article

02.06.09

They Still Hate Us

After Barack Obama’s election, the world was supposed to fall in love with America again. But as the BBC’s Katty Kay notes, a new poll shows that the world isn’t in any hurry to forgive.

After Barack Obama’s election, the world was supposed to fall in love with America again. But as the BBC’s Katty Kay notes, a new poll shows that that the world isn’t in any hurry to forgive.

Remember how there was no contest between Barack and Hillary in the Paris primary? How the voters of North London picked Obama over McCain in overwhelming numbers? And then how President Obama was going to transform America’s image in the world overnight? Well, not so much.

It seems we’ve fallen head over heels for the new cool guy in the White House but we’re not yet ready to commit to a long-term relationship with the rest of the American family.

According to a new BBC poll, those ungrateful foreigners have embraced America’s new president without really changing their opinion of the United States as a whole. The poll of 21 countries (including Ghana, where, incidentally, views of the US have improved, so that’s a big relief) was conducted after the US election. It suggests the world is optimistic that Obama will improve international relations but there has been no corresponding surge in pro-American sentiment. Views of the US have improved, modestly, but are still predominantly negative.

It seems we’ve fallen head over heels for the new cool guy in the White House but we’re not yet ready to commit to a long-term relationship with the rest of the American family. (As a long-term resident of the US with three American children, I allow myself free passage between “them” and “us” on the status of foreigners.) After eight years of what’s been referred to as domestic abuse, the world is still wary and simply trading George for Barack isn’t sufficient.

“What it says is that it wasn’t just George W. Bush’s personality that made America so unpopular, but there are underlying foreign-policy issues,” says Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, which conducted the BBC poll. “[Obama’s] election alone is not enough to turn the tide. People are still looking to see if there are significant changes in US policies.”

So, beyond the obvious, Iraq, what’s got the world so het up? And can Obama do much to change it?

According to the more than 13,000 noble global souls with enough time on their hands to take part in the survey, there is widespread disappointment that America is failing to live up to her own ideals. People don’t like the way the US is using force. They are upset that America doesn’t abide by international laws. They say the US is insensitive to civilian casualties in the war in Afghanistan and that the US military presence in the Persian Gulf is a threatening force. And before my inbox is filled with accusations of anti-American bias, this is polling guys, I’m just the scribe.

But here’s what’s really interesting and leads me to conclude the world is ready to embrace its big American sister again.

Scratch below those numbers and underneath the negativity you find a great respect for the ideals on which this country is founded. People around the world have a deep, positive attitude towards America’s commitment to democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and free speech. This is what America is perceived to stand for and it is, ironically, the very source of the disappointment.

If you love someone for their shining moral example and then they go rob a bank, you are far more disappointed than if the object of your adoration had been a well-known scoundrel.

It’s a tough role and one unique to the US. The world doesn’t have this complicated relationship with any other country. Frankly we don’t expect great things of Russia or China so we’re not open to disappointment. Moscow’s hardly been an inspiring example recently but you don’t hear about a huge wave of anti-Russian feeling around the world. The world doesn’t really care that much. Not even Ghana.

But America’s singular position also gives hope for rapid improvement. In ordering the closure of Guantanámo, for example, President Obama has already taken a significant step to showing this administration hears the world’s grievances. There will, of course, be problems—there is, just for example, not a single European country which is racing to send troops to the front lines in Afghanistan, but I’m ready to bet what remains of my devastated 401(k) on the next BBC poll showing a distinct improvement in US-global relations.

Indeed, the thaw has already begun. This week foreign ministers from Britain, Germany, and France tackled each other in an undignified scrum to be first into the office of the new secretary of state (which, purely for accuracy’s sake, Britain won and France lost, leaving Paris to protest it wasn’t a race at all. “It’s not the Tour de France,” said a French government spokesman, which, of course, simply confirmed that it was.)

America, despite its size and power, prefers to be liked rather than hated, respected rather than dismissed. And that’s just the way the world likes it, too. Let the romance continue.

Katty Kay covers US politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation and is Washington correspondent for BBC World News America. Kay is a regular contributor on Meet the Press , The Chris Matthews Show and a guest host for the Diane Rehm Show . She is the author, with Claire Shipman, of the upcoming book Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success.