The Magazine

The Democrats' Popularity Fetish

Global approval is overrated.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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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.

Also disconcerting to many around the world is Obama's promise--articulated in a debate last August--to meet with a variety of anti-American dictators without preconditions. He has since tried to backtrack from this off-the-cuff remark, yet its utterance showed Obama's remarkable hubris--his apparent belief that seemingly intractable world problems will be easier to solve simply by dint of his charming personality. He is far from alone in this belief. Writing recently in the Boston Globe, Mark Oppenheimer suggested that "given Obama's popularity abroad, it's possible to imagine that his meetings would embolden pro-American or pro-Western forces wherever he went."

Yet negotiating with tin-pot tyrants is a double-edged sword. For every despot a President Obama meets with, he runs the risk of demoralizing the democracy activists suffering under the despot's boot, and the neighboring countries threatened by said tyrant's hegemony. An unconditional meeting with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, for instance, would rightly anger Colombians, as Chávez's Venezuela has provided assistance to Colombia's antigovernment FARC guerrillas.

Ah, but then there is the Bush foreign policy, Obama partisans argue. It's true that the Iraq war is exhibit A for America haters around the globe, yet it's unclear how Obama's solution--complete withdrawal in little over a year and unconditional negotiations with the Syrians and Iranians--will win us popularity. Leaving Iraq at the pace the Democrats propose would very likely throw the country into chaos, and the people most obviously pleased by this policy would be the Iranians.

Yet let us assume that it is Bush's foreign policy that has earned the evident displeasure with the United States expressed in many countries around the world. Voters desiring to reverse this trend should then give a second look to John McCain, for the Republican's worldwide appeal has been badly underestimated. In March, McCain toured through Europe and the Middle East, and won winning headlines wherever he traveled. The Guardian, a newspaper hardly known for its pro-American or pro-Republican sympathies, noted that "Mr. McCain should not be dismissed as Bush mark two" because he is "made of sterner stuff and he has a lifetime of engagement with the outside world --and the scars to prove it--that gives him the moral seriousness Mr. Bush so lacks." And in the past several weeks, McCain has toured Canada, Mexico, and Colombia in an attempt to highlight--to its potential victims abroad--the differences between his pro-trade agenda and the protectionist pandering of his opponent. McCain has distinguished himself from President Bush on a variety of issues--from the closure of Guantánamo to global warming--that are frequently cited in the litany of alleged American misdeeds that Obama will fix.

Ultimately, it remains questionable whether American voters should concern themselves much with "global opinion." In any case, so committed are Obama supporters to the belief that Bush has lowered America's standing to an unprecedented extent that they cannot explain the election of pro-American leaders in Italy (Silvio Berlusconi), Germany (Angela Merkel), and France (Nicolas Sarkozy). Partly because of their candidate's multi-ethnic background, and partly because of their hatred for Bush, many Obama supporters have a wildly overconfident view of their candidate's powers, one that assumes his emergence onto the world stage will, in the candidate's own phrase, begin to heal the planet. It won't.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor at the New Republic.