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.

18 comments:

  1. Diane D.10:33 AM

    Sorry, but this is outrageous and I'm amazed that you are arguing this. We live in an international community, and just like a person in a suburban house can't just do things to infuriate their neighbors, neither can we.

    We are a country that claims to be an example for the rest of the world, but the rest of the world now sees what a bad example we are. To argue that we shouldn't care about that or that it doesn't matter is counter-productive -- and immoral. We don't have a monopoly on wisdom and should take other people's views into account.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous12:54 PM

    But being unpopular in the world IS bad for national security. We need the cooperation and help of other countries to battle terrorism, and if they think we are fascist and war-crazed, we won't have that help, and our interests will suffer.

    ReplyDelete
  3. CharlieG2:17 PM

    Excellent analysis. I've long been annoyed but the notion that we're all supposed to stop and be horrified that other people in the world don't like us, but you laid out extremely well the rationale and logic showing that this is misguided thinking. Great post.

    ReplyDelete
  4. DoctorWho6:45 PM

    Diane--

    What if some of these "neighbors" were obnoxious a-holes--would you still bend over backwards to keep the peace?

    What if they were a real threat to the safety of you and your loved ones? How about if they tortured their own children--would you still smile and make nice?

    Remember the old saying: You can't please everybody. Plus, "dislike" is in the eye of the beholder; and with many beholders, there's nothing you can do to change their opinions.

    As far as possible without compromising our own safety, we should try and keep good relations with those "neighbors" who WE consider worthy (and who feel that way about us). And if it doesn't work out, so what? As for the others--their opinions JUST DON'T MATTER.

    Those nations who are fair-minded acknowledge that the US, flawed though it is, happens to be a force for good in this world. If it wasn't, why would 1 million immigrants a year make it their greatest life priority to come here?

    In fact, the US takes in more immigrants each year than all the world's other nations combined. This alone should tell you how "unpopular" America really is.

    Foreign politicians bloviate. Special-interest groups propagandize and demonize. Yet, people continue to vote with their feet...

    ReplyDelete
  5. WONDERFUL post!! :-)

    A point I'd have liked to have seen added is that even those countries that we've helped in the past with our military might are full of haters... and of course every country in the world has received aid of various kinds from us, and what has that gotten us in terms of gratitude and support? NOTHING.

    What every country SHOULD be saying is, "You fixed everything for everyone, so we'll stand by what you do," but instead they all say, "Don't protect yourself, your interests, or your allies, don't try to bring freedom to the oppressed... just take action when we TELL you to."

    Some countries fear our power, and to assuage that fear they want to turn us into slaves of their votes and whims; to them I say 2 words... and the 2nd word is "you."

    ReplyDelete
  6. Doctorwho: //In fact, the US takes in more immigrants each year than all the world's other nations combined.//

    That's an American myth. The United States with 35 million migrants accounts for just 20 percent of the world’s 192 million yearly migrants worldwide. Europe by itself has 56.1 million.

    http://tinyurl.com/amcwp

    Even for asylum demands, where you would expect the United States to be first, it is with 25,400 applications second to France (27,400 applications), a country with a population 5 times smaller.

    http://tinyurl.com/beugu

    ReplyDelete
  7. To put it bluntly, I really don't give a rat's butt what other countries think of us. If we went by their more 'enlightened, progressive' ideals, we'd have surrendered by now.

    Letting other countries determine our policies would be idiocy of the highest caliber. It's one thing to consider the views of others; it's a whole 'nother thing to shape our policies with the intention of making ourselves more popular. Which really would be 'immoral'.

    As to being 'unpopular' being bad for national security, being 'popular' because you sacrificed your principals and security is far, far worse.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Superfrenchie,

    Last I checked, Europe is a continent, not a country. Perhaps had they ratified the EU constitution you could make that claim. Pity that it was killed when some minor little country was too busy doing the paperwork on asylum requests to vote "Oui" on ratifying it...

    ReplyDelete
  9. Cybrludite: //Last I checked, Europe is a continent, not a country.//

    It doesn't matter. The claim by doctorwho was that "the US takes in more immigrants each year than all the world's other nations combined."

    Whether you count Europe as 25 nations or 1, it remains that it takes more immigrants than the US alone. And that the US has only 20% of the world's immigrants, not more than 50% as Doctorwho claimed.

    That's all I was saying: that the claim is not based on facts. It's a myth!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hear! Hear!

    Many of these same European countries were not happy when US public opinion in the late 30's was too pacificist and not willing to fight Hitler.

    Who was right? Hint: not public opinion.

    Meanwhile, we still have troops in Kosovo and Bosnia...who wanted us there again and thought it IMPERATIVE?

    ReplyDelete
  11. DoctorWho4:21 PM

    superfrenchie--

    The statistics you quote are totally irrelevant to my point.

    I was not talking about the number of yearly migrants, or the proportion of a country's people composed of migrants or aliens. I was referring to the annual number of immigrants admitted (i.e., allowed in as permanent residents, not gastarbeiter or seasonal workers).

    Here is data to substantiate my claim that the US has admitted about a million immigrants a year (over the past 15 or so years):

    http://uscis.gov/graphics/shared/statistics/
    yearbook/2003/2003IMM.pdf

    As for asylum seekers, most who apply to the US are admitted, but most who apply to other countries are denied! Look here:

    http://europa.eu.int/comm/justice_home/
    doc_centre/asylum/statistical/docs/2001/
    total_number_decisions_en.pdf

    and you will see that, in 2001, France received 43,053 applications for asylum and approved only 7,322. That same year, the country everyone hates but wants to move to (the US, of course) took in over 100,000 refugees and asylees! Here's the data:

    http://uscis.gov/graphics/shared/statistics/
    yearbook/2003/2003RA.pdf

    ReplyDelete
  12. doctorwho: //I was not talking about the number of yearly migrants, or the proportion of a country's people composed of migrants or aliens. I was referring to the annual number of immigrants admitted (i.e., allowed in as permanent residents, not gastarbeiter or seasonal workers).//

    Same for me. I'm talking about immigrants admitted. 1 million a year (for some years, not all, per your link) in the US is correct, which put the total number over the years at 35 millions. In Europe, it's 56 millions, or a higher number per year.

