Barack Obama opened his State of the Union address this year by ticking off claims to four major accomplishments in the global arena. Three of them his political foes could not factually contest -- ending his predecessor's war in Iraq, eliminating Osama bin Laden, and starting the phase-out from Afghanistan. But they furiously challenge the overarching achievement he asserted: that his policies have "made the United States safer and more respected around the world."
"More respected"? Conservatives are furiously seeking to discredit his claim. Mitt Romney's top foreign policy advisors regularly pillory the president for being "comfortable with the decline of America in the world" (John Bolton) and prone to "naiveté and weakness" (Richard Williamson). America's global dominance is at risk because "this president does not want America to be the leader," says Richard Grenell, the Romney campaign's foreign policy spokesman until homophobic conservatives forced his ouster.
Something as intangible as the credibility of "leadership" seems hopelessly unprovable. But the Pew Research Group's release last week of hard data on public opinion across 21 countries, representing a majority of the world's population and power centers, provides some solid metrics to judge Obama's impact on America's global leadership.
"Global Opinion of Obama Slips," Pew headlined its report summary. And sure enough, Obama's numbers are down compared to the confidence expressed in his leadership in his first year in office. Country by country, Pew documents an inexorable fall in Obama's ratings, which have plunged an average -- are you ready -- six percentage points worldwide since 2009. People's attitudes toward the United States have also dipped concomitantly, by a median five percentage points.
But whatever the disappointment in Obama, the public in every country but embittered Pakistan is far more enthusiastic about Obama's global leadership than about George Bush's four years ago. In fact, world confidence in Obama averages, at 50 percent (and a stratospheric 82 percent among Europe's biggest powers), an astounding 32 percentage points above Bush's rating. (Pakistanis churlishly now rate Obama at the same 7 percent as they did Bush.)
Awkwardly, Governor Romney essentially vows to resuscitate Bush's foreign policy, which seems certain to resurrect the worldwide hostility to American purposes that so hobbled the United States in the last decade. As a country, favorable attitudes toward the United States are currently an average of eight percentage points higher than they were at the sunset of the Bush administration. Among our most crucial allies, the large West European countries that have been indispensable partners militarily, politically, and financially in such crisis situations as Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, and now Syria, support for the United States is now 20 points higher.
The policy issues on which world publics see Obama as a disappointment cannot offer much solace to his conservative critics at home. His biggest failure, it seems, has been in delivering action on climate change, on which he dropped an average 34 percentage points across countries surveyed (and 49 points in Western Europe).
The second biggest area of disillusionment has been on the expectation that he would deal "fairly" with both Israelis and Palestinians. On average only 18 percent of respondents now expect him to do so; the comparable level of expectation in his first year was 46 percent. (Fortunately for Obama, 60 percent of his voters at home still think his Mideast policies are fair to both sides.)
On both of these issues, Obama's conservative opponents have fought his initiatives tooth and nail, and are baying for confrontation with our allies.
They also vehemently insist on U.S. freedom of action to wield deadly military force without regard to the United Nations -- which turns out to be the third area of global disappointment in Obama: the deflated expectation (45 percent in 2009, 29 percent now) that he would rely on international approval for use of force. A foreign policy elite that sneers at U.N. Security Council regulation of armed force as "Mommy, may I?" is bent on renewing Bush-era antagonisms.
For all the disappointments, Obama still enjoys far higher international public support than do leaders of other major powers. He bests German chancellor Angela Merkel throughout Europe and in Germany itself (87 percent confidence in him versus 77 percent in her).
In Arab and Muslim countries, however, Obama has poorer ratings than the deceptively invisible U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. In Egypt, where at a crucial moment Obama pressed 30-year president Hosni Mubarak to retire, his ratings stand at 29 percent positive, 69 percent negative; Ban is rated positively by 36 percent. In Jordan, confidence in Obama stands at 22 percent, and in Ban at 42.
Between Obama and Russia's Vladimir Putin, however, there's no contest. Putin is poorly rated virtually everywhere. Americans view him negatively by a 2-to-1 margin, Germans and Britons by a 3-to-1 margin, Italians and Poles by a 4-to-1 margin, and the French by an extraordinary 8-to-1 margin. Even in Arab and Muslim countries, Obama's positive rating is nearly twice Putin's.
Of course, the most important number for any politician is how he's viewed by his own voters, and 69 percent of Russians profess confidence in Putin's handling of international affairs -- a number that makes for interesting context when we talk about influencing Russian policy on Syria. Oh, did I mention that 61% of Americans in Pew's survey reported confidence in Obama's handling of international affairs?
That's a better rating than Americans give Obama for his overall job performance, which is the number that really counts for reelection. With the American public dispiritingly uninterested in foreign policy this year anyway, conservatives should stick to the economy, stupid.
Much as his partisan opponents might want to paint Obama as a star-crossed Jimmy Carter, that dog just won't hunt. It's Governor Romney's determination to reprise the foreign policy of George Bush that terrifies many Americans -- and most of the world.