Does Obama’s global popularity matter ?

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Foreign policy experts disagree on whether Barack Obama’s worldwide popularity matters.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says Obama’s personal popularity and the lift that it has given the US standing in the world will help in conducting foreign policy. But she stresses, “it is going to be very important for him to translate his personal popularity into the actions that are supportive of a different agenda.”

A sharply different view comes from former US Senator John Danforth. In addition to his three terms in the Senate, the Missouri Republican also served as President Bush’s envy to Sudan and was US Ambassador to the United Nations. “The net view that I have of this is that the popularity of the president and the increased respect for the United States doesn’t really mean anything in the real world,” Danforth says.

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The world's view of Obama

There is little question about Obama’s popularity. A new survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that the image of the United States has improved markedly around the world as a result of the positive view of Barack Obama in other counties. The survey was conducted May 18 to June 16 in 24 countries and the Palestinian Territories and included interviews with nearly 27,000 individuals.

“We are documenting a revival of the global image in many parts of the world ... reflecting confidence in Barack Obama. Opinions about the US are now about as positive as they were at the beginning of the decade before George W. Bush took office,” says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Project.

Albright, Danforth, and Kohut were all guests at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters on Thursday. Secretary Albright and Senator Danforth are co-chairs of the non-partisan Global Attitudes project.

Soaring ratings in Western Europe

Kohut says he was surprised by the impact Obama has had on America’s standing overseas. “We knew that Obama was popular, we saw that last year. But would it translate into a better view of the United States? Well, it sure did. In Germany, the favorable number went from 31 in ’08 to 64 percent this year. In France, 42 to 75. And we saw the same thing in major counties of Latin America and Africa.”

Obama’s role in the world’s changing view of the United States is clear, Kohut says. “Analysis of the survey, which we spent a lot of time doing, shows that this new attitude toward the United States is being driven by personal views of Obama and confidence in him. I don’t only mean style but confidence in him rather than opinions about his policies or expectations about specific things he is going to do.”

The value of respect

Danforth argued that Obama’s popularity and an improved image for the US does not translate into the willingness of other countries to support the US when tough multinational action is needed. “It is kind of an attitudinal position or a generalized good feeling on one hand and an unwillingness to translate that into practically doing anything. What it really says is we will follow the US provided the US doesn’t want to lead anywhere.”

“I disagree” Albright said in response. “I think that it is certainly better to have a president who is respected and popular than one who is not. I think it was very hard to carry on American foreign policy at a time when the minute an American president opened his mouth that people would say 'no way'. So I think the test is still out there. There is no question about that. But I think it starts on a different level.”

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