    //and you will see that, in 2001, France received 43,053 applications for asylum and approved only 7,322. That same year, the country everyone hates but wants to move to (the US, of course) took in over 100,000 refugees and asylees!//

    Ya, that was 2001. In 2005, the situation is no longer the same. In 2005, the top country for demands is France, followed closely by the US.

    http://tinyurl.com/beugu

    //As for asylum seekers, most who apply to the US are admitted, but most who apply to other countries are denied!

    For the sake of YOUR argument (desirability), you would think that it's the number of demands that counts.

    At any rate, having 20% of the world's migrants is a great accomplishment, and says a lot about the fact that the US is viewed as a very desirable country (I know, I am one!) It's just that it does not "take in more immigrants each year than all the world's other nations combined."

    In any discussion, facts are always preferable to myths. Unfortunately, the belief that "the US takes in more immigrants each year than all the world's other nations combined" is a very common one.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Jake - but not that one4:45 PM

    Glenn, in this otherwise masterful post, you said something that troubled me.

    "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."

    I hear this a lot, but I struggle so see exactly what constitutes "the threat of radical islam". Is radical islam going to change the American way of life, whatever that is? I mean, more than, say, John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act already have?

    I think we have more to fear from our own incompetence and bigotry than we do from radical Islam.

    Which is not to ignore the dangers of radical anything. I just think it's reasonable to try to quantify such dangers, or even all forseeable dangers (Katrina and New Orleans, for example), or at least list, along with a probability index of some kind, all the dangers we can think of as at least somewhat likely.

    Jake

    ReplyDelete
  14. diane d., I just finished reading "The Last Lion", a biography of Winston Churchill from 1932 to 1940. It also covers the diplomatic history of the period. Trying to bid for international popularity led to millions of deaths. There are times when great powers shouldn't listen to anybody but themselves, as the weak may lack the power to freely express themselves without undue punishment.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Which is not to ignore the dangers of radical anything. I just think it's reasonable to try to quantify such dangers, or even all forseeable dangers (Katrina and New Orleans, for example), or at least list, along with a probability index of some kind, all the dangers we can think of as at least somewhat likely.

    If one contemplates the consequences of detonating even a crude radiological bomb or a biological weapon in the middle of one of America's largest metropolitan areas, especially in the center its densest cities, it is difficult to imagine any remotely real threat outranking that threat.

    Unless you were to say that the threat of such an event is so small as to render the liklihood close to zero (and it's hard to see why that would be - terrorist groups unquestionably have the desire and can't be all that from from the ability to pull of such an attack), then I don't think it's controversial to say that this is at the top of the list of threats to America.

    Oppressive laws can be struck down or repealed. Radiological and chemical weapons can't be.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Jake - but not that one8:28 PM

    Glenn, I am unsure that either of your scenarios constitutes the grave danger you think it does. We may alredy have had a biological attack, or perhaps two, (anthrax and the virus on the DC mall), and the debate about dirty bombs is active.

    There is no doubt we are at risk. But how much more damage could a dirty bomb do than was done to NO by Katrina and incompetence? A dirty bomb in a large city would likely render inhabitable a few square blocks. MOST of NO is inhabitable. Shouldn't we spend a few billions (a VERY few by comparison) taking care of the obvious and highly probable rather than a trillion (total) fighting a war half way around the world?

    Biological agents and dirty bombs have measurable consequences. Shouldn't we view radical Islam in the same light as you cast upon international displeasure? Weigh the odds, and make reasoned decisions?

    Your post was so well written, and you said so very well something I have been thinking for some time - but this one assumption troubled me. You may be right, but it doesn't FEEL right to me. At the very least, the statement that we ae at terrible risk of being attacked with dirty bombs and/or biological warfare needs carefull assessment - just as does the value international approval.

    Thanks for responding.

    Jake

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hans van den Berg4:01 PM

    One point that Greenwald misses, I think, is that depicting Muslims as a thread to humanity, does not help a lot. On the contrary, Muslims, everywhere in the world, do get annoyed and tend to behave as they are accused of. Furthermore, in those societies where this happens, indigenous people start to accuse every Muslim of being a bad person. I, a Dutchman, see what happens in my country and even abroad, by the paranoid fantasies of Geert Wilders and (maybe less) of Ayaan Hirsi Ali (both, I can't believe this, admired by Sam Harris). The atmosphere of hate and disdain towards all immigrants that is caused by their actions, is sad indeed. And what to think of the possible influence on Breivik, who is known to have read Wilders pamphlets.
    Second and at least as important, when we, in our rich countries, don't succeed in spreading our wealth to the rest of the world (however difficult this is), these people will stay like they are now. Their young men will flee into being warriors or jihads, there is nothing better for them to be. Being liberal (Harris and Greenwald) is one thing, not being able to share your/our riches is another. This will, eventually, make the world fall apart, not in Muslims and people of other religion (or none) but in the poor and the (very) rich.

    ReplyDelete
  18. There is a subtle something about the majestic pathos of the original which the copyist cannot get. Even the sun fails to get it; both the photographer and the carver give you a dying lion, and that is all. cheap holidays flights

    ReplyDelete