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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Myth of International Wisdom

In his column this morning, entitled "Replant the American Dream," Washington Post columnist David Ignatius dramatically laments America’s plummeting popularity around the world, and does so with the standard, now-cliched sentiments which are dutifully trotted out whenever this topic is raised. People in other countries no longer like or respect Americans. They think we’re hypocritical war-mongers who preach standards for other countries which we routinely violate. They despise George Bush and disbelieve everything that he says. They no longer see us as exceptional or different. Accordingly, he patronizingly tells us:

When I lived abroad, Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. It was a chance to scrounge up a turkey, gather foreign and American friends, and celebrate what America represented to the world. . . .


I don't think Americans realize how much we have tarnished those ideals in the eyes of the rest of the world these past few years. The public opinion polls tell us that America isn't just disliked or feared overseas -- it is reviled. We are seen as hypocrites who boast of our democratic values but who behave lawlessly and with contempt for others. I hate this America-bashing, but when I try to defend the United States and its values in my travels abroad, I find foreigners increasingly are dismissive.


And, as is almost always the case for those who read from this laundry list to demonstrate rising anti-American sentiment among people in other countries, Ignatius’ assumption is that they are right. If people around the world believe that the U.S. has shed its values and has become a dangerous threat to the world, then, so goes this reasoning, that is powerful proof that the U.S. is on the wrong track. And, they reason, both the prevalence and wisdom of these anti-American sentiments around the world compel the U.S. to change its course in order to once again become popular in the world.

This is corrupt and dangerous reasoning. All of Ignatius’ assertions regarding rising American unpopularity may be (and likely are) true, but they are also completely besides the point, if not downright irrelevant, when it comes to debating what measures the U.S. ought to pursue and is justified in pursuing in order to defend its national security and protect its national interests.

That America faces real dangers in the world is beyond dispute for rational people, but -- just as Americans care more about the dangers threatening them than they care about dangers which threaten other countries -- the dangers facing America will naturally be under-appreciated and under-valued by people in countries for whom those dangers pose no threat.

The important corollary to this principle is that measures which Americans believe are appropriate and justified in order to confront these threats will be viewed as excessive and unwarranted by people in other countries, who view those threats as less significant and alarming than Americans do. For that reason, among others, the popularity or lack thereof of America’s foreign policy in other countries should not be used as a metric for determining the rightness of America’s actions.

The country in which I have now lived for a year, Brazil, is by far the largest and most populous country in South America, and Brazilians had, prior to the war in Iraq, an overwhelmingly favorable view of the United States. One would expect that to be the case. The U.S. is Brazil's largest trading partner, more tourists visit Brazil from America than anywhere else, the U.S. provides substantial aid to this country, and Brazil is now a full-fledged, healthy free market democracy which makes it a natural U.S. ally in South America. And all of those factors did, indeed, result in strong pro-U.S. sentiment among Brazilians.

That has all changed, and, beginning with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it changed dramatically. Newspapers are now routinely filled with anti-U.S. diatribes; the population almost universally reviles the Bush Administration; virtually nobody views the U.S. war in Iraq as anything other than oil-motivated, blood-thirsty imperialism; and when asked who the biggest threat is to world peace (as well as environmental sustainability), Brazilians will now almost always point to the Bush-led U.S. rather than to, say, Osama bin Laden, North Korea, or Iranian mullahs.

While such trends may be upsetting to some, they cannot reasonably be used to argue that American foreign policy is misguided. Any nation would be acting foolishly, and self-destructively, if it allowed its foreign policy to be guided by the threat perceptions of people in other countries. When it comes to facing the profound threat posed to American interests by Islamic extremism, it is naturally the case that people in other countries will view the danger posed by that threat as being less serious and important than Americans perceive it to be.

Americans, justifiably and understandably, consider the 9/11 attacks to be a profound and intolerable assault on U.S. national security, an event so threatening and jarring that it justifies measures which would have previously been considered to be too extreme. But here in Brazil, and in most other countries in the world, Islamic terrorism is a virtually non-existent threat, and, for those countries, 9/11 is no different than any other event occurring in any other country which results in lots of tragic deaths -- such as, say, a massive earthquake or an outbreak of a deadly virus.

