If there's one thing the Democrats are certain they can accomplish provided they win in November (and it doesn't matter, for this purpose, which of the two candidates becomes the nominee) it will be the restoration of America's tattered world reputation. Barack Obama has promised that his first priority is to get the United States out of Iraq and "restore our standing in the world." Mrs. Clinton has said that an "urgent task" for the next president is to "restore America's standing in the world." Other Democrats hit this theme over and over again. Sen. Pat Leahy offered the standard version in his endorsement of Obama: "We need a president who can reintroduce America to the world and reintroduce America to ourselves."
Well, everyone likes to be loved, but Democrats seem more than a little obsessed with America's international reputation. Recall that in 2004, John Kerry described the matter as "primary" to the presidential race. "Foreign leaders" were apparently tapping Kerry on the shoulder at restaurants to express their dim view of his country.
Why is it so important to win an international popularity contest? If America is not popular in the world, what are the other nations going to do to us? Stop buying our products? Kick us out of the U.N.? Vote us off the island?
Actually, some of those consequences, particularly the U.N. bit, don't sound so awful.
A new poll commissioned by the BBC World Service will doubtless give Democrats more fits. Questioning respondents in 34 countries, the BBC asked for opinions about 13 countries -- Brazil, Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the U.S.A. -- and the European Union. The United States did not fare very well. On average, 47 percent of those questioned had a "mainly negative" view of America's influence in the world, versus only 35 percent with a "mainly positive" view. Unsurprisingly, Israel was second to the bottom, below everyone except Iran. The European Union did well with a 52 percent positive rating, as did Japan (56). Germany, too, clocked in with a 56 percent positive rating.
I wonder whether Democrats ever indulge the suspicion that "world opinion" may be bunk? Let's contrast, for example, the popularity of Israel (19 percent positive, 52 percent negative) and North Korea (23 percent positive, 44 percent negative). Israel is a fully functioning democracy with a free press, an independent judiciary, one of the highest standards of living in the world (including for its Arab citizens who enjoy a far higher standard of living than the average Arab in any Arab country), full civil rights, and the rule of law -- all of this despite being under relentless terrorist attack.
North Korea's people suffered a catastrophic famine that took (by the BBC's estimate) one in ten lives in the 1990s and continues to cause desperate suffering to the present day. The communist economy produces so little that the regime has taken to counterfeiting and arms dealing to obtain hard currency. North Korea is flouting the United Nations by building nuclear weapons, trading missiles to any bidder including other rogue nations, and saber rattling towards South Korea, Japan and the United States. The state maintains a Stalinist grip at home that forbids even whispering against the "Dear Leader" and has imprisoned and executed countless opponents.
Or consider the popularity of China. Forty-seven percent of respondents rated China's influence as "mostly positive" and only 32 percent considered its world role to be "mostly negative." The United States, again, was rated 35 positive and 47 percent negative. Let's see, there's a brutal crackdown on Tibet, constant threats toward Taiwan, complete repression of political and religious liberty, forced sterilization and abortion, military and diplomatic support for the genocidal regime in Sudan that has destroyed Darfur, and thousands of other violations of human rights and human dignity.
And the United States? Well, we've conducted a difficult, frustrating, but essentially benevolent five-year effort to liberalize and democratize two very tough customers: Afghanistan and Iraq. And we've imprisoned several hundred known and suspected terrorists -- giving them medical care, culturally sensitive food, prayer rugs, a Koran and a dental plan.
Actually, these international polls may not mean much. If the U.S. were truly unpopular, would we be building fences to keep immigrants out? Would the U.S. be the world's third most popular tourist destination? And would the world's people be glad to not have the U.S. available when another catastrophe like the Asian tsunami or the Bosnian crisis looms?
Contra Pat Leahy, we do not need to reintroduce America to the world, we need to remember that the world's moral focus can be strangely distorted.