November 28, 2009 | Commentary on American Leadership
President Obama's popularity abroad is already the stuff of legend. His December trip to Norway to collect the Nobel Peace Prize will doubtless spark a new round of stories about how he turned around negative opinions of America.
We'll likely hear the pat explanations for his popularity: Mr. Obama is not George W. Bush. He believes in world peace and advocates causes dear to Europeans. He reaches out to enemies and rivals and apologizes for past American mistakes.
Yet, peel away the superficial narrative of his popularity and compare it with Americans' views, and things get interesting. Mr. Obama's personal approval rating at home hovers between 46 percent and 61 percent, depending on the poll. But when you ask Americans how well he's handling the economy, national security and the Afghan war, his favorables fall to between 38 percent and 51 percent.
In America, Mr. Obama is personally more popular than his policies.
Overseas, however, his persona and policies are equally important. Confidence in his handling of world affairs averages 77 percent in Europe, and is similarly high in places such as Brazil, Kenya, Japan and India. His policies on Guantanamo Bay, climate change and international approval for the use of force get broad global support.
Foreigners like his personal story as much as we do; but what really moves many of them is his promise to lead the United States in a different direction.
This may sound like good news. After all, what could possibly be wrong with the world thinking highly of the United States? Nothing, if by popularity you mean positive sentiments about America as a beacon of freedom and force for good in the world.
But what if some of those opinions are motivated by sentiments less friendly to America? Foreign opinion largely reflects the extent to which foreigners think America blocks or advances their own interests or ideologies.
For example, many Arabs associate the U.S. with Israel. That relationship colors their negative opinion of the United States, regardless of who is president. In Pakistan and the Palestinian territories, fewer than 17 percent view America favorably today.
Similarly, many Europeans gaze across the Atlantic and long to see someone like them in the White House. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union obviated any great need for U.S. military power to defend them, many Europeans have hoped to see America cut down to size, thereby maximizing their own global influence. Moreover, a more accommodating America will ask less of them in messy situations like Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama is far more obliging of Europe's desires than Mr. Bush. Not surprisingly, then, by May, U.S. "favorables" surged by double digits in Europe.
In countries such as Russia and China, opinions are motivated by nationalism, which can be anti-American. Hence, they are less likely to be seduced by the Obama phenomenon. Yet they prefer Mr. Obama to Mr. Bush as well, albeit for a different reason than the Europeans: Mr. Bush stood up to the Russians, while Mr. Obama bends over backward to "reset" relations. The Russians interpret that as accommodating their interests.
A worrisome picture emerges. Mr. Obama's popularity abroad mainly reflects foreign perceptions of how well he suits their interests and values.
Yes, foreigners like America better under Mr. Obama - not because they love the U.S. the way we do, but because they think he favors the retrenchment of American power and global influence.
The question is, do we Americans admire Mr. Obama for the same reasons? Do we recognize and want the image of Mr. Obama's America that foreigners have? Should we automatically gauge the value of our policies and interests by how much others like them?
Sometimes Mr. Obama gets alarmingly close to suggesting that. In China, he told CNN, "We've restored America's standing in the world, and that's confirmed by the polls ... before my election, less than half the people - maybe less than 40 percent of the people thought you could count on America to do the right thing. Now it's up to 75 percent."
Put aside the question of whether his popularity has gained international support for concrete American policies. What is interesting is that the foreign image of Mr. Obama's America is increasingly at variance with Americans' views. Many Americans, particularly independents who voted for him, are turning away from his policies because they don't conform to the America they envision. They may still like his personal story, but they are getting worried that he's taking the country in the wrong direction - the very direction many foreigners applaud.
If this trend continues, Americans may end up turning against Mr. Obama precisely for what makes him popular abroad - namely, pursuing policies that weaken America's position in the world.
Remember this the next time someone evaluates the success of the president's foreign policies by foreign opinion polls.
Kim Holmes is vice president of foreign- and defense-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation and author of "Liberty's Best Hope: American Leadership for the 21st Century."
First Appeared in the Washington Times