WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It was not just U.S. Democratic voters who were looking forward to “hope and change” when Barack Obama became the 44th U.S. president.
Around the world, many anticipated the United States would behave very differently under the new leader. They wanted to hear less about Americans swaggering and throwing their weight around. Some, perhaps, wanted more talk of U.S.-style freedom and democracy, but not if it meant Washington imposing its will.
Few dispute that Obama’s election brought with it a noticeable change in tone. But 3-1/2 years later, there are growing complaints that when it comes to substance, relatively little has changed.
A scandal over the hiring of prostitutes by the U.S. Secret Service in Colombia, killings and Koran burnings in Afghanistan and drone strikes in Pakistan have helped fuel an impression of a United States that globally does what it wants regardless of others.
Even the “Arab Spring,” some complain, showcased U.S. hypocrisy: Washington withdrew support from autocratic allies like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak only when it became clear they were on the way out while still supporting authoritarian partners in states such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
The failure to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, where suspected foreign terrorists are held, despite Obama’s promises both before and after his election, has added to the disillusionment.
“We were very hopeful at the time Obama was elected,” said Abdel Rahman Mansour, an Egyptian political activist whose Facebook postings helped drive the revolution that ousted Mubarak in February last year. “But nothing happened. Obama didn’t deliver change but diplomatic rhetoric.”
As it struggles with a slow economic recovery, a potentially crippling budget deficit and debt burden, and political gridlock in Washington, some wonder whether the United States itself is in a slow decline.
A poll released last week by Gallup and conducted across 136 countries showed 46 percent of respondents had a positive view of U.S. global leadership. That has fallen gradually from 49 percent in 2009 immediately after Obama’s election, the highest since Gallup began polling on the issue in 2005.
It remains well above the 34 percent recorded in 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush administration.
Obama is also seen as much more popular internationally than his presumptive Republican challenger in November’s election, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who has indicated he would take a hard line with countries such as Russia and China.
The enthusiasm verging on euphoria that initially greeted Obama, however, seems to be gone for good.
Karl Lemberg, one of thousands who thronged a Berlin park in July 2008 for a pre-election address by Obama, says he believed at the time he was seeing a seismic shift in relations between the United States and the rest of the world.
Four years later, now married to an American woman and studying in Washington, he says he has trimmed his expectations, particularly after learning how Congress limits the freedom of any president. “I have a much more realistic view of the U.S. now,” he said.
Some now say the world’s embrace of Obama had less to do with the candidate himself - and even less to do with his policies - and more to do with what he was seen to represent as the first black U.S. president.
“To me, what the Obama presidency has done ... is to show that with good ... institutional structures... anybody can rise up to any level they would want to achieve,” said James Shikwati, founder and director of the Nairobi-based Inter Regional Economic Network think tank.
Certainly, the United States - with its enduring if occasionally troubled democracy, wealth, image and power - exerts a powerful draw. A separate Gallup poll shows it the most popular desired destination for potential global migrants.
Most polls show greater trust in U.S. leadership than that of other powers, such as China. Indeed, Beijing’s rise is seen prompting many other countries in Asia to tighten relations with Washington.
For Obama “it was always going to be a roller coaster,” says P.J. Crowley, State Department spokesman between 2009 and 2011 and now a university lecturer, pointing to the shift in expectations after the eight years under Bush.
Global sentiment towards the United States has always ebbed and flowed. President Ronald Reagan was far from universally loved in Europe at the time of his Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union, while presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were heavily criticized during the Vietnam War.
But recent months have certainly seen the kind of image-damaging news flow Washington could do without.
This month’s Americas Summit in Colombia was marred by the embarrassing disclosure that U.S. Secret Service agents had been caught bringing prostitutes into their hotel. The United States also found itself isolated over its tough Cuba policy.
Of greater damage to Washington’s image was a string of incidents in Afghanistan, where it is struggling to create security and promote development.
