Contrary to common belief, Americans appear to care about how they are perceived by the rest of the world. In September, for instance, the Chicago Council of Global Affairs released a survey showing that the number one foreign-policy priority for Americans was improving the country's standing in the world.
Will the election of Barack Obama accomplish this goal? At first glance, the answer would appear to be yes. In his acceptance speech, the president-elect devoted an entire paragraph to "all those watching tonight from beyond our shores." Multiple press reports suggest widespread jubilation at Obama's election in countries spanning the globe. A Gallup poll conducted in seventy-three countries from May-October 2008 found that global citizens preferred Obama over Senator John McCain by a ratio of three to one-with particularly strong support in Europe, Africa and Japan. Surely his election will lend a boost to America's standing in the world.
A second glance, however, suggests a more complicated picture. While the world's population clearly favored Obama over McCain, "no opinion" beat Obama by a better than two-to-one ratio (69 percent to 24 percent). In China the numbers are even more stark-83 percent expressed no opinion, versus 12 percent support for Obama. Indeed, indifference appeared to be the winner in India and Latin America as well. While Obama might have been preferred over McCain, it appeared that many citizens did not care either way.
While citizens can afford to be indifferent, governments cannot-but this does not mean that a President Obama will have an easy path. The day after Obama's election, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced the placement of short-range missiles into the territory of Kaliningrad, in response to U.S. missile-defense plans in Eastern Europe. In the same speech, Medvedev blasted America for pursuing a "selfish" foreign policy and triggering the global financial crisis. South Korea's government, meanwhile, warned the president-elect not to try and open up Washington's proposed free-trade agreement with Seoul-even though Obama pledged to do this very thing during the campaign.
The prickly reactions by some allies and rivals would appear to vindicate the realist approach to international politics. Realists view foreign policy through the cold-hearted lens of power and interest. Nation-states will only choose to cooperate if it is in their interest to do so or if a powerful state makes them an offer they can't refuse. Indeed, Andrew Bacevich wrote in the Los Angeles Times last month that, "The rest of the world doesn't take its marching orders from Washington and won't, no matter who happens to be president next year. Governments will respond to American advice, threats or blandishments precisely to the extent that doing so serves their interests, and no further." In the realpolitik worldview, concepts like "standing" and "soft power" mean little-they are viewed as the "pleasing illusions" of material power. Realists might acknowledge that president-elect Obama will boost American power by husbanding American resources-but they do not believe that just his election affects America's standing.
At third glance, however, Obama might succeed in improving America's standing in the world-but not entirely for reasons of his own making. The current president, George W. Bush, has done Obama several huge favors that might make the president-elect's job a bit easier. First, Bush's two terms demonstrate the importance of making a good first impression. During its first year in office, the Bush administration alienated the rest of globe by categorically rejecting a host of international treaties. Bush never really recovered from these first missteps. If Obama can create a positive first impression through important symbolic measures-such as closing Guantanamo-he might be able to bank some goodwill for future challenges.
Second, the Bush administration of 2008 has traveled a long way from the administration of 2003. In his second term, Bush made a concerted effort to repair the transatlantic relationship, in part by endorsing negotiations with Iran. The United States started talking to North Korea about its nuclear program and has recently removed Pyongyang from the list of terrorist-supporting states. The Bush administration revamped its counterinsurgency approach in Iraq, stabilizing the country while recognizing the inevitability of withdrawing the bulk of American forces. Ironically, the Bush administration's policy positions have gravitated towards the positions of Barack Obama.
Bush has received little credit for these steps-but Obama will get to reap some of the benefits. Other countries could always rely on anti-American and anti-Bush sentiment as an excuse for noncooperation, saying that as much as they would like to cooperate with Washington, domestic constraints prevented them from doing so. With the change in administrations, that excuse will no longer work.
Beyond the gifts that George W. Bush will bestow upon him, President Obama will also be responsible for burnishing America's soft power in one crucial dimension. With his election, Obama has managed to embody the American Dream-a dream that still holds some attraction in the rest of the world. The first words of his acceptance speech emphasized this point: "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."
The realists are correct to say that the election of Barack Obama will not mollify Russia or democratize China. What his election might do, however, is grease the wheels of diplomacy a bit between the world's most powerful democracy and its allies. In the game of world politics, that counts for something.
A shorter version of this article appeared in Newsweek International.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest.