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Global perceptions of U.S. improve

The prospect of a new president may be helping favorability ratings.

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Kohut attributes part of the interest to the candidacy of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama In nearly every country surveyed – excepting Jordan, by a slight margin – the public expressed more confidence in Senator Obama than in his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, "to do the right thing regarding world affairs."

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The survey finds significant numbers of people, particularly in Western Europe, agreeing that US foreign policy will change for the better next year with a new president. Kohut assumes that much of the optimism derives from the fact that, no matter who wins, Bush will be out of the White House.

"He's a real red flag for a lot of people," he says. Other factors include the fact that both candidates talk of change, and Obama in particular sounds — and looks – different from what foreigners associate with recent US leadership.

Foreign policy experts say world views of the US matter because they can play an important role in determining how closely governments cooperate with the US, and how far influential individuals will take pro-American stands. "Everybody likes to be liked, but it really goes beyond that to our interests," says Charles Dunbar, a former US ambassador to Yemen and Qatar.

Citing the example of Islamic radicalism, he says an intense hostility to the US – based partly on a perceived American occupation of Islamic lands – can lead people to gravitate toward Islamism and even to anti-American action.

At the same time, he adds, an improved US image can make it easier for foreigners perceived as "pro-American" and favor steps sometimes associated with the US, like democratizaton or economic reforms.

Yet Ambassador Dunbar sees potential for a "letdown" if the improved image is largely based on positive media attention on one presidential candidate, in this case Obama. The potential exists, he says, first because Obama might not win and second, because his actions as president are unlikely to meet expectations. "Policy is going to matter a great deal, and things aren't going to change that much if Senator Obama is elected," he says. For example, it will be very difficult to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.

Another example is US policy towards Pakistan. Tensions rose this week over US airstrikes that killed a number of Pakistani paramilitary soldiers in the border region with Afghanistan. But it was the kind of strike – targeting insurgents along the Afghan border – that Obama was presumably referring to in a debate last August when he said he would be prepared to strike targets inside Pakistan even without the government's approval.