The Magazine

Standing Down

How popular should America want to be?

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By TOD LINDBERG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Perhaps President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize will spur a sudden global outpouring of love and affection for the United States, but the American Political Science Association (APSA) thinks our image problem runs deeper: Its 20-member blue chip task force (minus two dissenters) has concluded that U.S. standing in the world is in trouble. Chaired by Jeffrey Legro of the University of Virginia, the task force issued a report last month that traces broad declines in the willingness of people around the globe to express positive views of the United States, the willingness of governments to side with the United States, and the degree of satisfaction among Americans themselves with the U.S. position in the world. The report's findings will be depressing to anyone who would like the United States to be well-thought-of. What to do about that problem, however, is a question on which the report is not especially illuminating.

Eighty-three percent of Americans in a September 2008 Chicago Council poll ranked "improving America's standing in the world" as a "very important" goal of U.S. foreign policy. Standing was at the top of the chart, outpacing "protecting the jobs of American workers" and "securing adequate supplies of energy" (80 percent each) and "preventing the spread of nuclear weapons" (73 percent). (Dead last on the list was "helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations," at 17 percent.)

Meanwhile, U.S. favorability ratings abroad dropped precipitously, especially in Europe, from 2002 forward. The percentage of Germans expressing a favorable view of the United States declined from 60 in 2002 to 31 in 2008. The APSA report here is consistent with findings from the annual "Transatlantic Trends" survey by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Elsewhere, Indonesia went from 61 percent favorable in 2002 down to 15 percent favorable in 2003, before ticking back up into the high 30s after the United States provided massive aid following the devastating tsunami there in December 2004. Even staunch U.S. ally Japan registered a decline from 72 percent favorable to 50 percent. In the Middle East, favorability was and remains low everywhere but in Israel and Lebanon.

The APSA report also examines voting patterns in the United Nations, taking willingness or unwillingness to join with the United States on General Assembly resolutions as an indicator of U.S. standing. For most regions, the overall trendline for voting with the United States on resolutions has been downward since 1945, with a temporary upward spike in the late 1980s and 1990s as the Cold War came to an end. The report notes: "Astonishingly, the absolute level of agreement today between the United States and the typical country in each region is below the level of agreement between America and its existential rival, the Soviet Union, at the height of the Cold War." The ups and mostly downs of U.N. agreement appear to be unrelated to U.S. power, according to the widely used measure the report cites, and to U.S. share of world GDP, both of which have remained flat-ish.

The good news for those concerned about U.S. standing is that favorability ratings are up for 2009 in most areas, the Middle East being a notable exception. The "Obama Bounce," as the German Marshall Fund survey dubs it, is huge, especially but not only in Europe. In the "Transatlantic Trends" poll, in 2008 George W. Bush's approval rating in Germany was 12 percent; in 2009, Obama's was 92 percent. The figures for Italy were 27 percent and 91 percent. Poland and Romania were the two countries in the survey with the most favorable view of Bush in 2008 (including the United States), at 44 percent. Their approval of Obama in 2009 nevertheless rose, to 58 percent in Romania and 55 percent in Poland.

The potentially partisan aspects of the question of "standing," such as the fact that Obama made restoring American standing a theme of his 2008 campaign, led two members of the task force to dissent from the report, smelling a rat. George Washington University's Henry Nau, who served in the Reagan administration, and Stanford's Stephen Krasner (a Hoover Institution colleague), who was the State Department's director of policy planning in the George W. Bush administration, claim that "this report makes too much of the decline of U.S. standing, implicitly indicting the administration of George W. Bush and endorsing President Obama's rhetoric to 'restore' that standing." More fundamentally, they question the premise that standing as the report defines it "has independent consequences for effective diplomacy."