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July 28, 2008

Americans and the World
Posted by Michael Cohen

One might imagine that the images of Barack Obama meeting with foreign leaders and attracting a crowd of 200,000 people to a speech in Berlin, Germany would provide a real boost to his campaign for the White House. However, in Dan Balz's Sunday piece on the trip he quotes an anonymous Democrat who takes a more gimlet-eyed view:

But a Democrat who supported another candidate during the nomination battle had a more skeptical assessment of all the imagery. He argued that the Obama team is mistaken in believing that meetings with foreign leaders will help overcome a relatively thin résumé in foreign affairs.

"It's not whether he has experience or is presidential; it's whether voters can relate to him, given his unusual background and his often seeming arrogance. Talking to Germans and having Sarkozy embrace you make this problem worse, not better. If I were the RNC, I'd use the German-language Obama flier in an ad to make him appear more foreign, more distant."

It should hardly be surprising that the person who said these words would demand anonymity. If I said something this foolish and ill-informed I'd want to hide my identity as well.

In recent years it has become a sort of conventional wisdom that Americans are wary of national leaders that are seen as too closely tied to the rest of the world or too inclined in engage in multilateral approaches to solving global challenges. Well guess what. It's bunk.

Take a look at the most recent Pew Research Center poll on America's image in the world:

More than seven-in-ten Americans (71%) say that the United States is less respected by other countries these days, up from 65% in August 2006.

For the first time since Pew began asking this question in 2004, a majority of Americans now sees the loss of international respect for the United States as a major problem.

It's not just effete, chablis-drinking Democrats who feel this way. It's a view shared by not only 81% of Democrats, but also 71% of Independents and 60% of Republicans.

Now what about the notion that a German-language flyer would make for a good John McCain ad. According to the most recent Gallup poll 82% of Americans have a favorable view of Germany; even 69% of Americans view France favorably! In fact, a stroll through the polling data shows that except for a brief period in the Spring of 2003 (the start of the Iraq War) Americans have maintained extremely positive images of our European allies. .

What about 2004, when Republicans were attacking John Kerry for his "global test" comment and alleging that he was "French." Well the jury is out on this one. The question wasn't even deemed important enough to ask in voter exit polls. But there is some data and it tends to argue against the conventional wisdom.

In October of 2004, a month before the election 56% of those polled were dissatisfied with America's image in the world. In a March 2004 poll, more than 8 in 10 preferred an international approach that saw America use its power "according to shared ideas of what is best for the world as a whole," rather than a narrow focus on US interests.

Of course, these numbers don't necessarily tell a complete tale because they don't take into account the importance that voters assign to these priorities. But they are largely in tune with most polling data over the past 8 years, which shows that Americans have hardly embraced a unilateralist approach to foreign policy. If anything, quite the opposite.

Now this brings us back to Obama. The cynic might argue that the issue with his trip to Europe is that it makes him seem foreign and inaccessible to "ordinary" Americans. Well considering that ordinary Americans have a rather positive view of our European allies and considering the fact that they view our strained relations with our allies as a "major problem" wouldn't Obama going to Berlin and being embraced by foreign leaders and people make him seem less distant and more presidential?

When one considers that experience and Obama's capabilities to handle the job of commander-in-chief are two of his biggest liabilities it's hard to see how this trip isn't a net benefit. I'm at a loss to understand how being embraced by European leaders makes Obama seem more foreign - doesn't it make him seem more mainstream and capable of carrying out the responsibilities of President? Certainly, if Americans were dubious of close relations with the rest of the world then yes, this trip would be harmful to Obama. But quite simply, they don't.

Now I'm not going to do start arguing that improving relations with our Allies is a major reason to vote for Obama or will drive many voters to his camp, but at the same time there is little empirical evidence to suggest that it's a hindrance either.

Indeed for all those Americans who might look askance at Barack Obama speaking to 200,000 people in Berlin there are an equal, if not larger group of Americans who think it's pretty excellent - and the latter category represent a majority of Americans. (And one can possibly draw the assumption that those in the former category are not terribly likely to vote for a Democrat anyway).

The notion that Americans want their presidents to maintain an arm's distance relationship with our Allies is a canard. There simply is no evidence to support this notion. But due to constant repetition by neo-conservative politicians and various enablers of this Administration it has become conventional wisdom. It's about time we put this silly idea to rest.

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