What Will the World Think of Us Now?

Will Obama's victory signify a rise in international engagement with the world and a trust in government to competently handle foreign affairs?
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Hillary Rodham Clinton, the once presumptive Democratic nominee, said something very prescient in 2002 when she supported the President's call for the use of force against Iraq. Here's how she explained her vote:

My vote, is not, however, a vote for any new doctrine of preemption, or for unilateralism, or for the arrogance of American power or purpose--all of which carry grave dangers for our nation, for the rule of law and for the peace and security of the people throughout the world.

"If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us," President Bush said in his second debate with Al Gore in 2000. "If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us." He was more right than ever. Can we imagine it now? America, the Gentle Giant. But instead we've seen foreign policy the last 8 years ala Frank Sinatra's "My Way" or the highway. The wonderful Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory one time referred to the United States of America as the "SUV of nations," hogging the road, guzzling our gas, and alienating our fellow road travelers in the process. When others so disdain us, it means that when we need to lead, we cannot. A leader who has lost the respect of his subordinates and his confidants is a leader no more.

Is it possible in the age of Obama for the United States to now rule without the arrogance of power? Two years ago I published a book, The Arrogance of American Power: What US Leaders Are Doing Wrong and Why It's Our Duty to Dissent, based in part on a class I taught at the University of Southern California called "Anti-Americanism: Hating America at Home and Abroad." At the time global public opinion against the United States was at its peak.

What a difference a few years can make.

The International Herald Tribune's John Freed reported on October 24, 2008 that Western European support for Obama had a lot to do with the 44th president's replacement of the 43rd.

While support for Barack Obama is broad and deep among Europeans, their reasons differ substantially from Americans who support him for president, according to a new survey. The survey, conducted by Harris Interactive for the IHT and the news channel France 24, reflects the overwhelming support in Western Europe for Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, over John McCain, the Republican. And the main reason on both sides of the Atlantic is the same: Obama's capacity for change from the policies of President George W. Bush.

Those who study communication know very well that the magic bullet theory of direct communication from source to target is a dusty textbook anachronism. If what we intended others to receive were actually received, then we wouldn't keep receiving such low marks in credibility.

Will Obama's victory signify a rise in international engagement with the world and a trust in government to competently handle foreign affairs? In February 2007, Gallup released its annual survey of how Americans view world affairs. Trust in the federal government to handle foreign affairs was at its lowest point in ten years. Just a little over a third (37%) were satisfied with the position of the United States in the world, the lowest reading that Gallup has polled on this measure since 1962. This compares to 71% who were satisfied in the months following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and 69% who were satisfied just after the Iraq War began in March 2003.

What a difference a few years can make.

From 2000-2004, Gallup found that a majority of Americans believed that other nations held us in favor. In the months after September 11th, 75% of Americans thought that foreign leaders respected President Bush. From 2004-2007, Americans believed the opposite. Only 21% of Americans believed that foreign leaders have respect for our 43rd president. I'd love to know the news consumption patterns of those twenty-one percent, wouldn't you?! This is not a statistic that gives me schadenfreude. I respect the office of the president, just not always the person inhabiting it.

In my 2006 critique of U.S. foreign policy, I built a case that we were becoming seen as a one-hit wonder in international affairs--searching for a kind word for others to say about us or some small token of support for which we will heap out praise. Our public diplomacy reflected this search to be the world's American Idol. In the history of nations, we are a great power, often doing our duty as the "leader of the free world," but doesn't power when made so paramount give us a dizzying feeling? I, an American citizen, see no value in the U.S. being viewed as the Number One country in the world. Number One brings on so many challenges. And frankly it just doesn't hold.

The 21st Century is too important to leave in the hands of one nation-state. Whether we wish to halt global diseases, counter terrorism, weapons proliferation, fundamentalist thinking, or promote equitable development, economic enterprise, or the environment, we need to cooperate, even if we can't work out all our differences. I'll settle for Top 5 or 10. You can still make a good career out of it.

LA-based Huffington Post readers may want to attend my talk on the same subject this Wednesday, November 19. Scripps College. Location: Claremont, California; Place: Garrison Theater; Time: 7:30 p.m.

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