The Magazine

The Democrats' Popularity Fetish

Global approval is overrated.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A major theme of this year's presidential campaign is that the United States has lost the respect of the world and that electing a Democrat, especially Barack Obama, is the way to fix it. "What if we could restore America's place in the world, and people's faith in our government?" asks one Obama ad.

Obama's supposed ability to make the United States loved again is taken as a given by the pundit class, not to mention his adoring followers. Listing his reasons for supporting the junior senator from Illinois, the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan swooned, "First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan." In a New York Times dispatch datelined Paris, foreign affairs columnist Roger Cohen gushed that the French see Obama as one of "les bons Américains" alongside John F. Kennedy, Michael Moore, and Al Gore. Writing in the Baltimore Sun, University of Maryland professor Thomas Schaller declared that Obama "may yet prove to be America's next great export."

The fervor for Obama here at home appears to be matched by equal, if not more ardent, enthusiasm abroad. "Excitement about Obama spreads around the world," read the headline of a recent Associated Press story, which described the junior senator from Illinois as a "global phenomenon." Yet as tempting as some may find it to support Obama for his worldwide appeal, to believe that his election will dramatically improve America's relations with the world is incredibly shallow.

In the simplistic narrative of the Obama boosters, President Bush and his party's successor, John McCain, are cranky nationalists who view the world through the barrel of a gun. But the fact is, in this election it is the Democratic candidate who is proposing policies profoundly at odds with his promise to restore America's preeminent place in the world.

Take the issue of trade. In Senate debates earlier this year, Obama vocally opposed free trade deals with both South Korea and Colombia. Asked what Congress's failure to pass the Colombia Free Trade Act would mean for bilateral relations between his country and the United States, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe replied, "It would be very serious."

But Obama hasn't just opposed free trade pacts with our closest allies in Asia and Latin America. During the Democratic primary, in an attempt to shore up the votes of rust-belt blue-collar workers in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, he vowed to renegotiate NAFTA, the free trade pact between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. A minor scandal erupted when it was revealed that Obama's chief economic adviser had reassured Canadian officials that his boss's protectionist rhetoric was just campaign sloganeering. After he clinched his party's nomination, Obama tried to confirm that the Canadians' fear was unfounded in an interview with Fortune magazine, saying that "sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified."

Given his anti-trade voting record, though, it's hard to know whether to take Obama's latest statements seriously. His easy ability to go from calling NAFTA a "big mistake" to disavowing the comments months later doesn't inspire confidence in his supposedly unshakable principles, never mind his ability to send a positive message to the world that America is open for business.

Indeed, so put off was he by Obama's protectionist rhetoric that British foreign minister David Miliband in May sent Obama an implicit warning to unmoor himself from the agenda of American labor unions. "The problem is not too much trade, the problem is too little trade," he told the Financial Times. "That is our position as a British government, and it will be articulated clearly and consistently." Alarmed at Obama's anti-NAFTA rhetoric, Canada's National Post opined, "The treaty is simply too integral to our prosperity to take anything about it for granted," and suggested that should the United States even consider renegotiating NAFTA, Canada, America's largest supplier of oil, should threaten to cut off supplies.