign-policy vision in a speech yesterday to the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs. It was a good speech, recognizing the primacy of international cooperation rather than unilateralism and the need for America to live up to its own claims about itself in order to protect its image and credibility abroad. But it remained hampered by a species of rah-rahism which I worry may be inevitable in American political diction these days, and which may in itself be a turn-off for the rest of the world. Obama:

This election offers us the chance to turn the page and open a new chapter in American leadership. The disappointment that so many around the world feel toward America right now is only a testament to the high expectations they hold for us. We must meet those expectations again, not because being respected is an end in itself, but because the security of America and the wider world demands it.

Here’s the thing: is it necessary to speak so constantly about American “leadership”? If the concern at the moment is global antipathy towards the US due to Iraq, Kyoto, etc., doesn’t one need to first go about showing oneself to be a good global citizen again, before asserting one’s right to “lead”(and implying that others are eager to follow)? Is it, in fact, true that the world largely feels “disappointment” in America, and has “high expectations” of us? Or is it rather that they simply wish the US would behave like the world’s other normal prosperous democracies — the EU, Canada, Japan — and stop pompously trying to drag everyone else into its crusade du jour?

In January, a BBC poll of 26,000 people in 18 countries found that 52% thought the US’s influence in the world was “mainly negative”; 29% thought it was “mainly positive”. The trend has been consistently and heavily downwards ever since 2001, and we continue to “lose” countries that had positive attitudes. For instance, the percentage of those holding a positive view of the US in Poland dropped from 62% to 34% in 2006, presumably due to the US’s attempts to strong-arm the country into accepting elements of an anti-missile defense system. Pro-US sentiment in Indonesia dropped from 40% to 21%, as positive effects from US post-tsunami aid dissipated. In India it dropped from 44% to 30% as the glow of the US-India nuclear deal waned. This suggests there is an underlying trend of long-term hostility towards the US as a country, mitigated by brief upticks due to high-profile friendly American policy gestures.

It is likely that Barack Obama, because of his extraordinary personal qualities (his eloquence, his solidarity with the third world, his openness of mind, his skin color) would, as president, rapidly alter the world’s attitude towards the US. Above all, he’s uniquely qualified to restore the sense that the US keeps its promises and lives up to the claims it makes about itself. But it’s also likely that the moment of worldwide receptivity to American leadership in the 1990s was the result of specific historical factors — the aftermath of the Cold War plus the personality of Bill Clinton and the ascendancy of “Third Way” politics — which are not going to be set on rerun simply because Obama gets elected. We cannot ignore the fact that the last six years happened. A dose of humility would be a good thing for the US’s image abroad. Whether humility can be sold to the American voting public is, however, another question entirely.

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