Around the World, High Hopes for Obama

by , January 21, 2009

Perhaps never in human history have the hopes of so many people for positive change in international relations rested on one person as they do on Barack Obama, who is to be inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States at noon Washington time.

That is one way of reading a new 17-nation poll released by the BBC World Service on the eve of his inaugural. Of the more than 17,000 people polled, an average of two out of every three respondents, and majorities in 15 of the nations, said they expected U.S. relations with the world to improve under Obama.

That reflected a sharp rise in optimism about Obama compared to last summer when he was still running against Republican candidate Sen. John McCain. At that time, an average of 47 percent of respondents said they expected an Obama presidency, if it came to pass, would result in an improvement in U.S. ties with the rest of the world.

"These are really big numbers, and they’re on a remarkable trajectory," said Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) which helped design and analyze the BBC survey, along with GlobeScan Incorporated, a London-based consultancy firm.

"As a global phenomenon where so many people are looking to one person, this is probably unprecedented," he told IPS.

Nearly three out of every four respondents (72 percent) in the poll, which included key countries in western Europe, East Asia, Latin America, west Africa, the Islamic world, as well as Russia, India, and the U.S. itself, said the global financial crisis should be Obama’s "top priority."

Half of respondents put "withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq" in that category, while 46 percent named "addressing climate change" and 43 percent cited brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians, a significantly higher proportion than the 29 percent who thought supporting the Afghan government against the Taliban should be at the top of the new president’s agenda.

The survey largely mirrors the steady growth in optimism about an Obama presidency within the United States since his election Nov. 4, even as the financial crisis that broke out with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in mid-September appears to have become increasingly serious.

In a New York Times/CBS News poll released Sunday, nearly four out of five respondents (79 percent), including nearly three out of five Republicans (58 percent), said they were optimistic about the next four years under Obama, the highest level of optimism about a new president since the question was first asked in 1977 about Jimmy Carter.

In a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday, more than half of respondents said they had "high hopes" about Obama, nearly three in four voiced support for economic-recovery program, and eight in 10 said they have a favorable opinion about him as a leader.

No doubt the two U.S. polls, as well as BBC’s 17-nation survey, reflect the unpopularity of the incumbent, George W. Bush whose eight-year tenure – especially the Iraq War, the abandonment of the Geneva Conventions for the treatment of prisoners and other global treaties, and the aggressive unilateralism of his first term, in particular – brought Washington’s global standing to an all-time low. The Times poll found that only 22 percent of U.S. respondents have a favorable view of his presidency.

Indeed, Kull noted that much of the goodwill reflected in the BBC poll may be attributable to the contrast between Bush’s unilateralism and Obama’s repeated emphasis on diplomacy, multilateralism, and international law, most recently signaled by his pledge to close down the Guantanamo detention facility and ban the use of torture.

"The decision to close down Guantanamo is probably contributing to [this optimism] as a signal of change, a signal that the U.S. is agreeing to be constrained by international norms. Signaling a readiness to play by the rules is very important to people around the world," he added.

That assessment was seconded in an article on the global reaction to the transfer of power from Bush to Obama published Friday in the influential National Journal entitled, simply, "The World Exhales." "Some days, it seems as if most of the world took all the breath it was holding as it waited for President Bush to leave office and exhaled it into expectation balloons that threaten to carry Obama away," the author noted.

The latest BBC survey, which was carried out in most countries in December, included 1,000 or more respondents in each of the 17 countries. Latin American countries included Chile and Mexico; African countries included Ghana and Nigeria. Other countries included Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain in Western Europe; Egypt and Turkey in the Greater Middle East; and Japan, Indonesia, and China in East Asia.

The most optimistic views were found in Ghana, where 87 percent of respondents said U.S. relations with the world would improve under Obama; continental Western Europe (an average of about 78 percent); Mexico and Nigeria (74 percent); Britain (70 percent); and Chile and China (68 percent). Sixty-five percent of U.S. respondents said they expected improvement in their country’s relations with the rest of the world.

Particularly notable, according to Kull, was the sharp rise in optimism in the predominantly Islamic countries compared to last August, from 29 to 58 percent in Egypt; 46 to 64 percent in Indonesia; and 11 to 51 percent in Turkey, whose traditionally pro-U.S. public turned sharply antagonistic with the Iraq invasion.

The only two countries where pluralities – rather than majorities – expressed optimism about Obama’s presidency were Japan (48 percent) and Russia (at 47 percent, a major rise from 11 percent in August where U.S.-Russian tensions reached their zenith during the Georgia crisis).

In terms of Obama’s priorities, Western Europeans (about two-thirds), with the exception of Germany (49 percent), rated climate change a top priority. Chileans (68 percent), Chinese (65 percent), and Japanese (57 percent) agreed. By contrast, only 41 percent of U.S. respondents and a mere 18 percent of Russians were of the same mind.

On brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians, 75 percent of Egyptians called it a top priority, followed by 58 percent of Chinese, an average of about 55 percent among Western European respondents. The exception again was Germans, of whom only 20 percent rated the conflict a top priority, although 57 percent characterized it "important but not top." Small majorities of Mexicans and Chileans put it in the "top" category, but only 37 percent of U.S. respondents did so. Most polling was done before the Gaza crisis broke out.

At 82 percent, Egyptians also topped the list of those publics that see U.S. withdrawal from Iraq as a "top" priority. An average of about two-thirds of Mexicans, Chileans, and Chinese agreed with that assessment, as did a majority of Spaniards, British, and Italians. Forty-one percent of U.S. respondents call it a "top" priority.

In what could bode ill for Obama’s pledge to gain more support from NATO for efforts to thwart the Taliban in Afghanistan, U.S. respondents were the most enthusiastic, with 46 percent calling it a "top priority." While British respondents were close behind at 42 percent, the notion was somewhat less popular among other NATO allies, ranging from a low of 13 percent of German respondents to a high of 35 percent among Spanish respondents.

Still, majorities exceeding 60 percent considered it either a "top" or an "important" priority among all NATO members polled, including 68 percent among Turkish respondents.

On dealing with the financial crisis, Chinese respondents showed the greatest concern: 93 percent called it a "top priority." Germans were next at 83 percent, while only pluralities in India (47 percent) and Nigeria (49 percent) rated placed it in the "top" category.

(Inter Press Service)

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