Acid testing Obama’s popularity in Europe
By Peter Feaver It is conventional wisdom that President Bush was globally unpopular and that this seriously impeded American foreign policy. In fact, President Bush and his policies were not so universally unpopular. As Secretary Clinton is about to discover on her trip to Asia, the Bush legacy there is positive and generally well-reviewed. Ditto ...
By Peter Feaver
By Peter Feaver
It is conventional wisdom that President Bush was globally unpopular and that this seriously impeded American foreign policy. In fact, President Bush and his policies were not so universally unpopular. As Secretary Clinton is about to discover on her trip to Asia, the Bush legacy there is positive and generally well-reviewed. Ditto Africa. But there are certainly enough data to underscore the basic line that Bush was a generally unpopular president, at least measured by Pew polls.
Whether this unpopularity impeded American foreign policy is harder to measure. The best studies find little evidence to support the conventional wisdom. But there are certainly enough cases where President Bush was unable to get the full support and cooperation he sought from allies and partners — whether it was greater anti-Taliban vigor from Musharraf, or tougher action on Iran from Britain France, Germany, Russia, and China, or more NATO troops and fewer constraints on them in Afghanistan — to make the conventional wisdom a plausible hypothesis worth testing.
Enter the Obama team and yet another test this time a test of the conventional wisdom. Obama starts out unquestionably more popular than Bush ended and he campaigned on the promise that he would restore global respect and admiration for the United States and thereby get far more multilateral cooperation where it matters most.
Today, there is a fascinating story in the Washington Post about European concerns that President Obama will actually follow through on a specific related campaign promise: getting NATO to step up to the plate more vigorously in Afghanistan. A couple days ago, I referenced another such moment of transatlantic truth: the fact that Obama’s Iran strategy hinges on getting the Europeans to ramp up pressure on Iran. And a few weeks ago there were intriguing reports that Obama’s plans to close Gitmo hinged on whether the Europeans would accept more of the "releasables."
That is a daunting list of "asks" to present to the Europeans. If the conventional wisdom was correct and Europeans were reluctant to help the United States out of pique over President Bush and his unpopularity, then we should see the Obama team quickly rack up a lot of progress working through that list. But if under President Bush we already secured the level of trans-Atlantic cooperation that Realists expect from the balance of interests and power and Pew polling had little to do with it, then we should not expect to see much progress.
I believe many Europeans sincerely disliked Bush and that many Europeans sincerely would like to see Obama score more successes than did Bush. But I further believe that most of the conventional critique about Bush "cowboy diplomacy" is based on myth, and that European leaders will be hard-pressed to make more concessions to aid U.S. policy. I would love to be wrong on this, and by next week when Vice President Biden returns from his European trip, we should have a pretty good idea if I am.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
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