“What happened in Colombia was a distraction from the summit itself, but that was it,” said Douglas Ollivant, a former director for Iraq for the National Security Council who is now at the New America Foundation think tank. “In Afghanistan, though, there is something of a drum beat of events. And there it really matters.”
In March, a U.S. Army sergeant was accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians. He was arrested and flown back to the United States for trial. Before that a video circulated showing U.S. troops apparently urinating on dead Taliban fighters.
In February, there were protests and reprisals after it emerged U.S. forces had burned several copies of the Koran.
Jon B. Wolfsthal, a former NSC director for nuclear issues and special adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, said it was vital for the government to build up international capital to help it better weather such storms.
Wolfstahl, now deputy head of the University of Monterey’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said there was a big difference between recent scandals and some of the more unpopular actions of the Bush administration, like the use of controversial interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. Under Obama the acts were by misguided individuals and they were not official policy, he said.
In Obama’s first year in office, he said, the president and his aides pursued a deliberate policy of trying to build international capital with big speeches in Prague and Cairo so they could trade off it in later years.
“There are times when it has been very useful,” says Wolfsthal, pointing to negotiations to get countries to surrender atomic material or cooperate on sanctions against nuclear smuggling. “You have national leaders that were willing to do things they didn’t want to do because they got to meet with or be photographed with the president.”
Administration insiders said they always knew Obama’s sky-high global popularity would not be sustainable. Romney might accuse Obama of too often apologizing for the United States, but the president’s defenders said he had no problem making internationally unpopular decisions when necessary.
“I don’t think the Obama administration is particularly any more worried about what people in the rest of the world think,” says former NSC member Ollivant, who served both Bush and Obama.
Still, in some parts of the world the president remains much more popular than many local politicians.
When he visited the Indonesian island of Bali for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in November, adoring crowds lined the route cheering “We love you Obama.” An Indonesian provincial governor passing along the same route hours later was met with jeers and complaints over flooding and poor roads. Obama lived in the capital Jakarta for three years with his mother and Indonesian stepfather between 1969 and 1971.
But in Pakistan, where U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden a year ago and where drones stalk militants in the lawless tribal areas, Obama’s leadership has proved divisive.
“Things seem to have gotten worse under Obama,” said Shayan Jafri, 21, a law student in Islamabad. “America has been violating our sovereignty ... how can they expect us to respect them when they don’t respect us.”
Some Pakistanis do express sympathy with the policy challenge for the United States. “As long as we are not willing to solve our own problems, what options do the Americans have?” said fellow Islamabad resident Ali Qureshi, 28.
It is a similar picture across the border in Afghanistan. While some Afghans credit the United States - and even Obama in particular - with some development and security gains, there are widespread complaints that go beyond the scandals, particularly over failure to build up the economy and infrastructure.
In the Middle East, there seems little doubt the Obama presidency scaled back perceptions widespread under Bush that the United States was at war with the Muslim world.
Obama’s supporters say that has helped him build regional and international coalitions to help contain Iran, particularly when it comes to tightening sanctions designed to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program.
The Obama administration’s unwillingness to intervene militarily to prevent the Syrian government from firing on its own people as it seeks to put down an uprising has upset some. But another U.S.-led intervention in the Muslim world would have carried heavy risks.
Given the growing strength of nations such as China, India and Brazil - not to mention the power of popular unrest showed by the “Arab Spring” - the idea that U.S. policy might be key to another region’s destiny is itself being questioned.
Under Bush, many, particularly the Middle East, saw the United States as a “rogue state” that endangered others. Under Obama, some believe that while it may sometimes be a stabilizing force, it could also be becoming quietly less important.
“I have simply moved on from looking at America,” said Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a blogger and political commentator based in the United Arab Emirates. “It’s not America that is going to bring change to the Middle East or anywhere else. We have to look to ourselves, produce the change ourselves.”
The State Department and White House declined comment on this story.
Additional reporting by Reuters bureaus in Nairobi, Cairo, Jakarta, Islamabad, Kabul and Beijing; Editing by Martin Howell and David Storey