Think Again

Think Again: America’s Image

U.S. standing in the world matters, Americans care about it, and a weakened stature continues to hamper U.S. policy. Twenty prominent political scientists have recently completed a year-long study of the issue and clear away the underbrush of misunderstanding.


"Obama has solved the problem."

If only it were true. Many associate America’s low standing with the presidency of George W. Bush. The American public’s satisfaction with the U.S. position in the world fell from a high of 70 percent in 2002 to a low of 30 percent in 2008. Members of the international community were of like mind. In 2008, only 31 percent of Germans, 22 percent of Egyptians, 41 percent of Chinese, 19 percent of Pakistanis, and 47 percent of Mexicans had a favorable opinion of the United States. In 2009, however, favorability ratings of the United States increased sharply in most parts of the world.

This improvement is widely hailed as a result of an ‘Obama effect’ — the new president’s approach coupled with the idea that his mere election has improved America’s global image. But scratch a little bit below the surface and you will find a faultline that threatens the Obama presidency. Standing goes beyond favorable opinion polls.

Consider, for example, that even as respondents see the U.S. in a more positive light, there are strong indications of continuing, deep global dissatisfaction with American economic and military policies. Foreign opinion shows significant disapproval of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the lack of U.S. multilateralism, U.S. neglect of others’ interests, U.S. economic impact, and overall U.S. influence.

The danger for Obama looms in the pressure between two tectonic plates. On the one side are high expectations and optimism that Obama will address global complaints about U.S. policy. On the other side, U.S. interests, domestic politics, and the difficulty of global problems will prevent him from acting the way others might like in many areas. The result could be a political earthquake of reaction against America that sends the country’s standing reeling again.

Similar declines in standing have occurred before in U.S. history (for example during the Vietnam war and early Reagan years) and by some measures (e.g. the level of agreement with U.S. votes in the U.N. General Assembly) the latest plunge in standing started before the Bush administration. It is worth noting that the recent improvements in standing preceded Obama. Falling favorability ratings in most countries bottomed in 2007 and then began to improve.

"‘Standing’ is too vague a term to measure."

No. OK, "U.S. standing" — its position with respect to reputation, stature, or prestige in world affairs — is not as concrete or easily measured as say cruise missiles, wheat bales, or Eurodollars. And there is much we do not understand about it. But standing nonetheless captures a critical dimension of a country’s reputation that cannot be represented by measures of its material capabilities.

In accounting terms, standing is like "goodwill" — it reflects the intangible assets of a country above and beyond its net tangible assets — a kind of reputation that makes it valuable among "clients." Standing offers long-term political capital in international politics — and as we will see, at home as well.

Standing has two major facets: credibility and esteem. Credibility refers to the U.S. government’s ability to do what it says it is going to do — to stand up for what it believes, and to stand against threats to its interests and ideals. Esteem refers to America’s stature, or what America is perceived to stand for in the hearts and minds of foreign publics and policymakers. Credibility and esteem can be mutually reinforcing, but they can also be difficult to pursue in tandem — a trade-off implied by Machiavelli’s famous dictum: "It is much safer to be feared than loved."

"Opposition to the U.S. is mainly based on its outsized power."

Not even close. U.S. standing has varied greatly around the world, despite constant U.S. primacy over the past two decades. The decline in standing was uneven across different world regions: very strong in the Middle East and Europe; strong in Latin America and Southeast Asia; and, with some notable exceptions, less pronounced in Africa and South and East Asia. The recent recovery in these opinion polls has also been uneven, with the most significant improvements in Europe and the Americas.

Regional interests mattered, and differed, across the regions. In the Middle East, the professed U.S. policy of democratization since 2002 threatened authoritarian regimes; and perceived U.S. disengagement from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reinforced the view that the United States was neither a fair nor an engaged arbiter in the conflict. In East Asia, the continued availability of American markets for East Asian exports had a strong effect on national prosperity, which enjoyed strong support among elites and the public. In addition, many Europeans viewed the American turn toward unilateralism and the doctrine of preemptive war as unraveling the multilateral fabric of Europe’s preferred international order. Obama’s leadership style is reassuring European publics without eliminating lingering suspicions that the change may be one of style rather than substance.

American standing is also influenced by the presence of a major regional power. Where such a power exists and is hostile, as in Cold War Europe (Soviet Union), or potentially not entirely benign, as in contemporary East Asia (China), American standing is bolstered by fears that domination by the regional power would be even worse. Even in the Middle East, Iran’s regional aspirations give the United States some strong support among the elites of Sunni states.

Not only does U.S. standing vary across regions and countries, it also varies within countries between elites and the public. An important predictor of U.S. standing among foreign elites is whether U.S. policy is perceived to be helping or harming their interests. The public, however, tends to focus on the justness and morality of U.S. conduct. When foreign publics believe the United States is not playing by the rules, is applying double standards, and is engaging in hypocrisy, U.S. standing suffers. The legacy of Iranian hostility towards the United States has roots in America’s 1953 overthrow of populist leader Mohammed Mosaddeq and support for the shah despite the U.S.’s professed adherence to the principles of self-determination and liberal democracy.

"The U.S. model is losing out to its competitors."

