Why International Opinion of Our President Should Matter to Americans

M. C. Andrews    Flag4 Thumb

As the world watches the American presidential election, there are reasons why international opinion of our presidential choice matters to our national interests.

Much has been said, particularly in the run-up to the third debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, about how foreign policy really does not matter in 2012 presidential elections.  According to that argument, international issues are not important when Americans are focused on the economy, jobs, the budget, and perhaps, differing views of health care, women’s issues, or the role of government in society. 

According to Nielsen ratings, there were about 5 million fewer viewers for the foreign policy debate than the first[i], and this in spite of two factors: the candidates’ surprising performances in the first two debates, and significant discussion, particularly among conservative media, about the assassination of the American Ambassador in Benghazi.

But the foreign policy debate, like the issues surrounding use of drones, China, Iran, and Libya, is important to every American whether or not they particularly care about foreign affairs.

International support for Barack Obama was most evident at his 2008 speech to more than 200,000 people in Berlin and his campaign stop to talk with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.[ii]

President Obama was sworn into office with international public opinion soaring and international belief in our new leader as a transformational figure.  Four years later, President Obama suffers from waning global confidence.  According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, “Global approval of President Barack Obama’s policies has declined significantly since he first took office, while overall confidence in him and attitudes toward the U.S. have slipped modestly as a consequence.”[iii]

Pew points to the reasons for this drop of support including: the perception that China (as opposed to the U.S.) is the world’s leading economic power, anger over the Obama Administration’s use of drone strikes against terrorists, and the more general perception (particularly in predominately Muslim countries) that America acts unilaterally in international affairs.

When President George W. Bush left office in 2009, international opinion of the 43rd American president had slipped from high support across the globe after the 9/11 attacks to record lows at the end of his presidency.  The reasons for the drop were, according to Pew, the international financial crisis blamed on the United States, the war on terror, and Iraq.[iv]

America’s image across the globe is largely tied to the image of our President.  America’s favorability in the world dropped from 58 percent favorable in 2010 to 43 percent in 2012 while confidence in President Obama dropped from 52 percent 38 percent, according to Pew.[v]

Moreover, the world’s opinion of America and the president can have serious consequences for the country. As such, it is important for the president, whether Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney, to foster and grow a positive image of America for three reasons:

America’s economic and political strength are inextricably linked. According to Pew, international audiences overwhelmingly blamed President Bush for the international financial crisis in 2008, and today, those same audiences perceive that international economic power has shifted from America to China.  As an important step to help America regain our international economic strength, which in turn will aid America’s domestic economic recovery, the next president needs to focus on rebuilding the favorability of America and confidence in his leadership.

Go it alone policies in international diplomacy will not allow America to garner the international diplomatic support the country needs to help implement, and perhaps more importantly in the current financial crisis, share the cost of, its international engagements.  Whether negotiating with the United Nations or seeking bilateral support from allies to take action in international crises, America needs our friends abroad, and this starts with the strength projected by the president.

The President’s image abroad is the foundation on which America’s moral leadership is built.  Like 9/11 was unexpected, America will face future unexpected challenges.  A clear vision of America’s national interests, and international public support for that vision, are critical to the future leadership of America in times of unexpected crises.

What can the president inaugurated in January 2013 do in pursuit of these goals?  He can:

Show vision and leadership in the management of foreign affairs.  Tell our allies what America believes and stick by the vision.  Act with clarity and alacrity against activities that are not in America’s national interest.  This is the kind of leadership practiced by Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.

Translate the vision and leadership into policy.  Speeches, such as President Obama’s highly lauded 2009 Cairo speech, are only as lasting as the policies they initiate.  As Rosa Brooks pointed out on a recent Foreign Policy blog when discussing President Obama, “strategy, structure, process, management, and personnel” as much as new policy initiatives are critical to successful foreign policy.[vi]

Take few actions, but take them well.  If rebuilding America’s economic image in the world is most important, then the next president needs to focus like a laser on that issue.  If strengthening democracy and advocating respect for human rights in Middle East transition is important, then let these issues take center stage across our foreign policy.  If nonproliferation of nuclear weapons is the focus, then be serious and comprehensive in policies toward, not only Iran, but other nuclear weapons proliferators. 

America needs presidential leadership to repair our standing in the world. While Americans are focused on the economy in 2012, it is in the interest of all Americans to consider how important foreign policy is to their future.


Mary Catherine (M.C.) Andrews is a Washington, DC based senior strategist for Vianovo, focusing on international affairs and communications. She previously served as a director at the National Security Council and ran the White House Office of Global Communications.

This essay appeared in the American Security Project’s National Security Challenges … that we’re not talking about series, a collection answering the question: what is the biggest issue facing us in the next four years that isn’t on anyone’s radar?  The collection is available on the ASP website:http://americansecurityproject.org/featured-items/2012/national-security-challenges/

[i] Nielsen, “Final Presidential Debate Draws 59.2 million Viewers,” 23 October 2012,http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/politics/final-presidential-debate-draws-59-2-million-viewers/

[ii] Gregor Peter Schmitz, “People of the World, Look at Me,” Der Spiegel, 25 July 2008,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barack_Obama_presidential_campaign,_2008

[iii] Pew Global, “Global Opinion of Obama Slips, International Policies Faulted,” 13 June 2012,http://www.pewglobal.org/2012/06/13/global-opinion-of-obama-slips-international-policies-faulted/

[iv] Pew Global, “Global Public Opinion in the Bush Years (2001-2008), 118 December 2008,http://www.pewglobal.org/2008/12/18/global-public-opinion-in-the-bush-years-2001-2008/

[v] Pew Global, “Growing Concerns in China about Inequality, Corruption,” 16 October 2012,http://www.pewglobal.org/2012/10/16/growing-concerns-in-china-about-inequality-corruption/

[vi] Rosa Brooks, “The Case for Intervention,” Foreign Policy, 18 October 2012,http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/10/18/the_case_for_intervention