High hopes abroad for a new U.S. president

A word of caution about great expectations for a new US president

The rest of the world can't vote for the next American president, but many certainly follow the US campaign as if they could. They also hold high hopes that a new leader – no matter who wins – will change Washington's foreign policy. They may well be disappointed.

Despite a recent uptick in reputation around the world, the US is still viewed mostly unfavorably in many countries – including longtime friends such as France, Turkey, and Mexico. The criticisms are well known: The US is not a team player (climate change); it is an aggressor (Iraq); it doesn't live up to its own values (Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay).

The deep displeasure helps explain the great attention paid to the US election. According to last month's "global attitudes" survey by the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of Japanese are following the campaign closely. No other country outruns the Japanese as newshounds on the US campaign trail. But at least half of Germans, Australians, Jordanians, and British are also following the twists and turns closely.

The Pew survey, co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, also found that in 14 of the 24 countries surveyed, majorities (or pluralities) of those paying attention to the election say a new US president will bring a "change for the better" in foreign policy. That feeling is strongest in Europe, Africa, India, and Australia.

Global optimists have grounds for hope that a new president will try to restore American "values" and work more closely with the world on certain issues. Both senators running for president – John McCain and Barack Obama – want to cap greenhouse gases and close Guantánamo.

But the complexity of the issues at hand and other aspects of US foreign policy may well dull starry-eyed optimism.

Be careful, Europe, because the Afghanistan conflict may well get worse, and whether it's Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain in the Oval Office, the need for more European troops will continue. In Iraq, even if the Obama plan was to quit quickly, that's not so easy logistically – and with sky-high oil prices, a president is likely to be ultra-cautious about instability that would further rattle markets. Closing down Gitmo is also no finger-snapping matter. What will America do with the prisoners?

Be careful, Africa, because in conflicts such as Darfur, China will still have the power to block progress.

Be careful, Mexico, because while McCain (who's visiting your country this week) and Obama may talk about a "path to legalization" for illegal immigrants, the popular demand for "enforcement first" in the US hasn't gone away.

More fundamentally, the US is unlikely to drop its view of its role as an "indispensable nation." It is still the world's only superpower, and, like Bush, President Clinton also acted without UN approval in attacking Serbia, Sudan, and Afghanistan.

Both candidates are well aware of the desire for a new foreign policy. They're getting a head start with foreign travel this summer.

A softer tone and a reordering of priorities can work like needle and thread on this torn fabric. But it would be best if those with high hopes didn't expect a brand-new wardrobe.

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