Not yet. There is no clear finding that U.S. relative standing is suffering in terms of credibility or esteem based on the rise of "competing" models of politics and policy offered by China, Europe, or Russia. Polls in 2009 suggest recent declines in the relative attractiveness of these actors. At the same time, the economic meltdown of 2008-09 has led to widespread critiques of the U.S. economic model. A liberal Chinese economist bemoaned that "the popular view is that the American model is failing." A Social Democrat in Germany’s parliament concluded, "[the U.S. model] has lost its attraction entirely."

During the last four decades American standing has sometimes seen major declines, but has typically bounced back because the American model continued to have strong appeal (i.e., esteem). One indicator of this is the continuing attractiveness of the U.S. higher education system and the fact that many who come to study in the United States end up staying. U.S. universities are being used for models and actively establishing programs in places like Qatar, Singapore, and China.

That said, the potential for a resurgence in America’s current standing varies by region, and how America responds to the global financial and economic crisis is especially important. If the United States provides fewer global and regional public goods, such as economic or military assistance, its standing will diminish in East Asia and erode even further in Europe. Similarly, if growing U.S. budget deficits require cuts in the recent expansion of American aid programs in Africa, this might also erode American standing in a continent where trends have been more positive in recent years.

"Partisanship stops at the water’s edge."

That was then. There is today a substantial divergence of partisan views on U.S. standing in the world. For Republicans, standing seems to evoke hard-power notions of "resolve," which favor the credibility side of standing. Democrats appear to emphasize ideas that highlight esteem, like "legitimacy" and "moral standing."

This partisan gap is also apparent in public perceptions of U.S. standing, which widened considerably during Bush’s tenure. Partisan differences over America’s position in the world, however, predate the controversies of the Bush presidency. And though the partisan gap has narrowed since mid-2008, it has not disappeared, nor is it likely to. This is because where Democrats and Republicans stand on American standing is shaped by which party controls the presidency. For example, Democrats’ satisfaction with U.S. standing was higher under Clinton, and now that a Democrat is in the White House, it is on the rise again. By contrast, Republican satisfaction rose when Bush assumed the presidency, and it has fallen under Obama.

Significantly, this partisan polarization has soared since the end of the Cold War. Partisan differences over America’s global position averaged by presidency indicate new highs under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The average partisan gap of 18 percent in the assessment of presidential performance across the Eisenhower, Johnson, and Reagan administrations rose more than 50 percent, to an average 28 percent difference. in the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies.

Partisan difference, however, is not the whole story. Both Republicans and Democrats believe that U.S. standing declined between 2002 and 2009. Dissatisfaction among Democrats increased sharply during the first term of the Bush presidency; Republican dissatisfaction surged during the second term, probably due to growing doubts about the competence of the Bush administration. Such doubts, at home and abroad, were likely affected by U.S. fortunes in Iraq that improved in the wake of Bush’s gutsy surge plan.

Overall, Americans are currently unhappy with the country’s low standing abroad. Public satisfaction with America’s standing has declined almost every year since 2002 and is now less than half its peak level. Public confidence in how the rest of the world sees the United States has followed a similar trajectory, declining from 75 percent who believed that the United States had a positive international image before the September 11 terrorist attacks to just 45 percent today.

"Standing does not matter."

Dead wrong. During the Cold War, the United States was anxious that its reputation for protecting its allies, especially those in Europe, be seen as credible by both Soviet leaders and Europeans. As Lyndon Johnson explained to Martin Luther King, Jr. in early 1965, "If I pulled out [of Vietnam] … I think the Germans would be scared to death that our commitment to them was no good, and God knows what we’d have in other places in the world."

More recently, the Bush Doctrine was reversed in Bush’s second term in part due to falling support abroad — involving both credibility and esteem — that made it harder for the United States to get what it wanted.

Of course, many other factors affect foreign-policy success and we should not delude ourselves that standing is the critical factor. Moreover, standing should never be the sole consideration behind U.S. foreign policy. There will inevitably be trade-offs between other pressing interests in particular situations; for example, the United States may need to act to protect itself from an imminent threat, and this action may diminish its standing among some audiences.

It is important, however, to acknowledge more explicitly the costs and benefits of maintaining standing in policymaking. For decision makers under pressure, it is tempting to focus only on what is concrete and immediate and has short-term impact. But just as it is dangerous for business leaders to focus only on quarterly profits and ignore their firm’s long-term health, so too must U.S. leaders consider the nation’s stock of credibility and esteem.

U.S. standing affects other nations’ willingness to offer it the benefit of the doubt. Moreover, U.S. credibility and esteem help to mold Americans’ sense of unity and collective purpose. Standing is easy to neglect, but wise policymakers should consider its impact and sometimes protect it even when there are short-term costs.

Managing standing requires using different tools for different jobs. Standing is a nuanced phenomenon that varies across regions, between foreign elites and the publics, and between partisans in the United States. Policymakers must attend to those distinctions in specific ways. And the United States must heed the bond between power and standing by providing public goods through effective leadership that coordinates other states and shares costs.

Improving standing requires moving beyond public diplomacy. The problem is not just communication, but policy execution. As Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently put it, "Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are."

Finally we need better data and analysis on U.S. standing. The United States supports periodic National Election Surveys at home; questions about standing should be added to the survey and public funds for other indicators — such as foreign media analysis — are needed.

The dynamics of U.S. standing are complex, and we grasp only imperfectly the sources and impact of U.S. credibility and esteem in the world. Yet standing matters for U.S. foreign policy, and American leaders must pay attention to it or face real-world consequences.

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