Hirsh: A World of Trouble

The results are now in. Whoever becomes president on Jan. 20, 2009, the next leader of the free world may face a task akin to taking over command of the Titanic. After the iceberg.

That is the message behind a new multinational survey, released this week by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and WorldPublicOpinion.org, which showed that nations around the world reject the idea that the United States should play the role of preeminent world leader. A majority of respondents polled in 15 countries, representing about 56 percent of the world's population (the survey included China, India and Russia), also said the United States cannot be trusted any longer "to act responsibly in the world." As Richard Holbrooke, the former U.N. ambassador, sums it up bluntly: "No president will ever have handed over a worse international situation than George W. Bush."

The current results contrast markedly with surveys taken at the end of the '90s. Even as recently as 2002 (before the invasion of Iraq, in other words), a Pew survey found that despite criticisms of U.S. policy, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most people accepted a one-superpower world, if grudgingly. Even in countries that have since become virulently anti-American, like Jordan, Egypt and Russia, majorities back then concluded that "the world is safer with the United States as the lone superpower," the survey noted. To compare 1999 State Department data with recent surveys by the Pew Trust, favorable views of the United States have dropped in Britain from 83 percent to 56 percent, in Germany from 78 percent to 37 percent, in Morocco from 77 percent to 49 percent, in Indonesia from 75 to 30 percent, in France from 62 to 39 percent, in Turkey from 62 to 12 percent and in Spain from 50 to 23 percent.

To take issue with an old Mel Brooks line, it's not always good to be the king. For all our many foibles and missteps over the decades—Vietnam chief among them—people around the world used to depend on America to play the part of an essentially benign great power. We might occasionally dominate the world stage, brandishing our high-tech weaponry and flaunting our sense of exceptionalism, but we would always do it with great reluctance. And we were eager to go home again (though we might leave a military base or two behind). The Bush administration, with its eager embrace of preemptive war in the first term and its grandiose vision of remaking the Mideast by force, has all but shredded this reputation. And now, with Iran enriching uranium, the Arab states mulling nukes, China ratcheting up defense spending, and Russia carving out a new sphere of influence in Europe, many foreign leaders have a jittery sense that they can't depend on the lone superpower's defense umbrella. "Countries are making moves that reduce their dependence on sober and constructive American leadership," says Princeton's G. John Ikenberry, a leading scholar of the international system. "My question is: how much of the damage that Bush foreign policy has done is irreversible?"

We don't know yet—and may not know for decades. But the start of wisdom, and something like a healing process, must be a frank acknowledgement of all that's gone wrong. That is not yet happening. Too many politicians—including Democrats—still accept too many of the premises of the Bush foreign policy that have so soured the world on us. This, in turn, means subscribing to the idea that there is something natural or expected about where we are now—that the virulent Islamist sentiment sweeping the Muslim world, and the anti-Americanism and dysfunction in the world today, are more an organic outgrowth of the global situation post-9/11, of natural resentment of the last superpower, and so on.

This was John Kerry's mistake in 2004, and it is one that is being repeated today by too many candidates. Hillary Clinton, while arguing for a return to her husband's centrism, is still subscribing to the idea that Iraq has always been part of the "war on terror" (it is now, but wasn't when we invaded). So are the leading Republican candidates, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. McCain is mainly identified with the Iraq War, as a stout supporter from day one. Giuliani still retains the glow of the hero of 9/11. But both of them habitually base their policy prescriptions on the idea that Iraq was a sensible segue from Al Qaeda, rather than a bizarre wrong turn. Sen. Joe Biden continues to focus on the particulars of his partition plan for Iraq, berating Bush for his incompetence but still trying to out-tough him as a warrior against terror. John Edwards is similarly circumspect, and—after being one of the first to admit his 2002 vote for the war resolution was a mistake—recently opened himself up to charges of flip-flopping by reassuring Bill O'Reilly that "I supported the war in Iraq, and I think it's a good thing Saddam Hussein is gone." Even Barack Obama, who has more street cred than any other candidate on the war—having opposed it well before the invasion—recently shrank from his stump statement that lives had been "wasted" in Iraq. Sure, he didn't want to offend the troops and their families, but if you believe, as Obama does, that Iraq was a disastrous and unnecessary diversion from the real war—against Al Qaeda—then you've got to have the courage of your convictions.

If the next president does have that courage, and he or she makes the right choices, we will find that anti-Americanism doesn't have to be this bad. It is possible to be the lone superpower and be accepted, or at least tolerated. I remember traveling with Bill Clinton to Aachen, Germany, in June 2000, when the Europeans awarded him their prestigious Charlemagne Prize for leadership. This—after a decade of bad blood with Europe over Bosnia and other issues. And remember, few countries begrudged us the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. Indeed there is not a government anywhere in the world that wasn't hoping we'd clean that last refuge of Al Qaeda out, and fix the place up. Imagine what the payoff in prestige might have been had Bush brought into the international community a pariah country that had defeated two previous imperial powers—Britain and Russia—in the last two centuries! Instead we made up a new war. And then we botched it.

There is yet light in this bleak landscape. America built up a large fund of goodwill over the decades. It is not entirely depleted. Other nations are too weak or distrusted to lead the international system (think China, which has never had the political reckoning with its mandarins; or Russia, which seems to be building its rep on greed and assassination). The Chicago survey also shows that many nations around the world could be put in a forgiving mood with the right American leadership. Says Ikenberry: "The U.S. can restore its position, but the next administration is going to need to make a pretty clean break with Bush foreign policy. I wish I heard the '08 candidates really saying this!" Steven Kull, the editor of WorldPublicOpinion.org, agrees. "If the United States were to give clear signals that it was getting back with the program this rupture [in world opinion] could heal rather quickly," he says.

Our destiny as Thomas Jefferson's "Empire for Liberty" is still within reach. We remain the only nation that governs itself, if imperfectly, by the same universal principles that most of the rest of the world wants to embrace. "Other countries want to be able to like us. We need to move back toward the love-hate relationship we've always had, rather than the pure hate relationship," says Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. "We may be the world's worst possible global leader but we're better than all the others." If both the American public, and the rest of the world can find a way to believe that again, then the healing can begin.

Join the Discussion