Fair-Weather Friends

There’s no doubt that Obama is immensely popular abroad. But do international affections for him run only skin deep?

Opinion polls around the globe suggest that if citizens of other countries could vote in the forthcoming U.S. presidential election, they would choose Senator Barack Obama by a large margin. While not exactly a scientific survey, the site "If the World Could Vote," based upon internet votes cast, gives Obama a huge margin of victory not only in the overall "global vote" but in most individual countries as well. Interestingly enough, despite his embrace of Georgia after its spat with Russia, John McCain, so far, has received only 35 percent of votes cast from that country.

Global "Obamamania" is driven by a number of factors. The senator is a young, dynamic, charismatic leader with a compelling personal story that validates the American dream. For fifth-generation Koreans living in Japan, or third-generation Turks in Germany, the notion that the son of an immigrant can aspire to the highest office in the United States is quite a revolutionary concept.

But Obama's favorable ratings are also driven by his promise of "change"-and after the Bush administration, it is not surprising. Whether justified or not, there is resentment against U.S. policies in every region of the globe. Any candidate positioned as the "anti-Bush" (a mantle John McCain was never quite able to assume) would benefit.

Typical of this view is the one expressed by "man on the street" interviews in Ethiopia, where there is support for Obama based on his call for "withdrawing troops from Iraq; his multilateral approach to solving international crises; and [the belief] that a President Obama will have a foreign policy direction toward East Africa contrary to what the Bush Administration has been pursuing."

But there is a danger lurking in the shadows. It would be foolhardy for the Obama team to assume that these strong ratings can easily and swiftly be translated into renewed acceptance of U.S. policies. And publics in other countries that are expecting an Obama administration would reverse or alter every last policy of the Bush administration are going to be disappointed.

Polling data from Europe over the last several years consistently demonstrates that Europeans both found fault with the Bush administration (and that their dislike of President Bush and his team colored their impressions of the United States) but also objected to specific U.S. policies. For many in continental Europe, Obama's embrace of "multilateralism" is welcome-but there is still a gap in how Europeans and Americans interpret the concept. For Europeans, multilateralism goes hand in hand with creating binding international institutions that can override national sovereignty and national objections. No mainstream American politician is willing to go that far. Obama's initial position on the International Criminal Court (ICC) was that the United States could work with the ICC but in a way that would respect American sovereignty; in 2008 he indicated support for U.S. ratification but wanted greater safeguards for Americans. On questions of climate change, Europeans may welcome his call for stricter domestic standards and a new international negotiations process to replace the Kyoto Protocol (as well as a "Global Energy Forum")-but they may have difficulties with linking any binding standards internationally to what the United States is prepared to implement domestically. In other words, while Obama would move much closer to European positions, it is not clear that he would completely bridge the gap.

Given Obama's support for further NATO enlargement-including membership for Georgia and Ukraine-it is also not clear whether an Obama administration would push ahead in the face of increasing resistance from continental European states, especially France and Germany. His statement on the subject-that NATO expansion "should continue so long as new candidates for membership are democratic, peaceful and willing to contribute to our common security" is vague. Whether Obama might use the "common security" angle to accommodate Franco-German concerns about expansion at this time is unclear. But, if elected, his administration would be forced to directly address the gap that has opened in transatlantic relations over how to deal with Russia.

At the same time, some of the "new European" states may be concerned that Obama is insufficiently focused on their interests. On missile defense, the Obama campaign has been much more circumspect, noting that "such systems should only be deployed . . . if based on sound technology that works." The promise that the United States will work closely with NATO allies may be worrisome, especially to Poland, which agreed to host the missile-defense system in part because it created a bilateral security relationship between Warsaw and Washington.

Going further afield, many of the world's "rising powers" in Asia, Africa and Latin America want to see what Obama might do on free-trade matters. Would he take on powerful special interests in the United States to push for a new global trading regime? Mixed signals from the campaign-especially on whether or not he stood for "amending NAFTA"-as well as the reasons for his opposition to the free trade agreement with Colombia and his criticisms of the free trade agreement with Korea-have raised concerns in other countries about what his stance will be once in office.