It's a truism among foreign policy wonks that during the Bush administration America has seen an erosion of its ability to persuade other countries to do what it wants them to do. The unilateralism, the blunders in the Middle East, and the Manichean view of the rest of the world have been so off-putting that, as poll after poll shows, the attitudes of people in other countries toward the United States have declined precipitously. To borrow Joseph Nye's phrase, the country has suffered a loss of its "soft power." Once Bush leaves office, the argument goes, America's image abroad will improve—but that won't happen until January 2009.
In the meantime, a more unexpected phenomenon seems to be occurring. The competitiveness of the 2008 presidential election itself might already be augmenting America's soft power.
This development might surprise most Americans. Watching the campaign, the Democrats seem to be incapable of going a sentence without saying, "hope," "change" or "experience." The Republicans are falling over themselves trying to do their best impersonation of Ronald Reagan. The Lincoln-Douglas debates these are not.
Nevertheless, interest abroad has been palpable. The Washington Post recently reported that the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary had been generating unprecedented interest in Africa and Europe. More than 700 correspondents from 50 different countries covered those events.
Why the strong interest? Any leadership transition in a great power will command attention, but there's something more at work here. The narrative arc of the campaign has certainly been gripping. Front runners have risen, fallen, and risen again. On the Democratic side Clinton and then Obama have been brought low by the shifts in voter sentiment. On the GOP side it's been even more dramatic. McCain was the front runner, then Romney, then Giuliani, then Huckabee, and now McCain again.
Part of it is the candidates' personal histories. Barack Obama's rise to prominence has excited citizens in Kenya, the homeland of his father. Hillary Clinton has rock star status in Europe. One British news editor commented, "They are almost like superhero cartoons: the Mormon, the woman, the black, the millionaire, the war hero … We do love a good show over here."
There's more than personal charisma at work. The way the 2008 campaign has played out so far has been particularly beguiling. Consider that this might be the most competitive presidential election in modern history. For the first time since 1952 no incumbent president or vice president is trying to secure the nomination. On the Democratic side three candidates have viable shots at the nomination (Clinton, Obama, John Edwards). On the Republican side at least four candidates—John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee—have a viable chance of winning. With such a tight race, even fringe candidates like Ron Paul and Mike Gravel have had their moments in the sun. This kind of fierce competition is rare in any country's electoral politics, let alone that of the sole remaining superpower.
In a pleasant surprise, negative campaigning has not worked. Part of the explanation for Huckabee's rise in the polls has been the relentlessly upbeat quality of the campaign and the man. Mitt Romney, in contrast, has not gained much from attacking either Huckabee or McCain. Obama's optimism on the campaign trail worked well for him, until women thought Hillary was being unfairly attacked and rallied behind her. In South Carolina, however, Clinton will likely pay a price for statements made by her, her husband, and her surrogates impugning Obama in particular and, in some instances, the civil rights movement in general.
Furthermore, from an international perspective, the cream is rising to the top. The three candidates who would generate the most excitement outside the United States are Clinton, Obama, and McCain. The probability of two of them securing their parties' nominations is relatively high right now.
Elections and campaigns do not always reflect well on the country holding them. In the past month Pakistan has been decimated by Benazir Bhutto's assassination, the government's inept handling of the situation and riots by distraught Bhutto supporters. A bitterly contested election and accusations of vote-rigging have torn the country of Kenya apart. South Korea's new leader, Lee Myung Bak, was elected just as a videotape emerged linking him to allegations of embezzlement and illegal stock trading (he'll likely not be charged).
To be sure, not all dimensions of the 2008 campaign have been good for America's image abroad. With the exception of McCain, the Republican field has been obsessed with who sounds tougher on immigration issues. The Democrats have been less exercised over this issue, but when the topic turns to trade, it has been a race among the candidates to see who can bash China first.
All of the top-tier candidates have published essays in Foreign Affairs outlining their vision of international relations. One of the few areas where there is bipartisan agreement has been the need to improve America's image abroad. It will be a pleasant surprise if the election campaign itself helps them succeed in that effort.