THE STORYLINE goes something like this: America's one-time popularity in the world was squandered by George W. Bush, whose belligerence and unilateralism after Sept. 11, 2001 alienated allies and engendered widespread anti-Americanism. But now, with the election of Barack Obama, America can restore its good name and regain the world's goodwill.
One vigorous exponent of this narrative has been Obama himself. "The single most important issue that we're facing in this election," he said during the campaign, is choosing a leader "to repair all the damage that's been done to American's reputation overseas." On the day I become president, he often told voters, "the world will look at America differently."
Students at Barack Obama's old primary school in Indonesia react as their teacher announced Obama's win. (AFP/Getty images)
For the president-elect, such worldwide jubilation must be gratifying. He should take it all with a healthy shake of salt, however. Because it isn't going to last.
Antagonism to the United States is as old as the United States. It didn't begin with the current president, unpopular though he is, or in response to American military action in Iraq. Nor is it going to vanish on January 20.
In Hating America, a survey of more than two centuries of anti-American hostility, Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin note that an upsurge of anti-Americanism was already "strong in the Middle East and well under way in Europe" before Bush took office in 2001. In the 1990s, for example, Greeks opposed US support for Kosovo's Muslims, and vented their anger at President Bill Clinton. "Among the epithets flung at Clinton in the mainstream Greek media," the Rubins recount, "were criminal, pervert, murderer, imposter, bloodthirsty, gangster, slayer, naïve, criminal, butcher, stupid, killer, foolish, unscrupulous, disgraceful, dishonest, and rascal."
A decade earlier, it was Ronald Reagan who provoked eruptions of anti-American fury. In 1983, millions of Europeans marched in protest when the Reagan administration countered the Soviet Union's deployment of nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe by installing US ballistic and cruise missiles in West Germany.
But it isn't only issues of war and peace that set off America's braying critics. In A Dangerous Place, a memoir of his tenure as ambassador to the United Nations, Daniel Patrick Moynihan describes a 1974 world food conference in Rome that had been convened by the United States. "The scene grew orgiastic as speakers competed in their denunciation of the country that had called the conference, mostly to discuss giving away its own wheat," he wrote. America is a big, rich, and powerful nation; that alone is enough to provoke global resentment, no matter who lives in the White House.
As a presidential candidate, Obama argued that America's standing in the world had declined because of the Iraq war and unilateral actions by the Bush administration "emphasizing military action over diplomacy." Yet there will almost surely be times in Obama's administration when the United States will have to take action when others won't, to defend its principles or protect a threatened party. As one notable American has written: "There will be times when we must again play the role of the world's reluctant sheriff. This will not change -- nor should it." The author of those words? Barack Obama, in The Audacity of Hope.
Popularity is nice, but it isn't the goal of American foreign policy. Great nations have great interests -- interests that cannot always be secured through patient negotiation or Security Council resolutions. As the foremost military power, the United States must at times be "the world's reluctant sheriff," using force to maintain order or defend liberty. President Obama may speak more softly than his predecessor, but he will still be carrying a very big stick. Like other presidents, he will be loudly condemned when he uses it. As George W. Bush can tell him, the abuse goes with the job.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)