Obama meets Thatcher. Warning: this picture has nothing to do with the following post. (Photo: Lawrence Jackson/White House.)
As one of the Economist's bloggers argues in a fascinating post, behind the recent failure of the Security Council to reach agreement on Syria is an underplayed story: the extent to which America has regained moral authority and global influence, after its post-Iraq decline. China and Russia may have stopped the UN taking out sanctions against Assad. But they did so at the cost of making themselves look isolated, backward-looking and autocrat-friendly, at a time when there is a global groundswell for freedom, particularly in the Middle East. America's UN ambassador, Susan Rice, used exceptionally strong language to condemn the Russian-Chinese veto (she called it "disgusting"). She felt able to do so because America was so clearly on the right side of the argument, and had most of the rest of the world behind it, including the Arab League. The Turkish Foreign Minister even went so far as to criticise the "Cold War logic" of Russia. America's deft positioning in this dispute hasn't come out of nowhere, says the Economist:
For the past three years America has been walking softly, and it's working very, very well. Ten years back, America often found itself isolated, struggling to pull together "coalitions of the willing" packed with small client states. Lately, we have been finding ourselves in the majority, along with the democratic world, while Russia and China front a dwindling coalition of the unwilling. To some extent, this reflects a smart, subtle foreign-policy presence in which we have done a vastly better job of looking at what other countries actually want, and seeing where our interests align, rather than trying to bully other countries into supporting our goals. To some extent, it's luck: the Arab spring happened.
But it's also a testament to the continuing strength of this president's image abroad. His ratings may be down at home, but around the world, he is still an asset:
In almost every country, you'll see a dramatic or startling increase in confidence between 2008 and 2011. In Germany and France, George Bush had approval ratings in the low teens in 2008; Barack Obama's approval has never dropped below 80%. In Japan and Britain the shift is nearly as striking. In Egypt, the corresponding figures are 11% and 35%. Even in Russia itself, they are 22% and 41%. When Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice try to win backing for American positions at the UN, the exceptional popularity of the president they represent in other countries is obviously a factor.
Obama's foreign policy record is far from unblemished - his policy on Israel-Palestine has been a mess - but he deserves credit for the restoration of America's "soft power" in the world. This is partly because he put grown-ups into big jobs - Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Susan Rice (Rice's predecessor was John Bolton. John Bolton! The Homer Simpson of diplomacy). But it's also because his stewardship of policy has been coherent and consistent. He's projected a kindler, gentler image abroad, while at the same time demonstrating America will still exert hard power when it feels it needs to, not least along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, or in the audacious killing of Bin Laden.
When it comes to foreign policy, President Obama can fairly claim to have lived by Teddy Roosevelt's motto: Speak softly, and carry a big stick.