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U.S. Leadership Rating Rises. Huh?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The objective of foreign policy is to secure the defined interests of the United States. It may appear to be easier to succeed at such an endeavor if foreigners like us, but don’t be so sure.

Strange indeed are the results of the annual Gallup survey of U.S. leadership. The massive survey, mainly conducted face to face, asked roughly 1,000 people in each of 130 countries, “Do you approve or disapprove of the job performance of the leadership of the United States?”

For the 2013 survey, 46 percent approved and 24 percent disapproved. That is a marked improvement over 2012, when approval was 41 percent. In 2008, the last year of President George W. Bush’s final term, approval was 34 percent. It jumped to 49 percent in 2009, then dropped slightly to 47 percent in 2010 and 46 percent in 2011.

The five-point jump over the past year is hard to explain — except when you consider that the surveys in many of the countries took place as long ago as the spring of 2013, before the initial revelations by Edward Snowden that June, the U.S. false start after Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and the Russian seizure of Crimea. 

Even so, isn’t it clear that this administration has been abdicating leadership, leading from behind, leading by letting others lead? Apparently not to citizens of nations like Belgium, which gave U.S. leadership an approval rating of 57 percent in 2013, compared with 45 percent in 2011 and 8 percent in 2007.

Ratings have declined since the Bush years in some countries. India has fallen from 31 percent in 2008 to 22 percent in 2013; Iraq, from 35 percent to 23 percent; Colombia, 48 percent to 36 percent; and South Africa, 83 percent to 60 percent. Africa overall is down from the end of the Bush administration, but Europe, Asia, and the Americas are all up — with Asia rising most sharply from 2012.

The truth is that other nations will do what we want when they believe that the action is in their own interest as well as ours. (Sometimes we have to convince them, but that is not the same as getting them to like us.)

Still, if you look carefully at the question, you’ll see that the survey is not exactly about leadership anyway. It asks how our “leadership” (that is, President Obama) has performed. No doubt, foreigners don’t think the president has fulfilled his promise, but they generally like what he’s done. After all, if you are a citizen of, say, Austria, wouldn’t you give high marks to someone who wants to send everything to the United Nations?

The survey is part of the U.S.-Global Leadership Project, co-sponsored by Gallup and the Meridian International Center, and was released at a recent Washington event in which I participated with the ambassadors of Nigeria and Moldova and Stuart Holliday, president of Meridian.

The poll raises a question that I found on my own plate when I became the U.S. official in charge of public diplomacy toward the end of the Bush 43 administration: How important is it that citizens of other countries like us — or judge us favorably?

The objective of foreign policy is to secure the defined interests of the United States — for example, preventing the Iranians from getting a nuclear weapon or the Russians from taking over other countries. Often, that means persuading foreigners to do what we want them to do. It may appear to be easier to succeed at such an endeavor if those foreigners like us, but don’t be so sure.

The British have consistently given us 60 percent-plus favorability ratings, but when it came time for them to support limited military action against Syria’s use of chemical weapons, their House of Commons refused.

Trying to get foreigners to like us is the default endeavor of the State Department’s public affairs officers, and, in my view, it’s largely a waste of time. Their job, instead, should be to use the tools of soft power to achieve our foreign policy and national security ends — directly, by, for example, telling the story of Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions to the people of Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Telling it not by preaching or explaining but by showing, with the most imaginative means, including the best technology.

The five-point jump over the past year is hard to explain — except when you consider that the surveys in many of the countries took place as long ago as the spring of 2013.

President Obama did have an excellent phrase in his first inaugural address, a phrase repeated in his Cairo speech and many times after: “mutual interest and mutual respect.” The truth is that other nations will do what we want when they believe that the action is in their own interest as well as ours. (Sometimes we have to convince them, but that is not the same as getting them to like us.) For example, our favorability ratings in Jordan may be in the single digits, but the Jordanians have been allies in fighting terrorism.

The respect part is important, too. The French and the Japanese understand that the United States will pursue its own interests, just as France and Japan do, but the French and the Japanese want us to hear them out and consider their views respectfully. Perhaps President Obama’s high favorability is ground in the respect side of his formulation.

But not so fast. Respect is more than listening. It is also honoring other countries by showing that they can rely on our word. Is the leadership of the United States, 46 percent rating or not, really winning respect by reneging on its red lines and its promises to Ukraine and Afghanistan?

James K. Glassman is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute.

FURTHER READING: Glassman also writes “The Obamacare of Real Estate” and “The G-20 Needs Better Admissions Standards.” Michael Rubin questions “Is Talking the Shortest Path to War?” Dan Blumenthal explains “Why It’s Still a Unipolar Era,” and Ambassador Richard S. Williamson asserts “Benghazi Matters.”
 

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group
Photo of Obama: spirit of America / Shutterstock

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