We share the view - as does President Obama - that the Nobel decision was embarrassingly premature. But recovering America's international standing from the damage done by Bush is not inconsequential, and it is a result not just of Obama's color, but of his efforts, beginning months before his election, to project a different image to the world.

Some American politicians tend to paint foreign leaders - indeed, foreigners in general - with a broad brush in just two colors: pro-American and anti-American. For those Americans paying attention, this assumption was upended in 2007 when France, often characterized as bitterly anti-American during the Bush years, elected as president Nicolas Sarkozy, who praises the U.S. at every turn and delights in being called "the American" by his countrymen.


In his 2008 book, "The Post-American World," Fareed Zakaria recalls the first meeting Sarkozy had after his election with Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state:


"She asked him, 'What can I do for you?' His response was revealing. 'Improve your image in the world,' he said. 'It's difficult when the country that is the most powerful, the most successful - that is, of necessity, the leader for our side - is one of the most unpopular countries in the world. It presents overwhelming problems for you and overwhelming problems for your allies. So do everything you can to improve the way you're perceived. That's what you can do for me."'


Sarkozy got his wish. America's brand is now the most popular in the world, up from number 7 a year ago, at least according to GfK Roper's Nation Brand Index.


"In all my years studying national reputation, I have never seen any country experience such a dramatic change in its standing as we see for the United States in 2009," explains Simon Anholt, NBI founder and an independent adviser to more than a dozen national governments around the world.


"Despite recent economic turmoil, the U.S. actually gained significant ground. The results suggest that the new U.S. administration has been well received abroad and the American electorate's decision to vote in President Obama has given the United States the status of the world's most admired country."


It is in this context that Obama's Nobel Prize should be understood. We share the view - as does Obama - that the Nobel decision was embarrassingly premature. But recovering America's international standing from the damage done by Bush is not inconsequential, and it is a result not just of Obama's color, but of his efforts, beginning months before his election, to project a different image to the world.


Being admired has long been America's not-so-secret weapon. For centuries, it is what has drawn the world's brightest and most ambitious people to build a better life here. It pays off in foreign investment, in the visits of tourists from around the world, and in the popularity of American products.


Our international reputation also strengthens the president's hands in foreign relations, but within limits. Being popular gets Obama to the table, but it doesn't make Vladimir Putin or Mahmud Ahmadinejad any less difficult to deal with. It doesn't make the disagreements in the Mideast any less intractable. Success abroad requires persistent, patient diplomacy, not popularity polls.


But America's image abroad is an element of soft power, and, as Sarkozy says, it changes the equations that guide the actions of allies and adversaries alike. It is a resource Obama should carefully steward.


The MetroWest Daily News