Why the World is Unmoved by Obama’s Apologies

President Obama insulted many Americans last week when he raised events in Ferguson, Missouri, during his United Nations speech. They chafed at the implied moral equivalence of a shooting still in legal dispute with the many lethal foreign threats besieging the world. While such rhetoric is divisive at home, there is another problem. The president does not seem to understand that most of the world is completely unmoved by such apologies.

Most of the world does not see an earnest moralist struggling with America’s complicated past or a humble man admitting his own foibles. Instead, they see a weak leader uncertain about the cause of his country.

If as a rhetorical device, these apologies were working — if they were moving world opinion in our favor and getting more countries to embrace our policies — then perhaps they could be justified as a matter of Realpolitik. But that clearly is not happening.

World opinion of the U.S. has steadily declined under Barack Obama. In 2009, after he rode into Washington on a high, Pew’s Global Indicators survey found 33 percent of Germans held unfavorable views of America. Today, it is 47 percent. In Russia, after the famous “reset,” America’s unfavorability score has grown from 44 percent to 71 percent; in Egypt, from 70 percent to 85 percent; and in Turkey — a NATO ally — from 69 percent to 73 percent.

There may be many reasons why world opinion is steadily getting worse. There’s the unpopularity of U.S. drone and other counterterrorism policies in the Middle East and parts of South Asia. There are the controversies surrounding U.S. surveillance which are especially unpopular in Germany. But the point is that these policies are unpopular despite Mr. Obama’s apologies, which at the very least should raise questions about their efficacy.

It’s not hard to fathom why the president’s mea culpa is not working.

For the most hardened of anti-Americans — terrorists, Islamists, and now Russian nationalists — Mr. Obama’s apologies only confirm what they already think. In their eyes, America is a horrible place, and they are only too glad to hear the president admit it. They are not, at any rate, fooled. To them, his apologies are merely a ploy to trick the world into thinking the U.S. has the moral high ground, but they think they know better.

As for those on the fence — the millions who could go either way — Mr. Obama’s apologies likely sound very odd. While Western Europeans and perhaps some Asians (like the Japanese) may get the president’s intent, most people in the Middle East, Africa and Eurasia are unused to self-flagellation in their own national cultures and more likely puzzled.

Is he secretly confirming that America is a racist country unfit to lead, although rhetorically he claims the opposite — that we should be forgiven because we are a nation that has “steadily worked to address our problems”?

Does his ambivalence reflect a lack of confidence in U.S. power? After all, most of the world sees in the president the leader of a superpower whose story and creed of freedom and prosperity resonates with them. They see that story and America’s power first, not his depressing suggestion that its greatness is best measured by how much it confronts its failures.

Finally, do our friends and allies really want to hear the leader of the country on which their own security depends complain about how America fails to live up to its ideals? Sure, some Europeans love to see America grovel, but in the end they want and need a strong American president, not a weak, morally conflicted one. They may cheer Mr. Obama from the sidelines, but his apologies have no influence on whether they will join the fight against terrorists in Iraq, or whether they will back U.S. proposals for tough sanctions against Russia.

It’s time for the president to drop the rhetoric of moral equivalence. The world is unmoved. All it does is divide Americans and lower world opinions of our great nation.

 - Kim R. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in The Washington Times