Kerry is Right – Obviously

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

March 28, 2004

One of the strangest things about the furor over Sen. John Kerry’s claim that he’s heard from foreign leaders that they want him to defeat George W. Bush is that the Bush campaign wants to draw attention to the issue. Citing unnamed and unnamable sources is always a dubious practice. But in the history of unproven campaign claims has there ever been a more plausible assertion than that many of America’s partners would like to see Bush replaced?

It is hard to figure out why Republicans want to draw attention to the idea that Bush may be the first incumbent president in the postwar period that so many of America’s allies would prefer to see defeated.

Bush himself joined the fray last week by asserting that “if you’re going to make an accusation in the course of a presidential campaign you ought to back it up with facts.” Putting aside the fact that he had just authorized a television advertisement with the dubious charge that Kerry is calling for a $900 billion tax hike, the facts are indeed worth considering. The nonpartisan Pew Global Attitudes Project survey of international public opinion happened to be published last week, and the results are a devastating indictment of America’s falling standing in the world and Bush’s personal unpopularity abroad.

“We’ve never seen ratings as low as this for America,” said Andrew Kohut, the poll’s director, citing the 63 percent of Turks, 62 percent of French, 59 percent of Germans, 44 percent of Russians and even 34 percent of British who now have unfavorable views of the United States. Just a few years ago, majorities in all countries had favorable views of America.

Even more to the point, Pew reports, international views of President Bush are strikingly and unanimously negative. Fifty-seven percent of the British, 60 percent of Russians, 67 percent of Turks, 85 percent of Germans and French, and no less than 90 percent of Moroccans and 96 percent of Jordanians have an unfavorable view of the president. Indeed, in a June 2003 Pew poll, those with an unfavorable view of America made clear that the problem was “mostly Bush” rather than “America in general.” This was true for no less than 74 percent of the French and Germans, 67 percent of the Italians, 60 percent of the Spanish and Canadians, and 59 percent of the British.

Kerry’s claim, of course, was that “leaders” would like to see him replace George Bush, not just foreign publics. And perhaps there are some leaders, like Tony Blair or Silvio Berlusconi, who have opinions and interests different from those of their populations. But as last week’s Spanish election demonstrated, in democracies voters can eventually change their leaders, and anti-Bush feelings can easily translate into success for governments and policies that may not be in America’s interest.

Indeed, the Spanish election is the third one in the last two years—following Germany in September 2002 and South Korea in December 2002—in which a candidate clearly won political support by running at least in part against President Bush. It would be a perverse defense against Kerry’s charge to argue that foreign leaders actually want Bush to stay—because he is such a convenient political punching bag.

Whatever Americans may think of George Bush’s policies—and however deluded allies may be that a Kerry presidency would be one long honeymoon—it is simply a fact that on issues ranging from the environment to the budget deficit to the death penalty to Iraq, Bush is deeply unpopular abroad.

Winning over foreigners, of course, must not be the main priority for an American president. But what foreign leaders think of America and its leader is far from irrelevant, contrary to what the Bush administration has assumed. Bush came to office thinking that overwhelming American power, obvious goodwill and decisive leadership would oblige other countries to follow the United States regardless of what most of the world thought of him or American policies.

To an extent, that was true. But as is becoming all too clear in Iraq—where America is bearing the overwhelming share of the material, human and financial costs because it and its policies there were not supported globally—lasting coalitions of willing democracies depend on more than the fear of American power. They require legitimacy and the consent of the governed.

Republicans had great success in 2000 characterizing Al Gore as a “serial exaggerator,” and they are right to hold the Democratic candidate to a high standard of honesty in an election campaign. Why they want to draw attention to the fact that America is more isolated today than it has been for many decades, and that President Bush is a large part of the problem, is harder to understand.