October 8, 2009 — A popular belief holds that the United States' standing among the rest of the world suffered during President George W. Bush's administration, and that the election of President Obama subsequently has reversed that trend.
Not quite so, according to a report released Oct. 1 by the American Political Science Association Task Force, made up of 20 leading political scientists and chaired by Jeffrey W. Legro, chairman of the University of Virginia's Department of Politics and a faculty associate at U.Va.'s Miller Center of Public Affairs.
The report on "U.S. Standing in the World: Causes, Consequences and the Future" was the result of a yearlong study by the task force, which was created at the behest of Peter Katzenstein, then president of the American Political Science Association. The task force met in Washington, D.C., in November 2008 and at the Miller Center in March 2009 to consider its interim findings.
The study found that deep global dissatisfaction with the United States remains, despite a recent uptick in foreign views of the Obama administration, and that this trend will be hard to reverse. Although Obama himself enjoys widespread international popularity, the disconnection between his popularity and a general discontent with American policies will be a challenging gap to narrow, the report finds.
According to the report, American policymakers should care about U.S. standing because standing "can play a fundamental role in the shaping of strategy."
The report states that the decline in U.S. standing has been very strong in the Middle East and Europe, strong in Latin America and Southeast Asia, and less pronounced in Africa and South and East Asia, with Obama only providing a slight bounce in most instances. For example, 30 percent of Egyptians held favorable views of America in 2006. In 2008, this figure dropped to 22 percent and rose only to 27 percent in 2009, the year Obama took office.
Support for the United States within the United Nations General Assembly has also declined over time, especially during the Bush administration.
In addition, Americans themselves are unhappy with their country's low standing abroad, and their public confidence in how the rest of the world sees the U.S. has decreased from 75 percent in the days prior to 9/11 to 45 percent today.
Noting that "perceptions define reality," the report presents several lessons that American policymakers should consider:
Factor standing into national interests. U.S. leaders compromise the nation's long-term global stature when they neglect America's credibility and esteem.
Use different tools for different jobs. U.S. foreign policy should recognize that the use of different diplomatic and humanitarian tools affect different audiences, even within the same foreign country.
Heed the bond between power and standing. American policymakers must continue to provide public goods and maintain alliances that affect U.S. standing. The United States should coordinate with other nations as well as share policy design, implementation and cost in order to more easily wield power and share the burden.
Move beyond public diplomacy. American leaders should use other diplomacy types, such as humanitarian aid and social services. They also should explore other potential resources, such as business organizations, NGOs, media outlets and private citizens.
Support data collection and analysis on standing. U.S. policymakers must collect reliable indicators on different facets of standing for different audiences.