Foreign Policy Blogs

The Roots of Obamanaia

Amid the many reports of foreign audiences going ga-ga for Obama, one foreign policy expert issues a strong warning against thinking that a President Obama will solve the US’ global image problem, or make public diplomacy any easier.

John Brown, a 20-year veteran of the US Foreign Service and currently a senior fellow at the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy, reminds us in a recent article published in the Guardian newspaper that:

“Any new administration must work under the assumption that whatever honeymoon the outside world will have with a “non-George Bush” in the White House will be short-lived. Though Obama is generally well liked overseas, foreign leaders and publics do harbour concerns about his experience and prejudices about his ethnic background. In an era of instant communication – and revelations – no national leader today can expect permanent world popularity.

The new administration should also not give overseas audiences the false hope that its arrival on the world scene will mean a sudden, drastic departure from the policies of Bush, despite his low reputation at home and abroad. The American political system, which leads presidential candidates to adopt “centrist” positions, leaves the options for restructuring American foreign policy limited. This includes Iraq, a fiasco that will take years to settle.

While not pretending to offer a totally revamped foreign policy, the upcoming administration should, however, immediately focus on results-oriented overseas initiatives (such as closing Guantanamo, allowing far more Iraqi refugees into the US and making US embassies appear less like fortresses) that would win the approval of world foreign opinion. Unconditional overseas disaster-relief assistance, including for food, should be given the highest priority, making sure such aid is not a one-shot, made-for-US-TV publicity stunt, but a firm commitment to help countries in distress for as long as America can.”

This is a very important and sobering reminder of what challenges lies ahead for the next president–whether he be Obama or McCain. Brown goes on to give important advice for how to restore American's “soft power” in the next administration.

But his comments that Obama might be “leading the world on” to think a new President will be a fix-all for the US’ image woes leads me to ponder what the world really expects from the next President. Is the “Obamania” from abroad spiked by Obama's policies or his symbolism? If the latter case is true, Obama's foreign supporters might not be as dissappointed as those in America if he didn't enact these policies. In that case they may not feel that they have been given false hopes after all, since they were paying attention to the person, not the policies, all along.

It all comes down to this: are global publics more impressed when the US implements foreign policies they deem responsible, or when the US simply elects a leader they deem responsible? How do we differentiate how much the world likes Obama for who he is, rather than what he stands to change? Furthermore, how can we tell how much the world loves Obama simply because he represents break from the past? 

These are all questions that political psychologists would themselves grapple with. But the personality versus policies debate plays out in domestic politics as well. For example, it is often said that Americans want to elect a candidate that they can “sit down and have a beer with,” someone who understands them. But this determination competes with voters’ approval of the candidates’ policy platforms.

Here's a hypothetical situation that might illuminate this query: Given Obama's high approval ratings going into the election, if Senator McCain were to end up wining the Presidency and then magically fixed all of the foreign policy “blemishes” that global publics claim dampens their opinion of the US (closing Guantanamo, getting tougher on climate change, choosing cooperation over acting unilaterally, etc.), would McCain's approval rating reach the same levels of a President Obama who achieved the same goals?

It's a tough question, but I would have to go with “No.” It appears to me that the Obama's supporters around the world are paying less attention to his policies and more to his personal characteristics. And I think the idea of a “non-Bush” in the White House‚ whoever he may be‚ also factors in to Obama's popularity. I would guess that this would give Obama the edge over McCain even if their policies equally pleased our global compatriots.

But what does this mean for US public diplomacy efforts, where those who criticize its failures consistently cry: “It's the policies, stupid!” and “You can't put lipstick on a pig!” It means that influencing global opinion, a primary goal of public diplomacy, is a complex process‚ certainly much more complex than whether or not people in Moscow, Islamabad, or Chiapas want to sit down and have a beer with the US President. This means that public diplomacy is an activity that is much more challenging than it is sometimes given credit for.

For those interested in some constructive steps towards improving American public diplomacy, I urge you to continue reading John Brown's column.



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.