It turns out that there is an Obama Effect—or at least there is one in France. After a particularly bleak couple of years, the approval rating of the United States has soared to dizzying heights.
In 2000, a State Department poll found that 62 percent of French citizens surveyed had a favorable impression of the U.S. But with the election of George W. Bush, “Old” Europe was out, and “New” Europe was in. What did it matter what the French or the Germans thought when there were pro-American countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic who wanted to help the U.S.? French fries were rechristened “Freedom Fries” on Capitol Hill, and John Kerry’s ability to speak French was taken to mean that he thought in French too. So it was not very surprising that the U.S.’s approval rating in France fell to 42 percent last year.
Then Barack Obama was elected. By July 2009, when the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project released its latest annual report, 75 percent of French voters polled had a favorable opinion of the U.S. The Pew survey reported similar, if less dramatic, leaps in U.S. “favorability” in Britain and Germany. A second set of figures was, if anything, even more remarkable. Asked if they think, “America will do the right thing in world affairs,” a full 93 percent of Germans, 91 percent of French respondents, and 86 percent of Britons replied that they were confident it will. The figures for 2008 were 14 percent, 13 percent, and 16 percent, respectively.
Cue much hopeful commentary echoing Sally Field’s notorious 1985 Academy Awards outburst: “They like us, they really like us!” It’s tempting to believe this. Other than graduates of the Dick Cheney School of Diplomacy, few people revel in being disliked by those they considered their friends. But is it true?
The Pew Report is significant because it reveals a serious ambivalence at the heart of the European response to the new American president. In a variation of the “trust but verify” adage, Europeans are taking a “hope but check” approach to the new administration in Washington. Since only 69 percent of Britons and 64 percent of Germans have a favorable view of the U.S., there must be some Europeans who take a dim view of the U.S. while still being confident it will “do the right thing.” In other words, they would like to trust that the U.S. will act in ways they approve of, but deep down are not so confident it will—at least not right away. The promise of the Obama years does not quite cancel out the miserable memories of the Bush years. Indeed, U.S. favorability ratings in Britain and Germany were higher in 1999 than they are now.
With this cautious approach in mind, Europeans have closely studied the Obama administration’s course in the Middle East for the past few months, and have been largely pleased with what they’ve seen. Obama’s determination to pursue a policy of engagement with Iran—considered the height of starry-eyed idealism in Washington—was received in Europe as a refreshing dose of realism. His willingness to talk about illegal Israeli settlements is also popular with the European public, even if it remains difficult to see how a meaningful or lasting peace agreement can be forged. As the new president discovered on his trip to Saudi Arabia, there are limits to what freshness and goodwill can achieve.
In part, the European preference for diplomacy reflects lessons learnt from the history and development of the European Union: Jaw-jaw is preferable to war-war and, with patience, even difficult compromises can be made. But as Robert Kagan has argued, while talk may be sufficient in building a common market, it might prove too optimistic a view when applied to certain intractable foreign policy questions.
Nonetheless, the experience of the Bush years has hardly bolstered the idea that isolating rogue regimes is enough to bring them to heel. Indeed, Bush’s second term acknowledged that failure. If the threat of military action against Iran remained a possibility, diplomacy was given a chance to work first, just as it was with North Korea. For the general public, however, such nuances were immaterial. Bush was Bush and would always be Bush. He would never get credit for recognizing and learning from the mistakes of his first term.
Obama, by contrast, receives the benefit of the doubt even while pursuing policies inherited from his predecessor, which has helped solidify, at least in the eyes of the European public, his commitment to diplomatic engagement and multilateralism. His move to close Guantánamo, for example, bought the new administration enormous goodwill in Europe. It is unthinkable that Ireland would have agreed to take in even a pair of Guantánamo inmates had George W. Bush still been president.
Although Obama’s bottom line on Iran—a nuclear Tehran is intolerable—is little different from Bush’s, it has gone largely unmentioned in Europe. Obama’s chief departure on the Persian question has been mainly a stylistic shift towards realism: Instead of the empty threats and bellicose bluff of the Bush years, there is a realization that the West must deal with the Iran we have, not the Iran we might prefer. But in reality—with the admittedly notable exception of the Iraq war—Obama’s foreign policy instincts are conventionally hawkish, even if his language is more moderate.
It’s perhaps this very ideological ambiguity that is driving the skeptical tone of the Pew results. It also explains the sense of palpable relief with which Obama’s cautious approach to the disputed Iranian elections was met in Europe. In Britain, the neoconservative wing of the commentariat predictably took its cues from the neoconservatives who dominate the Washington Post’s op-ed page and howled that Obama was betraying “democracy” and “American idealism.” That was a minority view, however. Faced with a fast-moving, fluid situation (one that remains far from resolved at the time of writing), Obama’s restraint and appreciation of the political consequences of previous western interventions in Persia demonstrated a reflective style that brought to mind another President Bush entirely.
Obama’s Iran policy has seemed reminiscent in style, if not in substance, to George H.W. Bush’s: cautious, pragmatic, unlikely to try and reinvent the wheel, and, perhaps above all, suspicious of doctrines named after grandstanding presidents. Problems must be managed before they can be solved; solutions can rarely be imposed, more often they must be negotiated. Process matters and so does collective action, even if that muddies the waters or delays plotting a course the U.S. and its partners can agree on. In other words, it’s an attempt to see the world as it is, rather than as the U.S. would like it to be.
Realism became a dirty word in Washington after 9/11, but it was the doctrine George W. Bush began his presidency espousing. Something necessarily had to give after the fall of the Twin Towers, but the speed with which Washington rewrote the rulebook surprised everyone. In Britain, this led to a desperate race to “get close” to the administration in order to work out what the Americans would do, to see if Britain could influence them, and perhaps even to encourage some restraint. Britain’s efforts, sadly, didn’t amount to much. But if Obama’s handling of the Iran election crisis turns out to be indicative of his broader approach to the world, the post-9/11 period may yet prove to be the exception.
For decades, Europeans have come to expect a certain lofty, idealistic rhetoric from Washington, but one that was nonetheless undergirded by a flinty realism. What Europeans found deeply troubling about neoconservatism was its willingness to take its own rhetoric deadly seriously. The familiarity of the tone and feel of Obama’s foreign policy reassures Europe. There will, as always, be arguments and compromises. But while America will lead—and expect its allies to be helpful—there’s a more gracious, sensitive manner in which Washington speaks that impresses. The adults are back in charge.
As President Obama says, “We’re not always going to be right . . . other people may have good ideas . . . in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise, and that includes us.” This humility hardly reflects any lesser commitment to the idea of American hegemony, but it recognizes that international public opinion matters. Indeed, the challenge for the new administration may well be to provide the leadership other governments seek—for almost no international dilemma can be solved absent American involvement—while avoiding giving the impression that the U.S. is bullying its friends or holding them to ransom.
Even so, there is a sense that difficult questions have not been answered so much as postponed. What happens if Iran does acquire a nuclear capability? What is NATO’s role in the modern world? How long can the U.S. expect its allies to commit to Afghanistan? What happens when oil prices rise and Russia flexes its muscles once again? At some point, Obama’s European honeymoon will end, and the longer-term issues of American hegemony will be back on the table. Good will and good intentions are not always enough, and it must be merely a matter of time before the 44th president discovers that for himself.
-Alex Massie is a former Washington Correspondent for The Scotsman. He writes a blog for The Spectator.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire