Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's Nobel Prize for climate change -- the Nobel committee credited him with "creating a new climate" -- was useful in at least one way. It exposed the truest of the true believers -- those who believe that the tonic of Obama's presence deserves the Nobel Prize for medicine, that his magnetism merits the Nobel Prize for physics, that his charisma demands the Nobel Prize for personal chemistry.

Even Obama could not claim that he personally deserved the award. "I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments," he said -- which was simple realism, not false humility. Those who credit Obama's nine undistinguished months for this honor display a panting infatuation even stronger than Obama's healthy self-regard.

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Others, however, embraced the award in a more sophisticated manner -- not as a tribute to Obama but as a symbol of America's revived popularity in the world. It is a good thing, the argument goes, for an American president to be loved by foreigners, even if their sloppy display of affection is embarrassing.

But this point needs to be argued, not merely assumed. How does American standing translate into effective diplomacy? And what role does presidential popularity play in building national standing?

The first, most important, element of national standing is credibility -- the perception that a nation will act in its vital interests and do what it has promised. It is the combination of American power and credibility that causes other nations to change their behavior in ways favorable to our interests. But power and credibility often attract resentment, not love. President Reagan was unpopular in Europe while pursing policies, such as the deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles, that weakened the Soviet Union.

How is Obama's credibility? His initial decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan were generally responsible. His unilateral abandonment of missile defense agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic, his tolerance for engagement without outcomes, his dithering on Afghanistan policy, all raise serious questions on this score.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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