When Barack Obama took office in 2009, one of his foreign policy platforms was to repair America’s image abroad. Over the course of the last 5 years, however, the perception of the United States has taken even more turns for the worse, if that’s possible.
The Bush years didn’t do any favors for the country’s reputation. The list of offenses — wars, “global policing” and financial woes — hardly needs to be listed. So it was with relief and eagerness to right the ship that Americans appointed Obama, in large part because of his foreign policy promises.
His opening trip to the Middle East, highlighted by his Cairo speech, seemed a good start. His plans for gradual military pull-back seemed even better.
When Obama was first elected, American favorability around the world got a huge boost, mostly because he was popular and by virtue of the fact that he was not named George W. Bush. But since those early days, and particularly in recent months, America’s image continues to be tarnished.
The NSA surveillance and spying, revealed to the world by the likes of Edward Snowden, is only the latest in a line of damages. Germany is concerned that the American government monitored Chancellor Merkel’s phone. Brazil won’t even send its diplomats to the United States because of American phone-tapping in their country. France is angry at rumors of espionage too.
The government shutdown proved a national embarrassment. Isn’t the United States the hegemon? Isn’t it a first-world democracy? And yet it can’t keep its own government open? Not to mention, the shutdown threatened the global economy with default.
Other unpopular realities: drone strikes, Gitmo is still open, the US government can’t put together immigration reform.
And then there are unfortunate problems in the Middle East. In Egypt, much of the population has come to believe that Washington backs the Muslim Brotherhood and terror. Syria was going to hurt the American face abroad no matter what. Our stagnant, oftentimes-ineffective relationship with Israel is a cause of considerable anger.
The general perception of American neoimperialism and a lack of multilateralism has come back with a vengeance since the Obama bounce.
Overall, America as a nation is still viewed more positively than negatively in Africa and parts of Western Europe, but we’re slipping nearly everywhere, with terrible ratings in the Middle East and parts of Asia. American favor is dropping sharply in China and Mexico, and even Britain and Germany are seeing double-digit declines in American popularity.
Interestingly, America’s reputation is viewed most positively in countries like Kenya, Japan and South Korea.
To be sure, President Obama is not the sole or even the main reason for the erosion of the American visage abroad. He came into a difficult situation, compounded by forced forays into a lot of losing battles. Still, international history may well remember Obama as little or no better than Bush in restoring America’s reputation to the world.