Among the gravest problems that will face the next president is the growing global hostility to the United States. The decline in America's standing in the world has been steep, especially in Western Europe and the Muslim countries. Between 1999/2000 and 2006, favorable opinions of the United States in Germany, Great Britain, and France declined 41, 27, and 23 points, respectively. In Indonesia and Turkey, two of the world's largest Muslim countries, favorable views of the U.S. fell by 45 and 40 points.
The United States is now considered the country that poses the most severe threat to world peace. In a survey earlier this year of 15 countries, the American intervention in Iraq ranked as "the greatest threat to world peace," well ahead of Iran and North Korea (and narrowly surpassing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). One indication of how far the United States has fallen is that in a survey of eight Western nations even China, hardly a beacon of democracy and human rights, has a higher favorability ranking than the U.S. Of the five nations studied (including Japan, Germany, and France), the United States ranked last.
The standing of the United States in the Muslim world, estimated at 1.3 billion people (roughly one-fifth of the world's population), is nothing short of disastrous. In none of five major Muslim countries surveyed in 2006 did even a third of the population hold favorable views of the United States; in Turkey, a putative U.S. ally, the figure was a dismal 12 percent. For some people, this hostility to the United States can translate into approval of terrorism: in 2004, 46 percent of Pakistanis and 70 percent of Jordanians agreed that "acts of terror/suicide bombings against Westerners and Americans are justified."
The increasing global hostility to the United States is a serious threat to both our influence in world affairs and our national security. Americans intuitively grasp that having many enemies and increasingly strained relations with our traditional friends is not in the national interest. In a November NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, "regaining respect for the U.S. around the world" ranked as the second most important "kind of change that is needed" under the next president; 59 percent of Americans ranked it as a "major element" and another 22 percent declared it "important." Revealingly, "working well with leaders of countries" was the top-ranked quality people were looking for in the next president.
To be sure, no individual can single-handedly restore America's reputation--anti-Americanism was rising well before George W. Bush took office and has deep roots. Yet by background, by temperament, and by political philosophy, one presidential candidate--Barack Obama--emerges as best suited to begin the arduous task of restoring America's moral standing in the world.
As a candidate, Barack Obama is not without flaws; he is at times a surprisingly uninspired public speaker, he is relatively inexperienced, and his appealing aura of humility is suspiciously polished. Nevertheless, his strengths for the job at hand are considerable. Obama's multi-cultural background is well-known: Kenyan father, Kansan mother, multi-racial Hawaiian upbringing, and four formative years in Indonesia. Less well-known is the fact that while some economically advanced Western countries have elected a woman as prime minister or president, not one has ever elected a non-white to the nation's highest office. For many people in the developing world, the image of a black man--and one with Hussein as his middle name--in the White House would be electrifying.
But Obama's unusual background is not the only reason why he is particularly well-suited to the task of reversing America's declining international standing. By all accounts, Obama is an extraordinary listener--a man who intently and patiently attends to what others, including those with whom he profoundly disagrees, are saying. Temperamentally, his inclination is to seek common ground, to reach consensus if possible. In a world wracked by ideological and cultural divisions, Obama's commitment to treating his adversaries with dignity and respect is an invaluable quality.
Last, and arguably most important, is Obama's political philosophy. While he firmly believes that the use of force is sometimes necessary in international affairs, he is also convinced that the United States is most effective in exercising global leadership when it lives up to its own highest values. For this reason, Obama has stated unequivocally that he would close Guantanamo, adhere to the Geneva Conventions, and "reject torture without exception."
Among the major presidential candidates, Obama was the only one to oppose the Iraq War from the beginning; "even a successful war against Iraq," he said in an extraordinarily prescient speech in October 2002, "will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences." Obama's opposition to the Iraq War flowed naturally out of a vision of America's role in the world that reflects a deep awareness that, as the sole global superpower, our actions are scrutinized around the globe more intensely than those of any other country and will inevitably either enhance or undermine one of our most precious assets: our moral standing.
In the end, the next president will face no task more important than restoring the legitimacy on the global stage that Americans not long ago took for granted. In many parts of the world, the stark reality is that Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, not the Statue of Liberty and the Declaration of Independence, stand as the most powerful symbols of who we are as a nation. If we wish to reverse this, no step could be more effective than electing Barack Obama as our next president.