For the U.S., it's perception vs. reality

COMMENTARY Political Process

For the U.S., it's perception vs. reality

Jun 5, 2008 3 min read

Former Senior Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Helle’s work focused on the U.S. government’s institutions and programs for strategic outreach to the public of foreign countries.

Rod Lamkey Jr./The Washington Times Marsha Deane, of Alexandria, pumps her fist, while David Petrella, of Cleveland, waves the American flag outside the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, as the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws panel meets to consider the seating of Florida and Michigan delegations.

As always, the world remains obsessed with the American presidential election. Talk to news junkies from India to Scandinavia and you can get updates of the latest Democratic primaries. In particularly, the fact that "Hillary" and "Obama" have become household names the world over has clearly influenced the way people look at the United States.

If the Democratic primaries from the vantage point of Washington have looked like a bitter tug-of-war between two of the party's main interest groups, feminists and African American voters, from abroad it has looked like an exercise in political progressiveness. The caricature of the United States as a racist, sexist, militaristic nation, a threat to world peace, seems to be receding for now.

The question is whether these changes in the image of the United States from abroad, which are registered in a just-released BBC poll, will survive the first year of a Democrat in the White House. Sen. Barack Obama, for his part, has acquired almost sainted status in the eyes of the rest of the world, which will be extremely hard to live up to. International policy differences and inevitable stumbles are the reality of life in the klieg lights of the White House. In particular, one wonders which direction the fight against international terrorism will take.

Nonetheless for now, people in 11 countries (out of 34 registered) improved views of the United States, while there has been a decline in only 3 countries. Across the poll, 35 percent of respondents had a positive view of the United States. If this hardly seems like a shining endorsement, it is up from 31 percent a year ago. Meanwhile, 47 percent said they had a negative image, which is down from 52 percent last year. It is some improvement at least.

The countries that saw the most improved attitudes towards the United States were South Korea (up from 35 percent to 49 percent), Portugal (29 percent up to 42 percent), Brazil (29 percent to 39 percent), and the United Arab Emirates up from (25 percent to 37 percent). In an interesting development, the French improved their view of the United States, up from 24 percent to 32 percent considering the United States a force for good. The credit for these changes would have to go to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's concerted efforts at outreach to Americans.

According to Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, which participated with the BBC in the poll, "The image of the United States is already being influenced by the prospect of one of the candidates becoming president." All three talk more about multilateralism and cooperation; all express concern about the US image in the world, all express substantial concern about climate change and signal readiness to take action.

What does not seem to have registered with many here or abroad is that under the much-maligned President Bush, international terrorism and support for Islamist extremists like al Qaeda have dropped among Muslims worldwide. For all the anger about the military actions taken by Mr. Bush in the interest of keeping all of us safer, recent statements by CIA Director Michael Hayden describe the lowest number of terrorist attacks worldwide in several years. And in very different terms from his testimony before Congress a year ago, Mr. Hayden now describes al Qaeda as a practically defeated organization whose support among Muslims and financial networks are in tatters.

You would think that this remarkable achievement would earn Mr. Bush some credit in world opinion. A more sober and positive evaluation, however, probably needs to wait for historians in decades to come.

Polling such as the BBC's is more about perception than reality. When reality meets perception, with a new president in the White House, the question will become how much of the glow will survive. On a number of policy issues, the world is likely to be in for some surprises. On trade, the two Democratic candidates will take a much less cooperative stance than the Republican, and certainly than the Bush White House. And all three are likely to find the climate-change agenda hard to implement because of the economy. As for Afghanistan, all three have talked about increasing military efforts and aid, a challenge that will certainly be transmitted to United States allies as well. Most interesting, of course, will be what Islamist radicals and terrorists conclude. Hmm.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in the Washington Times