The population of most every country on the planet does not perceive the threat of radical Islam to be what Americans perceive it to be – and rightfully so, because the threat which this extremism poses to America is far greater and more serious than it is to most other countries. Brazilians wake up worrying about violent crime in their cities or the massive poverty which causes it, but they -- like so many people outside the U.S. -- don’t wake up worrying about Muslim terrorism because it is not a threat to them. But it is a threat to Americans.

This fundamental difference in interests is critical, as it illustrates the utter folly, and irrationality, of using the perceptions of other countries to judge America’s foreign policy. When it comes to the U.S. deciding what it needs to do and should do in response to the threats which gave rise to 9/11 and similar attacks, it is the American perception of the severity and importance of those threats – and not the perception of other countries – which ought to determine America’s response.

There are ample grounds to criticize, and even be horrified by, America’s actions under the Bush Administration. One can quite rationally argue that the U.S.’s systematic polices of torture, or its abducting and detaining people and holding them in secret prisons, or its decision to wage war based on claims concerning the Iraqi threat which were false and inaccurate, are destructive and indefensible. But this is the case not because these actions are unpopular in other countries, but because these actions are harmful to America, because they are contrary to America’s values, and because they undermine the liberties and securities of its citizens. In short, those actions are good or bad on their merits, regardless of what the citizens of other countries think of them.

International unpopularity may be the result of an undesirable or unwarranted foreign policy, but such unpopularity may just as easily flow from the U.S. doing exactly what it ought to do to protect its interests. International public opinion of America’s foreign policy is not evidence, one way or the other, of the merit of those policies.

Contrary to the annoying and childish assumption of so many, other governments and the populations of other countries are judging America’s actions not based upon some universal standard of morality or from some elevated perch of wisdom and goodness, such that their disapproval is proof that America is wrong. Whether they admit it or not, these other populations are judging America’s foreign policy based on their perception of the impact which America’s actions have on their country’s interests.

If the population of Brazil, or the Government of France, or anyone else in the world, believed that America’s invasion of Iraq would have promoted rather than undermined their national interests, they would have supported the invasion. They are opposed to the war and to America’s aggressive foreign policy generally not because they are Good and Virtuous and therefore oppose all Bad things, but because they perceive that the war and America’s actions are harmful to their interests, which are not the same as America’s interests.

Perhaps they perceive that America’s foreign policy harms their interests because it creates an overly-powerful America, or leads to excessive American influence in that region, or causes Middle Eastern instability, or exposes their Government’s sordid dealings with Saddam’s regime, or re-enforces an international order based on military might and the unilateral will of a singular super-power which is not their country. But whatever it is that is driving their views, their desire to promote the interests of their country is the engine.

Americans are entitled to, and ought to, use this same standard for deciding what America should do in the international arena. If Ignatius wants to argue that America is engaged in evil and counter-productive acts, or that it now employs the tools of totalitarian repression which it used to fight against, then he should say so, and should object to the policies which he opposes on their merits. There are lots of substantive grounds for making those arguments.

But advancing the argument that America’s actions are wrong by hiding behind how things look "in the eyes of the rest of the world these past few years" displays both illogic and intellectual cowardice. Contrary to Ignatius’ unstated assumption, an unpopular U.S. foreign policy is not the same as a misguided or evil U.S. foreign policy, and indeed, the former is not even evidence of the latter.

It may be beneficial to U.S. interests to have other countries like what we are doing, but being popular in other countries is not an end in itself. The U.S. can and should pursue whatever measures it deems appropriate to protect its national interests. The fact that the populations or governments of other countries perceive those measures to be excessive or unwarranted is to be expected because those countries have different threat perceptions and divergent interests. And, for exactly that reason, their approval or disapproval cannot be used to assess the rightness of, let alone to dictate, American foreign policy.

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