Is the World Really Losing Faith in Obama?

The president's critics fret about America's image abroad, but the numbers tell a different story.

Tennis fans at the Australian Open in Melbourne, in January 2009 (Mick Tsikas/Reuters)

Dick Cheney is worried about America’s image in the world. “I think the perception around the world is increasingly negative,” the former vice president declared on Wednesday to Sean Hannity, one of the few talk-show hosts who could hear such a claim without being struck dumb by its irony. It’s become a frequent Republican refrain. President Obama’s foreign policy, opines Karl Rove in a new Wall Street Journal column, has produced “strained relations with allies and declining confidence in American leadership.” Marco Rubio recently added that, “In Asia, our allies are increasingly unsure about our ability to counter both North Korea and Chinese expansionism.”

In a way, it’s heartening that Cheney and Rove feel the need to make non-Americans the ventriloquist dummies for their anti-Obama hostility. It suggests awareness that when it comes to foreign policy, they need spokespeople more credible than themselves. And it suggests a recognition, not always obvious during the George W. Bush years, that Americans should actually care what the rest of the world thinks.

But when Cheney says world opinion is “increasingly negative” and Rove detects “declining confidence” in the United States, it’s hard not to ask the obvious question: compared to when? In fact, while faith in the United States, and in Obama personally, has declined modestly since 2009, it is still dramatically higher than when Cheney and Rove roamed the West Wing.

For more than a decade, the Pew Research Center has been asking people around the world about their opinion of the United States. The upshot: In every region of the globe except the Middle East (where the United States was wildly unpopular under George W. Bush and remains so), America’s favorability is way up since Obama took office. In Spain, approval of the United States is 29 percentage points higher than when Bush left office. In Italy, it’s up 23 points. In Germany and France, it’s 22. With the exception of China, where the numbers have remained flat, the trend is the same in Asia. The U.S. is 19 points more popular in Japan, 24 points more popular in Indonesia, and 28 points more popular in Malaysia. Likewise among the biggest powers in Latin America and Africa: Approval of the United States has risen 19 points in Argentina and 12 points in South Africa. (For some reason, there’s no Bush-era data on this question for Brazil or Nigeria).

International Image of the United States (2013)

In his Hannity interview, Cheney attributed America’s supposedly deteriorating reputation to Obama personally. “If we have a problem with weakness,” he explained, “it's stemming from the White House.” But, in fact, the guy in the White House retains a personal brand that outshines America’s as a whole. And when you compare global perceptions of Obama to global perceptions of Cheney’s old boss, the gap is jaw-dropping.

Again, the numbers come from Pew, which has been asking people in key countries every year whether they have “confidence” in America’s president to “do the right thing in world affairs.” Obama’s popularity is down since 2009. Still, in Mexico and Argentina, the president’s 2013 numbers (the most recent we have) are 33 percentage points higher than Bush’s in 2008. In South Korea, the margin is 47 points. In Japan, it’s 45 points. In Brazil, it’s 52 points. In Britain, it’s 56 points. In France, it’s 70 points. In Germany, it’s 74 points.

In case you’re reading quickly, 74 points isn’t Obama’s approval rating in Germany. It’s the gap between his approval rating and Bush’s. In George W.’s final year in office, 14 percent of Germans had faith that the president of the United States would do the right thing internationally. Last year, 88 percent did.

These statistics, of course, measure popular opinion, not the opinion of governments. In his Hannity interview, Cheney cited discussions he’d had with world leaders, who supposedly pine for the Bush era. There may be some. Certainly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would love to turn back the clock to a time when the United States made little effort to midwife a Palestinian state. The Saudis and some other Gulf monarchies might have been happier before the U.S. began serious diplomacy with Iran, since an American-Iranian rapprochement would leave the United States less dependent on them.

But in most of the world, popular opinion influences policy. When Obama wants the assistance of Indonesia or Malaysia or South Africa in fighting jihadists or cracking down on Iranian banks, it helps that their leaders aren’t embarrassed to be seen with him.

Or consider the recent crisis between the West and Russia, in which the United States successfully pushed Germany and Britain to back sanctions aimed at preventing Putin from destabilizing Ukraine, even though those sanctions interfere with Germany and Britain’s lucrative ties to Moscow. There is evidence that those sanctions helped convince Putin to back off.

Could George W. Bush have pushed the Europeans as far? I doubt it. Remember that in 2002, Bush was so unpopular in Germany that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder made his opposition to the Iraq War the centerpiece of his reelection campaign. When Schroeder won, Bush declined to offer him the customary congratulatory phone call. Schroeder’s justice minister compared Bush to Hitler. And to the delight of most Europeans, Germany allied with France to thwart America’s effort to get United Nations support for an invasion of Iraq.

In that environment, would Bush really have managed to convince Berlin to slap sanctions on Russia that cut against Germany’s short-term economic self-interest, as Obama has? I doubt it, because Germans wouldn’t have seen much of a difference between what Putin was doing and what Bush was.

When Bush was president, Cheney and Rove were defiantly uninterested in what other nations thought about American foreign policy. Now they’re convinced that those other nations yearn for the pre-Obama days. Back then, they were merely ideologically blinkered. Now they are verifiably, empirically wrong.