TOPICS: The kind of president Americans need

Tim Montgomerie

Polls in the United States show that most Americans are concerned at the negativity of Europeans towards their country. Polls of Europeans suggest a straightforward solution: elect Barack Obama as United States president. The most powerful leader in the world will then be more multilateralist, less aggressive and more acceptable to the European ear. But is it that simple? The most popular recent American president — according to surveys of Britons, Germans and Italians — is Bill Clinton. In that finding is the warning for America.

Europeans may want someone like themselves in the White House, but difficult times call for a president willing to eschew short-term popularity and pursue long-term respect. Europeans hope for a president who will abandon Bush’s foreign policy, but he has pursued many different foreign policies. What Europeans want to end is the “neoconservatism” seen in Iraq. But all the favoured policies of Berlin and Paris have been used by the US over the past eight years.

“Realpolitik” has been tried in Pakistan, where billions of dollars have been used to prop up a west-leaning dictator. The “multilateralism” favoured by the EU and the UN has dominated efforts to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Crude appeasement has characterised relations with Saudi Arabia.

The highest moment for recent US foreign policy was after the initial invasion of Iraq. With its allies, it had used hard power, not soft. It hadn’t waited on UN approval, but it had kept its promise to topple Saddam Hussein. Polls in Britain showed majority support for the war. That American strength and success caused Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. Libya gave up its WMD. Pakistan’s giveaway of its nuclear secrets was exposed. The grave problems we have seen since have been caused by US weakness and incompetence.

Favouring European approaches to global problems may bring some short-term popularity, but it is more important that the world’s only serious policeman is strong and seen to be strong. The world will applaud an America that quits Iraq, that submits to the authority of the UN and signs up to the economic restrictions associated with environmentalism. But insofar as those changes of policy enfeeble America, the world will become a much more dangerous place.

America should not ignore world opinion, which has been correct to worry about the way the US has compromised on human rights in the war on terror. John McCain and Barack Obama have both pledged to end the torture-like practices that have done terrible harm to America’s reputation. The next US president also needs to do much more to explain American policy and to treat US allies more generously.

But world opinion should not stop America from taking tough decisions. An America that seeks to be loved may end up being neither loved nor respected. An America that is strong in the defence of the values of Kennedy and Reagan may be surprised at the grudging respect it will eventually earn.