In the lead up to the 1996 Australian federal election then Prime Minister Paul Keating claimed if “you change your government, you change your country”. Keating went on to lose the election and commentators never tired of talking about the differences between Keating’s Australia and John Howard’s Australia.
In 2008 as Barack Obama sought the US presidency many supporters/commentators claimed that if the US chose Obama not only would America change but the world would change (or at least the world’s opinion of America would change). Such claims were often based on wishful thinking and a hubristic understanding of the future of global politics and the minds of the world’s inhabitants.
Writing about “what the world thinks of America” always requires a large dose of personal hubris: after all we are talking about the opinions 6.8 billion people hold about the history, culture and politics of 300 million people. Therefore most of us who write about so called anti-Americanism are dependent on polling to have a sense of the prevailing trends and feelings.
My sense is that opinion polls about America only get us so far: for example, the most influential survey question asks people whether they have a “favourable” or “unfavourable” attitude towards America. Some people will answer this question based on their reactions to recent US foreign policies or elections; others will consider what they think of America in a much broader sense. Some respondents may dislike the US for not signing up to the Kyoto Protocol whereas for others their reactions to America may be based on their love of American music, film or comic books. Such broad questions often thus tell us far less than we think and far more than we can precisely summarise.
Nonetheless, despite these weaknesses, opinion polls seemed to be saying something important: after the decision to go to war against Iraq in 2003 the majority of people surveyed around the world by Pew felt “unfavourable” towards the US; furthermore, Brits, French, Germans and Italians felt more “unfavourable” towards the US than at any time since comparable surveys began in the 1950s.
Follow up questions confirmed that opposition to the Iraq war and antipathy to George W. Bush accounted for much of this enmity. Therefore when an urbane intellectual black presidential candidate emerged in America who had opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning and promised to bring American troops home as soon as possible, he was warmly greeted in Western Europe (most notably in Berlin in 2008) and roundly endorsed in opinion surveys in most nations (this is the closest us non-resident aliens get to voting in US presidential elections).
The Obama campaign was followed with a feverish intensity around the world. Obama seemed to promise a new tomorrow and politics was suddenly cool again. In Wellington, New Zealand, a couple of months after his election, I saw an alternative music festival being advertised with Obama’s face on the poster. I could not remember a time when I had seen Rastafarian musicians and vegan food stalls using a positive image of a US president for promotional purposes. Undoubtedly in many places perceptions changed.
However, does the election of any new leader really make a difference? By their very nature, new governments and leaders are news and as a result the appearance of change buzzes across the media air waves. Our daily media diet changes and so do our most basic political reference points. For many the first few times they say President Obama or Prime Minister Rudd it sounds awkward or even titillating (rather like introducing your new “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” to your family and friends). Most governments and leaders get an initial honeymoon period where the voters, or in Obama’s case the world, are excited to have someone new to look at, listen to and read about.
At the risk of extending the dating metaphor too far: this admiration rarely lasts. In parliamentary systems boredom with leaders strikes often. In the American case the syndrome identified at length by Proust in Remembrance of Things Past and more swiftly and bluntly by Martin Amis in The Rachel Papers is often apparent as love turns out to be self-love and delusion: the audacity of hope turns out to be foolish romanticism. Remember all those jilted admirers of Clinton across the globe who found his presidency far less commendable than his talents, charisma and promise seemed to suggest? Is Obama really that different, that special, that he can defy the iron law of politics: disappointment?
What does the evidence suggest? Opinion polls certainly show that Obama has helped make America more “favourably” viewed in most surveyed countries. America is much more popular in Germany and France than it was under Bush. However, this general increase in popularity is not universal. For instance, in Israel, not that surprisingly, America was less popular in 2009 than it was under Bush. In Russia and Poland, America was slightly more popular in the last year of the Bush administration than in 2009. American favourability also dropped in that crucial “ally” nation in the war against terrorism, Pakistan.
These figures point to the reality there is rarely one story about how “the world” sees America. National variation is to be expected. The improvement in US favourability across Western Europe is hardly surprising as Bush was almost perfectly cast to fit the two-century old European-made stereotype of the uncouth and ignorant American. The dramatic symbolic move to a different type of American leader and the promise of a different foreign policy direction clearly has moved the hearts and minds of Western Europeans.
Whether this change in opinion is suggestive of the shrewdness, or the superficiality, of Western European opinion on America I will leave for others to conclude. The fact that Russians were not in 2009 wooed by Obama in the same way as Spaniards, Germans, Brits and the French represents the greater depth of resentment that Russians feel to how American elites have treated Russia since the end of the Cold War, namely a belief that Russia has not been given due respect and in fact has often been treated contemptuously.
Then there is Pakistan; handwringing about the state of this nation seems to enter every conversation on wicked and insoluble global problems. Simply put, a US favourability rating of 16 per cent in Pakistan in 2009 is an obvious problem. When the Pakistani people feel this negative about the US, surely expecting the Pakistani government to be entirely co-operative with US demands is unrealistic.
To conclude, undoubtedly Obama has made a significant number of people feel more positive about the US and its global role. The trends suggest that in Western Europe anti-Americanism (or more correctly put a general antipathy towards the US) during the Bush years was about something other than US power: it was a reaction to US decisions which saw the reigniting of potent and negative stereotypes about America.
Enthusiasm across Western Europe and in Australia for Obama’s win also revealed how keen many Westerners are to see America as a positive force in the world and is suggestive of the Western tendency to buy into exceptionalist views about America. On the other hand, in places where American power and militarism is felt, or relied upon, more intimately a new American president has mattered a lot less. Those at the frontline of American foreign policy will pass judgment not just on presidential rhetoric but also on how they see American power impacting on their lives.