Right after the 2004 election, a California college student started a website called sorryeverybody.com, "an apology to the world for the reelection of George W. Bush." He invited Americans to submit photos with messages to the world, and thousands did. In one photo, a man holds up a handwritten note: "Sorry World (We Tried). -- Half of America." Another note reads, "I'm Sorry World, I Miss You So Much." A third promises, "Dear World, It'll Get Better."
From the world's perspective, all that U.S. apologizing was only appropriate. The world used to like us a lot, but our reputation plummeted during the eight years of the Bush administration. In 2000, 78% of Germans had a favorable view of the United States, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project. By 2008, that had dropped to 31%. During the same period, favorable opinion of the U.S. went from 83% to 53% in Britain, from 62% to 42% in France, from 77% to 50% in Japan, from 68% to 47% in Mexico and from 52% to 12% in Turkey.
Don't be surprised or offended that the world doesn't think much of the way we've run our affairs in the last eight years. We haven't liked the way things have gone either. More than 70% of us disapprove of Bush's job performance, according to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, and 85% think our country has "pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track."
Needless to say, this means that President-elect Barack Obama will inherit monumental problems when he takes office. But when it comes to the rest of the world, Obama also has a monumental advantage that John McCain never would have had: The world likes him -- and is prepared, once again, to like our nation.
In June, the Pew Project found that large majorities in each of the 24 countries it surveyed had more confidence in Obama than McCain "to do the right thing regarding world affairs." In late October, Gallup released a 73-nation survey finding that world citizens preferred Obama to McCain by a margin of more than 3 to 1.
If the images of ecstatic crowds in capitals around the world are anything to go by, global enthusiasm for Obama is running nearly as high as it ran in Chicago's Grant Park on Tuesday night, and the congratulatory messages sent by world leaders to the president-elect seemed genuinely -- and unusually -- warm.
In the eyes of the world, Obama has a lot going for him. He's not George Bush. He's not a Republican. He's not a Clinton either -- he's untainted by the foreign policy failures of either party. His mixed-race ancestry and his family ties to other nations (Kenya and Indonesia) give him a perspective on global affairs that no other U.S. president has had.
Substantively, Obama promises to end the human rights abuses that marred our so-called war on terror, to end the Iraq war responsibly, to engage enemies as well as allies and to rebuild America's diplomatic and civilian reconstruction capacities, all positions reassuring to global publics tired of a decade of unthinking U.S. bellicosity. And to foreigners fearful of a U.S. foreign policy that is either rigid or erratic, Obama's innovative and disciplined presidential campaign was also profoundly reassuring -- especially as his "experienced" opponents flailed around like novices.
Far from seeking ways to "test" President Obama in his first months, world leaders likely will be eager to extend to America the hand of friendship that was so often withdrawn during the Bush administration (at times with devastating effect to our national interests). If Obama can capitalize on that global goodwill, he will have a precious window of opportunity in which his administration can make real progress.
No, Obama won't bring peace to Iraq and withdraw U.S. troops in his first month in office, or end Arab-Israeli tensions by March. He won't miraculously persuade Iran to switch from nuclear technologies to solar energy, or persuade Osama bin Laden to give up terrorism and open up a chain of florist shops instead.
But if Obama puts into his foreign policy strategy one-tenth of the talent, innovation and discipline he put into his campaign, he'll be able to make real headway on a range of critical issues that include nuclear-threat reduction, relations with Russia and stability in the Middle East and Central Asia.
And what lies in store for the website sorryeverybody.com? Well, on Wednesday morning, the site boasted a photo of a new handwritten note -- the first, I hope, of many such notes -- from someone in Istanbul: "APOLOGY ACCEPTED! THANKS FOR OBAMA."