By Linton Weeks
If it's true that America now resides smack dab in the middle of an interdependent global village, then we should probably pay attention to what other countries think about us — our values, our leadership and the presidential election of 2012.
"We've restored America's standing in the world," President Obama told CNN in the autumn of 2009 — after being in office for about a year. But in the ensuing three years, a lot has happened. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. has:
Killed Osama bin Laden
Withdrawn troops from Iraq
Reacted to the Arab Spring uprisings
Helped oust Moammar Gadhafi in Libya
Watched relations with Pakistan deteriorate
Conducted controversial drone campaigns in Yemen and elsewhere
Announced that the U.S. military will focus on Asia and the Pacific
Sent Marines to be based in Australia
Eschewed high-profile involvement in Syria
"Reset" relations with Russia
And survey results from the Pew Global Attitudes Project — released Wednesday — suggest that the blush is off the international rose for Obama. In a survey of 21 countries, overall approval of U.S. foreign policy has fallen. According to the findings, "Europeans and Japanese remain largely confident in Obama, albeit somewhat less so than in 2009, while Muslim publics remain largely critical."
The most significant loss of support for Obama is found in China, where confidence in him has dropped 30 percentage points.
So what do our global neighbors think of the U.S. now? What do they see as the major themes of the 2012 election between Obama and Mitt Romney?
From Down Under
Brendon O'Connor, who teaches American politics at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney in Australia, says that Obama's doctrine of focusing militarily on Asia and the Pacific and getting America out of Iraq and Afghanistan "will be up against Romney's grand and exceptionalist — and often fantastic — language that portrays America as the most powerful nation forever."
O'Connor compares Romney to John McCain, the last Republican to go up against Obama. "Like McCain," O'Connor says, "Romney seems to have little interest in talking about the limits of American power and is drawn too readily into confrontational language."
In terms of the contest of character and personality, O'Connor says, "Obama is clearly a more gifted orator, but in many situations both he and Romney lack the ability to connect with voters. Ultimately they are both unusual American politicians who lack the glad-hand style commonplace in U.S. politics in the age of TV."
But, he adds, "perhaps, in the Internet age, lacking a common touch matters less."
The key to understanding how most Canadians feel about the U.S. election, says Judith Garber, who teaches political science at the University of Alberta, is to "think of the majority of Canadians ... as approaching the election as liberal Democrats do. And this is despite the fact that in Canada we have a Conservative majority government."
In some respects, Obama has been disappointing, says the American-born and -trained Garber. As examples, she points to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; the killing of bin Laden; and the environment. People who live in Canada "worry that the U.S. economy is dragging us down," she says, "but he is well-liked."
No Belgian Waffling
The odd thing about the 2012 election, says Bart Kerremans — an Americanist at KU Leuven university in Belgium — is that Americans "are going to be affected by what is happening in Europe, the eurozone, and that is really exceptional." Normally, elections in the U.S. have an impact on Europe rather than the other way around, he says.
When asked what the 2012 election will mean to the world, Kerremans says he doesn't think the results will have a significantly large impact. "Neither Obama nor Romney will be able to dedicate American military resources to military actions that cannot be explicitly linked to U.S. national security," Kerremans says. "Whether there is an Obama or a Romney in the White House, both will have to deal with China in a diplomatically cautious way — and this despite Romney's rhetoric."
Most of Europe, he adds, "hopes that Obama will be re-elected and many don't understand here why that would be difficult. But at the end of the day, for Europe itself, the outcome itself will not make that much of a difference."