Six years ago when President Barack Obama was running for the presidency, one of his major foreign policy goals was to restore U.S. standing in the world, which was experiencing one of the steepest decline in its history. Popular opinion regarding the U.S. had started to turn negative in the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan. Although global public opinion and international organizations, such as NATO, supported the war in Afghanistan, several different procedures that U.S. security forces adopted in this period started to tarnish the image of the U.S. as well as the legitimacy of its actions on the ground. The war in Iraq was a major turning point in this respect. The U.S. administration was harshly criticized for its push to form a coalition to invade Iraq. Millions of protesters around the world launched campaigns and organized rallies, some of which were reminiscent of the activities of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War. However, the U.S. administration did not take into account the public opposition to its plans and went ahead with the invasion of Iraq. The situation that emerged in Iraq after the end of the battle in Iraq was more detrimental for U.S. standing in the world. The eruption of mass looting, a sectarian civil war and finally the revelations of the photos of Abu Gharib prison greatly hurt U.S. popularity around the world. All of these developments created a significant wave of reactions to U.S. foreign policy around the world.
President Obama during his trip to Western capitals in 2008 expressed his willingness to form a coalition and cooperate with U.S. allies around the world. His speech in Berlin on this trip turned into an overseas rally for him and signaled a new beginning for U.S. image abroad. The election of President Obama also created a positive vibe for the standing of the U.S. It was considered as a landmark moment for the U.S. and an opportunity for U.S. foreign policy to re-bond with its allies, regain its credibility and prestige and renew its image. The decision of newly elected President Obama to attend meetings with U.S. allies on his first overseas trip and his speeches in Cairo and Ankara also increased expectations of him. He also took some drastic actions to restore U.S. "moral high ground" in his first days in office, such as signing the executive order to close the controversial detention facility in Guantanamo Bay. Following this, he won a Nobel Peace Prize, mostly because of his intention to move U.S. foreign policy in a new dimension.
Now, when he only has 30 months left in his presidency, President Obama is facing a test on foreign policy regarding U.S. standing around the world. Although polls shows U.S. standing today in a better place than six years ago, many observers agree that it is way behind expectations. In the last quarter of his presidency, U.S. policy in several issue areas will determine the level of U.S. standing around the world. The first one of these is U.S. policy in Syria and Egypt. The U.S. image has already been damaged by its inaction against the crimes committed by the Assad regime, including the documented crimes against humanity and the use of chemical weapons. The continuing civil war and increasing number of fatalities further tarnish the U.S. as a global and responsible superpower. U.S. policy in Egypt in the coming period also endangers the future of U.S. reputation in newly democratizing countries. Secondly, some of the intelligence operations of U.S. administrations, which were revealed by Edward Snowden, have already generated huge skepticism about U.S. foreign and security policies. In addition, these practices, such as the more frequent use of drone attacks, have already damaged U.S. standing and image abroad.
In this final phase of his presidency, President Obama's policies on these matters will have serious impacts on U.S. popularity in the world. Especially in Syria and Egypt, if he continues to follow his current policies, the U.S. may face another downward trend in its standing. Under those circumstances, public diplomacy campaigns will only waste money on U.S. foreign policy.
About the author
Kılıç Buğra Kanat is Research Director at SETA Foundation at Washington, D.C. He is an assistant professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie.