The rest of the world is as interested in the U.S. Presidential election as Americans are, and in some cases are even more engrossed. (In Japan, 83% of the population is following the U.S. election, compared with 80% here in the States, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center.) The soaring level of engagement beyond our borders indicates the world is holding its collective breath in hopes of a drastic change from the past eight years. As evidenced by confidence polls and vigorous turnouts during Barack Obama’s recent trip overseas, people of the world believe that Obama, not John McCain, can make change possible.
The facts speak for themselves. According to the Pew study, people in 22 major countries worldwide are 22% more confident about Obama than McCain. The most notable differences come from some of our staunchest allies, markedly France, Britain, Germany, and Japan, which are all at least 30% more confident in Obama.
But why this confidence in Obama, given that he only recently entered the world political arena? The answer is the dirtiest four-letter word on the world stage: Iraq.
The Bush Administration’s blunders there have led to harsh reactions, as Bush’s domestic approval ratings have sunk below 30% and are even lower overseas. Unlike Obama, McCain plans to remain in Iraq, continuing a war that has already worn on for five years and cost the lives of more than 4,000 coalition troops.
McCain’s decision to linger will only spur further parallels overseas between him and the much-maligned President Bush. Efforts by McCain to distance himself from the Bush Administration are faltering on other fronts; in July, he hired three of Karl Rove’s lieutenants to spearhead his campaign.
Obama’s recent world tour garnered tremendous interest—200,000 came to see him speak in Berlin. And some British news outlets have dubbed his world popularity “Obamamania.” If his trip around Europe and the Middle East is any indication of what is to come, Obamamania is precisely what the U.S. needs to repair its eroding relationship with the world.
First, the concessions. Barack Obama is a fresh face in a party opposed to Bush—not a bad recipe for a better international image. Plus, his opposition to an unpopular Iraq war falls right in step with the international zeitgeist—check. And his recent foreign tour saw him enveloped in rock-star status by anti-Bush fans around the globe—that can’t hurt. Surely an Obama presidency would do instant wonders for the U.S. image abroad. Right?
Instantly, sure. But the important question isn’t whether Obama would convey a better image than Bush. It’s whether he’d do better than McCain. Before asking if Obama can improve America’s image abroad better than McCain, it’s better to ask: How are they different?
What about the biggie, the Iraq war that has aroused international ire for the past five years? Obama’s initial promise of a 16-month withdrawal doesn’t look quite so resolute anymore, as he said in a July speech that the withdrawal is predicated on whether Iraq is stable and U.S. troops are safe. That’s a huge “if.” How would the international community view Obama if 16 months in office passed and—surprise—Iraq wasn’t stable?
And despite their disparate images, Obama stands on the same ground with McCain on many substantive issues:
His views on torture? Both he and McCain detest it.
Pre-emptive military action? Both he and McCain would use it.
Putting more pressure on Pakistan? Ditto.
Preventing nuclear proliferation? Same.
Spreading American influence? Both speak of “uniting the world’s democracies” and “building democratic societies.” That won’t engender goodwill from the large percentage of foreigners who resent American political and cultural hegemony. According to a 2007 Pew Research poll, majorities or pluralities in most countries dislike American ideas about democracy.
Obama hasn’t offered any evidence to the international community that he warrants its approval, other than that he isn’t Bush. That’s not a recipe for an enduring good image.
Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.
Please send us your ideas for new Debate Room topics. If you're an academic, association officer, or other industry expert and would like to write a Debate Room essay, send us a query. Questions? See the