Bush Did Obama a Favor On Foreign Policy

Contrary to common belief, Americans actually do care about how they are perceived by the rest of the world. In September, a survey by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs showed that the No. 1 foreign-policy priority for Americans was improving the country's standing in the world. Will the election of Barack Obama accomplish this goal?

At first glance, the answer would appear to be yes. In his acceptance speech, the president-elect devoted an entire paragraph to "all those watching tonight from beyond our shores." And there has been widespread jubilation at Obama's election in countries spanning the globe, according to NEWSWEEK correspondents. A Gallup poll conducted in 73 countries from May to October 2008 found that global citizens preferred Obama over Sen. John McCain by a ratio of 3-1—with particularly strong support in Europe, Africa and Japan. Surely his election will lend a boost to America's standing in the world.

The reality going forward may be more complicated. While the world's population clearly favored Obama over McCain, "no opinion" beat Obama by a better than 2-to-1 ratio (69 percent to 24 percent). In China, the numbers are even more stark—83 percent expressed no opinion, versus 12-percent-support for Obama. Indeed, indifference appeared to be the winner in India and Latin America as well. While Obama might have been preferred over McCain, it appeared that many citizens did not care either way.

Citizens can afford to be indifferent, but governments cannot. This does not mean that a President Obama will have an easy path, however. The day after Obama's election, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced the placement of short-range missiles into the territory of Kaliningrad, in response to U.S. missile-defense plans in Eastern Europe. In the same speech, Medvedev blasted America for pursuing a "selfish" foreign policy and triggering the global financial crisis. South Korea's government, meanwhile, warned the president-elect not to try and open up Washington's proposed free-trade agreement with Seoul—even though Obama pledged to do this very thing during the campaign.

The prickly reactions by some allies and rivals would appear to vindicate the realist approach to international politics, which views foreign policy through the cold-hearted lens of power and interest. Concepts like "standing" and "soft power" mean little to the realpolitik worldview. "The rest of the world doesn't take its marching orders from Washington and won't, no matter who happens to be president next year," wrote Andrew Bacevich in the Los Angeles Times last month. "Governments will respond to American advice, threats or blandishments precisely to the extent that doing so serves their interests, and no further."

Obama might succeed in improving America's standing in the world, if not entirely for reasons of his own making. But President George W. Bush has done Obama several huge favors that might make the president-elect's job a bit easier. First, Bush's two terms demonstrate the importance of making a good first impression. During its first year in office, the Bush administration alienated the rest of globe by categorically rejecting a host of international treaties. Bush never really recovered from these first missteps. If Obama can create a positive first impression through important symbolic measures—such as closing Guantanamo—he might be able to bank some goodwill for future challenges.

The Bush administration of 2008 has also traveled a long way from the administration of 2003. In his second term, Bush made a concerted effort to repair the transatlantic relationship, in part by endorsing negotiations with Iran. The United States started talking to North Korea about its nuclear program, and has recently removed Pyongyang from the list of terrorist-supporting states. The Bush administration revamped its counterinsurgency approach in Iraq, stabilizing the country while recognizing the inevitability of withdrawing the bulk of American forces. Ironically, the Bush administration's policy positions have gravitated toward the positions of Barack Obama.

Bush has received little credit for these steps, but Obama will get to reap some of the benefits. Other countries could always rely on anti-American and anti-Bush sentiment as an excuse for non-cooperation. With the change in administrations, that excuse will no longer work.

Beyond the gifts that George W. Bush will bestow upon him, president-elect Obama will also be responsible for burnishing America's soft power in one crucial dimension. With his election, Obama has managed to embody the American Dream—a dream that still holds some attraction in the rest of the world. The first words of his acceptance speech emphasized this point: "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

The realists are correct to say that the election of Barack Obama will not mollify Russia or democratize China. What his election might do, however, is grease the wheels of diplomacy a bit between the world's most powerful democracy and its allies. In the game of world politics, that counts for something.