By David Smith
When Barack Obama was under fire for his foreign policy inexperience in 2007, he told the New York Times that his unique biography could be a vital instrument in a new American foreign policy. “If you can tell people, ‘We have a President in the White House who still has a Grandmother living on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese Canadian,’ then they’re going to think that he may have a better sense of what’s going on in our lives and in our country,” he said.
This view got the approval of Harvard’s Joseph Nye, famous promoter of the “soft power” theory that cultural acceptance and moral legitimacy are as important to American capabilities as traditional “hard power” elements like money and weapons. Nye told the Times that the election of Obama “would do more for America’s soft power around the world than anything we could do.”
Four and a half years on, how important has Obama been to America’s soft power? And how important has soft power been to American foreign policy?
Both questions are tricky, but some recent Australian survey data may shed light on the Obama factor in US foreign policy. The most recent Lowy Institute poll shows that Australians are increasingly favourable to the United States.
When asked to score the US on a “feeling thermometer” from 0 (cold) to 100 (warm), respondents gave an average score of 71, second only to New Zealand in warmth. This average score has been steadily climbing in small increments since 2006 when Lowy reported an average score of 61, which the Howard Government at the time considered alarmingly low.
The difference between the 2006 and 2012 polls is statistically significant but not huge. Australia does not follow the pattern seen in many other wealthy democracies, where there were massive jumps from unfavourable to favourable opinions about the US after Obama was elected.
Nonetheless, Obama is very popular here. 80% of respondents want Obama to be re-elected, compared to 9% who want Romney to become President. This represents a slight improvement from Obama’s already high Australian standing in 2008, when he outpolled McCain 73% to 16%.
Perhaps the most interesting finding from the Lowy poll is that 74% of Australians favour allowing the US to station 2500 troops in Darwin. This is a far cry from 2005, when 68% of respondents said Australia “takes too much notice of the United States in our foreign policy,” and is a substantial leap in approval from just last year, when only 55% of respondents approved allowing US bases in Australia.
It is possible that Obama’s brief but charming visit to Australia helped sell a large chunk of the Australian people on the idea of an American base, as well as the Australian government, which effectively broke with a long-standing unofficial policy of neutrality in US-China disputes.
Obama is notoriously good at gaining assent on the centre-left for hawkish policies that would have aroused resistance if they had come from George W. Bush. His election in 2008 effectively killed the American anti-war movement, even as he accelerated the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan and refused to close Guantanamo Bay.
His foreign policy initiatives come at a time when cultural acceptance of the United States is particularly high among educated, cosmopolitan young people in affluent countries.
Massively increased air travel and the internet has made the best and most sophisticated American culture increasingly available to those who can afford it (or can stream it illegally).
American soap operas now include such unparallelled fare as The Wire and Breaking Bad, while food trucks make American fast food seem edgy and gourmet on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne (not to mention Paris, where hip young gourmands are reportedly queuing for hours for the privilege of paying $13 for a “très Brooklyn” burger).
But the limits of America’s — and Obama’s — soft power are clear when we look beyond the club of rich, democratic US allies.
The Pew Center’s Global Attitudes Project shows that opinions of the US have deteriorated throughout the Muslim world, with the exceptions of Indonesia and Kenya where people feel genuinely connected to Obama’s biography.
For people in countries that feel threatened by the United States, it seems to matter little whether the President is a belligerent cowboy or a soothing cosmopolitan. In China and India, which contain more than a third of the world’s population between them, favourable opinion of the United States is at a lukewarm 44% and 41% respectively, similar to where it stood during the Bush years.
It appears that soft American power depends on a hard base of shared affluence and traditional alliances. Obama may be helping to make America cool again, but that means little across true global divides.