You are here

America really is a global democracy

Commentary, 20 January 2009
Barack Obama’s election has dramatically improved America’s image overseas, but the new President is likely to have to sacrifice international goodwill in order to obtain objectives he considers important.

Barack Obama’s election has dramatically improved America’s image overseas, but the new President is likely to have to sacrifice international goodwill in order to obtain objectives he considers important.

By Kate Clouston for RUSI .org

The question of whether America’s image abroad has been improved by the election of Barack Obama as its 44th President can, apparently, be answered with a cup of coffee. In the week running up to the new president’s inauguration, Krispy Kreme – a doughnut manufacturer – offered its London customers a chance to 'live the Americano Dream’, with a free cup of coffee for simply repeating Obama’s successful campaign slogan, ‘Yes We Can’ to a member of its staff. A nice marketing gimmick at a time of economic recession but, still, not one which could have been envisaged during the days of President George W. Bush.

It is by now banal to point out that Obama was the preferred US presidential candidate throughout the world, well before his election was confirmed by the only people who matter – the electorate of the US itself. But it is equally true that the honeymoon is likely to be short-lived, and that those with high expectations are almost certain to be disappointed. Indeed, the new US president has already acknowledged this danger, reminding the world that much of what he is seeking to accomplish cannot be done ‘in one or two years’.

Nevertheless, America’s improved overseas image remains an important asset. For, as Professor Joseph Nye put it, ‘when Washington discounts the importance of its attractiveness abroad, it pays a steep price.’[1] Obama’s current popularity gives the US President considerable room for manoeuvre; he has political capital to spend. The only question which remains unanswered is how he will spend it, and when he will be content to sacrifice goodwill in order to obtain objectives he considers important.

In terms of foreign policy, Obama has committed to very little in concrete terms, except his promise to send more troops to Afghanistan. Although the UN-mandated mission initially received much encouragement and participation from America’s allies, support for operations in Afghanistan has consistently deteriorated, particularly in Canada and Germany. President Obama is going to have to make a persuasive argument to his fellow European leaders to gain additional support. This is hardly likely to be easy, unless the US is prepared to accept Europe’s demands and rethink the overall strategic plan in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly clear that a working strategy for Afghanistan must also take into account neighbouring Pakistan, and it is on the latter subject that Europe and America could well part ways. Obama has made it clear that if intelligence indicated that Bin Laden or other significant members of the Al Qa’ida organisation were within sight he would not hesitate to go after them, even if it meant violating Pakistan’s sovereign territory. Of course, electoral pledges are not the same as official government policy. Yet, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates remaining in his position and the administration keen to prove its martial capabilities, Afghanistan and Pakistan could well provide an immediate bone of contention.

The same applies to Iran, where President Obama and his Secretary of State want to apply ‘smart power’. The concept sounds attractive, for it is supposed to be a mixture between ‘soft power’, defined by Joseph Nye as ‘the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion’, and the enduring presence of the US military. Smart power is supposed to establish a hierarchy of actions: after all conventional diplomatic means are exhausted, hard power may be used in the name of ‘providing things people and governments in all quarters of the world want but cannot attain in the absence of American leadership’.[2] There is no question that ‘smart power’ is now the ‘in’ slogan: Secretary of State Clinton used the phrase no less than thirteen times over the course of her Senate confirmation hearing.[3]

But, yet again, this is easier said than done. What if Iran continues its nuclear programme despite all efforts at negotiations? And what if the US inducement to Iran remains less attractive than the influence Iran would enjoy once it becomes a nuclear power? The omens are not encouraging: Iran has negotiated for years with the Europeans, and mostly in order to buy time rather than reach a deal. The suspicion remains that, sooner or later, Europe and the US will still have to face the horrible choice envisaged by French President Nicolas Sarkozy last year: Iran with a bomb or a bombed Iran. It is difficult to see how the Europeans would respond in such a situation, but it is very easy to predict that relations across the Atlantic would become difficult.

And, beyond, there are problems with recalibrating relations with Russia as well as the bigger issue of a Middle East peace settlement.

The election of Barack Obama has already gone a long way to inspire hope in people around the world. But the ‘good days’ could soon be over when the hard work of diplomacy begins.

The views expressed above are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


1. 'The Decline of America's Soft Power', Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Foreign Affairs, May/June 2004.

2. 'CSIS Commission on Soft Power: A Smarter, More Secure America’, November 2007.

3. ‘How ‘Soft Power’ Got Smart’, The New York Times, Eric Etheridge, January 14, 2009.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research