Within weeks this summer, a group too extreme even for Al-Qaida conquered broad swaths of Syria and Iraq.
Within the first six years of the Obama administration, cascading crises in the Mideast, East Asia, Eastern Europe, Central Africa and Central America have marked this as the most globally volatile era since the 1970s.
Some critics claim that global turmoil is largely a result of Obama’s policies. Others suggest that these are independent international events that would have equally challenged a President McCain or President Romney. Most agree that there is not a unifying, unilateral military response and that instead solutions require multilateral diplomacy.
Often, effective diplomacy depends on the perception of a country’s values and interests. Accordingly, a nation’s international image — its brand — isn’t an esoteric concern, but a diplomatic asset or deficit.
“The filter or the lens by which actions are judged is what you generally believe the intent, the brand, the image of that state to be,” said William Martel, associate professor of International Security Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
America’s brand is especially important, especially now. And yet it’s taken a self-inflicted hit in at least two key areas — surveillance and drones — according to a new Pew Research Center report released this week.
In the case of National Security Agency surveillance, it appears that whatever questionable benefits were supposedly delivered, it wasn’t worth the immediate and deep damage it’s done in some countries. It’s naive to believe that the United States is the only nation that spies. But surveilling allies can have consequences.
Take Germany, for instance. The United States may still enjoy a “special relationship” with the United Kingdom, but the strategic need to work well with Germany has never been more urgent. And yet the U.S.-German relationship is chilled because of revelations from rogue NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the United States eavesdropped on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and more recent news that spies had been recruited in German defense and intelligence agencies. Not so smart, since it led to a rare rebuke when Germany expelled the CIA station chief in Berlin.
As a testament to the testy relationship, Obama and Merkel had to talk on Tuesday about “ways to improve cooperation.” But the tete-a-tete between heads of state may not mollify a key constituency: German citizens. According to Pew, the percentage of Germans who have “confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs” showed a dizzying drop of 17 percentage points since last year, a plunge matched only by Brazil, which is also reeling from revelations that the NSA eavesdropped on its president.
And it’s not just Germany and Brazil. In 22 of the 36 countries that Pew polled in both 2013 and 2014, it found that people are “significantly less likely to believe that the U.S. government respects the personal freedoms of its citizens.” In six countries the drop was precipitous, with a decline of 20 percentage points or more.
Respect for personal freedoms isn’t just in the U.S. Constitution, it’s in our DNA. It’s one of the reasons the United States has long been among the most admired nations in the world. And admiration is advantageous when building global coalitions to coax or coerce rogue countries into better behavior.
To be sure, America still has an advantage in its international image. A global median of 65 percent has a favorable view of the United States, according to Pew’s data, which was compiled from over 48,000 interviews in 44 countries. “The American Brand,” as Pew pegged it, was most popular in Africa, where 74 percent view America favorably. Conversely, the convulsed countries in the Mideast have only a 30 percent favorable view. There, as in 39 out of the 44 nations surveyed, most deeply disapprove of drone strikes, which seemingly have created more enemies than have been eliminated.
Germany’s increasing international influence is evidenced by it being the “+1” in the P5+1 negotiations regarding Iran (the P5 are the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council) as well as its amplified voice in the European Union’s response to Russian aggression. On Wednesday, the E.U. levied less severe sanctions on Russia than the United States did. This may change, of course, as nations weigh Russia’s culpability in the missile attack. But just as he cleaved Ukraine during the Crimean crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin undoubtedly hopes he can continue to split Western resolve, too.
America’s brand is durable. But maintaining it is essential. And it’s not about paid media or public relations, but policies. “The atmospherics make much less difference than the sum and substance of what a state does,” said Martel.
Going forward, Obama should consider the sum and substance of the administration’s policies and determine if they are needlessly alienating allies or actually enhancing diplomacy, which the world needs now more than ever.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.