With financial woes, environmental disasters and a faltering approval rating in the United States, the Obama administration can take comfort in an improved international image. On Tuesday, Gallup released the results of a poll conducted across 110 countries in 2009 showing that median worldwide approval of U.S. leadership has jumped to 51 percent, up from 34 percent in 2008. Support is particularly strong in sub-Saharan Africa, where President Obama’s approval rating during the first year of his term reached 87 percent.
Given his Kenyan father and American mother, Obama’s mixed heritage likely contributes to his popularity in the region.
“His ability to connect with various audiences and his connection with African people is of a very special nature,” said Richard Joseph, a professor at Northwestern University who focuses on the study of politics and governance in Africa. “In addition to being the president of the United States and leader of the Western world, in the case of Africa he will be considered the leading African world figure.”
The popularity of the United States may extend beyond that of its president, however. As democratic principles have started to gain traction in Africa, the U.S. has been seen as a model of success.
“Essentially, the United States as a society tends to be seen as highly attractive in Africa,” said John Campbell, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. Although Africans may not be aware of specific policies, “what they do know is personal freedom, freedom of speech, rule of law, [and] a police that is not corrupt.”
Even when adopted by African countries, these rights, which are among the core afforded by the U.S. Constitution, are not always enforced. Although Ethiopia’s 1995 constitution includes provisions outlining universal elections, for example, controversy persists. Ethiopia went to the polls on May 23, and the landslide victory of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has since been contested.
Still, Africans may be encouraged that U.S. leaders promote the spread of democracy abroad.
“President Obama and the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have been quite outspoken on the subject of good governance and fair, free and credible elections,” said Campbell. “The administration as a whole has been quite outspoken on that point.”
Northwestern University Professor William Reno, a specialist in African politics, said proximity could influence opinion.
“Because the U.S. is more distant and its impact is more generalized in most cases, the U.S. is seen as not a negative,” said Reno. He cited more inclusive immigration policies in the U.S. versus Europe and the popular culture idea that “successful people go off and make their fortune in the U.S” as additional reasons for the strong approval rating.
Direct humanitarian support from the U.S. may also enhance goodwill from sub-Saharan Africa.
The U.S. has increased aid to Africa in recent years, with health issues including HIV/AIDS and malaria being a main priority. In 2003, President George W. Bush launched a $15 billion plan entitled the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Originally implemented as an emergency response plan for treating and preventing AIDS, the focus is now on ensuring sustainability for the programs in place. U.S. funding for the program increased from $2.3 billion in 2004 to $6.8 billion this year and Obama has requested a $7 billion budget for the program for 2011. In 2005, President Bush also committed $1.2 billion in funding to a malaria initiative targeting the 15 hardest-hit African countries, all of which are located below the Sahara.
Sub-Saharan nations may also be responding to direct diplomatic assistance from the U.S. Earlier this week, Obama signed a law pledging U.S. assistance to Uganda in terms of helping to develop strategies to oppose the increasingly violent Lord’s Resistance Army. Agence France-Presse reported that the rebel group has intensified attacks in neighboring countries including Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic.
Obama’s 87 percent approval rating in sub-Saharan Africa contrasts with a 34 percent approval rating in the Middle East and North Africa, where anti-U.S. sentiment is more pronounced and where Islam is the predominant religion.