Obama’s ‘Ugly American’ Dilemma

Restoring America's reputation abroad is easier said than done.

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President Barack Obama listens to a speech of the German Chancellor as he sits on a podium in front of Berlin's landmark the Brandenburg Gate near the US embassy where Obama also gave a speech, June 19, 2013.

As Barack Obama travels across sub-Saharan Africa this week, he is basking in the love of one of the most pro-American regions on earth.

The rest of the world is another story.

Nearly six months into his second term, Obama has made scant progress towards one of his key goals from his first campaign, which he described in 2008 as “restor[ing] that sense that America is that shining beacon on a hill.” The idea was to revive the idea that America represents values like freedom, human rights and peace.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Worldwide supporters of the fugitive former NSA employee Edward Snowden have depicted him as a heroic crusader against a nefarious surveillance state reminiscent of the East German Stasi. The European parliament recently adopted a resolution critical of the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, which noted that “the fight against terrorism cannot be waged at the expense of established basic shared values, such as respect for human rights and the rule of law.” Recent polling shows America more unpopular than ever in Muslim countries, enraged by Obama’s heavy reliance on drone strikes against suspected terrorists. Though occasionally cooperative, Russia and China are content to speak about America with borderline hostility. Even a bite-sized nation like Ecuador is thumbing its nose at the U.S. over Snowden’s fate.

(MORE: Barack Obama’s Crisis-Driven Second Term)

Bogged down in his first term by the economy, health care, and budget fights, Obama may have hoped that his second term would offer a chance to win back a skeptical world. By the middle of last year, a survey of global opinion released by the Pew Research Center in June found that views of America and Obama’s policies had declined since 2009. A March Gallup poll found that, while America’s standing abroad had improved since George W. Bush left office, opinions of Obama’s America had dimmed. “This shift suggests that the president and the new secretary of state may not find global audiences as receptive to the U.S. agenda as they have in the past. In fact, they may find even once-warm audiences increasingly critical,” concluded Gallup’s Julie Ray. (Even in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the most pro-America regions of the world, pro-U.S. opinion has slipped.)

But turning around world opinion has been severely complicated in recent weeks. Snowden’s leaks about U.S. surveillance, spying and hacking activities revived the image of an arrogant post-9/11 America that acts without regard for the law, and forced Obama to publicly protest that he is no Dick Cheney. In a pungent expression of leftist European sentiment a socialist member of Ireland’s parliament recently branded Obama a hypocrite and a “war criminal.” The United Nations has launched an inquiry into the legality of Obama’s campaign of drone strikes against suspected terrorists, which has further inflamed the Muslim world. The ongoing hunger strike at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp—and the force-feeding of Gitmo inmates—has drawn protests from human rights groups and medical professionals.

(VIDEO: President Obama Defends NSA Surveillance Programs As “Right Balance”)

Meanwhile, Obama’s effort to “reset” relations with Moscow has fizzled. And although Obama held a feel-good meeting with China’s new leader in California this month, Beijing did allow Snowden to flee from Hong Kong, and still clashes with the U.S. on many other priorities. The Middle East? So far,the Arab Spring has arguably empowered anti-American forces in the region—for instance, in Egypt, where an Islamist president replaced a longtime pro-American dictator. And Syrian rebel fighters are furious that Obama has not provided them with more support.

Foreign policy is no popularity contest, of course. But Obama’s second term agenda will require strong support from around the world. He’ll need Arab states and Russia to help him contain Syria’s civil war. A unified international front against Iran is the best lever to stop its nuclear program without military force. And the prospects for a U.S.-brokered Middle East peace are improved if Palestinians and their Arab supporters aren’t consumed with distrust for America.

It’s still not too late for impressions of America to turn around, especially if the debates about drones, detention and Edward Snowden die down. Whether Obama still has time to “restore that sense that America is that shining beacon on a hill” is harder to say.

MORE: TIME POLL: Americans Believe Country Heading In Wrong Direction