"What in God's name is [nuclear] superiority?" Henry Kissinger asked during his days as a globe-trotting secretary of State. "What do you do with it?"
Today, an aspiring Kissinger might ask the same questions about presidential popularity. New international polling shows President Obama generating eye-popping levels of personal confidence. But the significance of that popularity -- what, if anything, Obama can "do with it" -- isn't clear yet.
There's nothing opaque about the initial reaction to Obama. In late June, WorldPublicOpinion.org, a project of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, released a survey of nearly 20,000 respondents in 20 countries that represent three-fifths of the world's population. In the poll, conducted from April through June, far more people expressed confidence in Obama than in any other world leader.
Fully 61 percent of those polled outside of the United States said they trust Obama "to do the right thing regarding world affairs." No other leader had the trust of more than 40 percent of respondents outside the leader's home country. In France, Germany, and Great Britain, approximately nine out of 10 respondents said they trust Obama, putting more faith in him than in their own leaders. He ran about as well in Africa and Asia.
Not surprisingly, Obama drew more-mixed reactions in the Arab world. But he generated respectable support even in Egypt (39 percent confidence), Iraq (40 percent), and Turkey (45 percent). In each, he inspired about as much trust as did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- a striking convergence, given the regional following the Iranian president has attracted for defying the United States. The comparison might even favor Obama today because the survey was conducted before his Cairo speech to the world's Muslims and before the Iranian government's crackdown after its tainted election.
Almost everywhere, Obama's numbers represented a huge improvement over those of President Bush, whose international support eventually shriveled, seemingly, to employees of U.S. embassies and their relatives. (In 2008, just 23 percent of non-U.S. respondents expressed confidence in Bush.) Some of Obama's biggest gains over Bush came in the Muslim countries most skeptical of the United States.
Does Obama's standing help him advance American interests? The president himself has suggested conflicting answers. He alluded to one in a July 7 Moscow speech when he observed that the days when titans like Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin "could shape the world in one meeting are over," because "billions of people" now demand "their own measure of... self-determination."
In that passage, Obama described a world in which mass opinion shapes statecraft -- a world in which international popularity is a tangible and powerful asset. Joseph Nye of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government says that foreign governments have in fact found it easier to side with U.S. presidents popular in those governments' countries. "Popularity doesn't guarantee you are going to get what you want," says Nye, author of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, "but it makes it an awful lot easier." One senior State Department official says that this dynamic is already influencing European allies' commitments in Afghanistan and negotiations aimed at finding countries to accept prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. "Although there is still a long way to go, we are having conversations... that could not have happened with Bush," the official insisted.
Others, though, might read the limits of the European investments in Afghanistan as proof of the contrary proposition, that nations set their foreign policies based on calculations about national interest that are largely indifferent to public opinion. Obama referred to that possibility this week when he noted that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is "not sentimental" and will work with the United States so far as he sees "common interests." This view describes a world in which enduring national interests eclipse fleeting public reactions to individual leaders in determining how nations interact. And, indeed, the global polling found that icy doubts about American intentions persist even in many countries with warm feelings toward Obama.
The president's popularity won't cause foreign governments to abandon their interests, but it could provide them more incentive to find places where their priorities converge with his. Even in the Islamic world, "the wall has come down halfway, and people are willing to listen," notes Randa Slim, a guest scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace. No world leader is operating with a larger global audience than Obama's. That's no guarantee of success, but it is an indication of his continuing opportunity to recast America's relations with a world that is still taking his measure.
This article appears in the July 11, 2009, edition of National Journal.