When Russia and China recently blocked support at the UN for the Arab League’s Syria transition plan, they in effect gave Bashar al Assad the go-ahead for continued savagery. Taking a longer view, we can only hope the resulting outrage spurs Beijing and Moscow to take a different stance the next time. Meanwhile, the contrast with the US position, siding with the Arab League and Assad’s victims, helps underscore the improvement in America’s international image in the last three years. This point was driven home by a recent post over at The Economist’s Democracy in America blog, which discusses the Syria showdown at the UN as proof of a crucial yet underappreciated success of Obama foreign policy:
Ten years back, America often found itself isolated, struggling to pull together “coalitions of the willing” packed with small client states. Lately, we have been finding ourselves in the majority, along with the democratic world, while Russia and China front a dwindling coalition of the unwilling.
Yes, President Obama has shown a remarkable ability to forge a united international front on issue after issue. The quantum increase in support for US positions and initiatives is a much bigger deal than media assessments have acknowledged. As other nations have become more welcoming toward the United States’ global role, the president can make a strong claim to have rehabilitated American leadership.
Do voters care about America’s global image?
Actually if I’d fault the Economist writer for anything, it’s that s/he lacks the courage of her own optimism. I disagree when the blogger says it’s too bad Obama can’t use this part of his record as a plank in his reelection platform. Voters recognize the importance of international goodwill toward the United States just as readily as the writer does. If not, then why do you think the public was so horrified to see Bush and Cheney defiantly thumbing their noses at the rest of the world? (The big mystery to me is why on earth the current crop of candidates have tacked back toward Cheney-esque chest-thumping.) More to the point, though, all signals from the White House put this success in their “top three” foreign policy achievements of the first term: winding down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, decimating Al Qaeda, and greater receptivity and trust around the world of US leadership.
Interestingly, James Fallows of The Atlantic makes the exact same underestimation of voters in his rigorous new assessment of Obama’s presidency. Here’s how he concludes a paragraph stressing the importance of America’s improved standing in the world:
These changes can make a real difference for American ideals and interests, but it is hard to mention them in American political debates without sounding “French.”
So I’ll try to say this in my very best American accent (whatever that is): it is difficult if not impossible to accomplish America’s international aims — disrupt terror networks, keep the global economy strong, stem the spread of nuclear weapons — without the support and help of others. Is this really so hard to get across to the voting public?
International support crucial for many issues
One key point is how the importance of international support applies across a wide range of issues. You can see this within the Democracy in America post, which is ostensibly about the nations aligned with America in opposition to a butcherous Syrian regime but also notes the Southeast Asian countries grateful for US help in resisting China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. In other words, those who pigeonhole such forward-leaning diplomacy as “soft power” are missing the point.
Which brings us to the problem of Iran. Whenever you hear about President Obama’s success in ratcheting up the toughest set of sanctions ever imposed on Iran, you should think about the massive diplomatic effort required to accomplish this. And it is ongoing. Our friends at Center for American Progress, for instance, remind us that discussion of Iran with China has continued throughout the past three years and is bound to be on the agenda for Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit next week.
Given America’s difficult history with Iran and close alliance with Israel, there’s been a tendency in the international politics of the Iranian nuclear program to view the issue as a pet cause of the United States — rather than a truly shared nuclear proliferation problem. This is the essence of the challenge, and of the Obama administration’s success, in recasting American leadership. A measure of an effective foreign policy is to convince others that the United States is upholding important norms of the international community — preserving a social contract — and not just a big bad superpower. That’s the point of President Obama’s frequent references to the obligations and responsibilities of nations, including our own (e.g. the New START nuclear arms treaty).
After reading this skepticism in The Economist and The Atlantic about America’s improved international image as a campaign theme, I looked back at some of my own posts from four years ago. In 2008, candidate Obama could aim his foreign policy argument at a public deeply unsettled at how out of step with the rest of the world we had gotten — and acutely aware what trouble it could cause us. In 2012, President Obama runs for re-election having put these ideas about a more conscientious style of global leadership into action. And his record shows that they work.
The image of Sec. Clinton at the UN Security Council is from the US Mission to the UN