The Magazine

Standing Down

How popular should America want to be?

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Perhaps President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize will spur a sudden global outpouring of love and affection for the United States, but the American Political Science Association (APSA) thinks our image problem runs deeper: Its 20-member blue chip task force (minus two dissenters) has concluded that U.S. standing in the world is in trouble. Chaired by Jeffrey Legro of the University of Virginia, the task force issued a report last month that traces broad declines in the willingness of people around the globe to express positive views of the United States, the willingness of governments to side with the United States, and the degree of satisfaction among Americans themselves with the U.S. position in the world. The report's findings will be depressing to anyone who would like the United States to be well-thought-of. What to do about that problem, however, is a question on which the report is not especially illuminating.

Eighty-three percent of Americans in a September 2008 Chicago Council poll ranked "improving America's standing in the world" as a "very important" goal of U.S. foreign policy. Standing was at the top of the chart, outpacing "protecting the jobs of American workers" and "securing adequate supplies of energy" (80 percent each) and "preventing the spread of nuclear weapons" (73 percent). (Dead last on the list was "helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations," at 17 percent.)

Meanwhile, U.S. favorability ratings abroad dropped precipitously, especially in Europe, from 2002 forward. The percentage of Germans expressing a favorable view of the United States declined from 60 in 2002 to 31 in 2008. The APSA report here is consistent with findings from the annual "Transatlantic Trends" survey by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Elsewhere, Indonesia went from 61 percent favorable in 2002 down to 15 percent favorable in 2003, before ticking back up into the high 30s after the United States provided massive aid following the devastating tsunami there in December 2004. Even staunch U.S. ally Japan registered a decline from 72 percent favorable to 50 percent. In the Middle East, favorability was and remains low everywhere but in Israel and Lebanon.

The APSA report also examines voting patterns in the United Nations, taking willingness or unwillingness to join with the United States on General Assembly resolutions as an indicator of U.S. standing. For most regions, the overall trendline for voting with the United States on resolutions has been downward since 1945, with a temporary upward spike in the late 1980s and 1990s as the Cold War came to an end. The report notes: "Astonishingly, the absolute level of agreement today between the United States and the typical country in each region is below the level of agreement between America and its existential rival, the Soviet Union, at the height of the Cold War." The ups and mostly downs of U.N. agreement appear to be unrelated to U.S. power, according to the widely used measure the report cites, and to U.S. share of world GDP, both of which have remained flat-ish.

The good news for those concerned about U.S. standing is that favorability ratings are up for 2009 in most areas, the Middle East being a notable exception. The "Obama Bounce," as the German Marshall Fund survey dubs it, is huge, especially but not only in Europe. In the "Transatlantic Trends" poll, in 2008 George W. Bush's approval rating in Germany was 12 percent; in 2009, Obama's was 92 percent. The figures for Italy were 27 percent and 91 percent. Poland and Romania were the two countries in the survey with the most favorable view of Bush in 2008 (including the United States), at 44 percent. Their approval of Obama in 2009 nevertheless rose, to 58 percent in Romania and 55 percent in Poland.

The potentially partisan aspects of the question of "standing," such as the fact that Obama made restoring American standing a theme of his 2008 campaign, led two members of the task force to dissent from the report, smelling a rat. George Washington University's Henry Nau, who served in the Reagan administration, and Stanford's Stephen Krasner (a Hoover Institution colleague), who was the State Department's director of policy planning in the George W. Bush administration, claim that "this report makes too much of the decline of U.S. standing, implicitly indicting the administration of George W. Bush and endorsing President Obama's rhetoric to 'restore' that standing." More fundamentally, they question the premise that standing as the report defines it "has independent consequences for effective diplomacy."

The concept of standing does indeed lend itself to polemics. For that reason among others, it's difficult to pin down. It's hard to say what standing is, where it comes from, and what you can do with more of it that you can't do with less of it. The APSA report says standing has "two key elements: credibility and esteem." It goes on to define credibility as "the U.S. government's ability to do what it says it is going to do" and esteem as "America's stature, or what America is perceived to 'stand for' in the hearts and minds of foreign publics and -policymakers." It notes that the two components of standing "can be mutually reinforcing, but they can also be difficult to pursue in tandem--a trade-off implied by Machiavelli's famous dictum, 'It is much safer to be feared than loved.' "

Krasner and Nau, though writing in dissent, mainly agree with the report in its assessment of the importance of credibility. They also rightly recognize that the report's definition seems incomplete: Credibility is not something you enjoy solely on the basis of the ability to do what you say you will do, but also on the basis of a record of doing what you have said you would do. "Ability" frames the issue prospectively: Do you have what it takes to do what you say? That's not wrong: The prospective question of "ability" or capability is highly relevant when the subject is, for example, nuclear deterrence, and your capacity to blow your adversary to smithereens stands as a kind of proxy for your willingness to do so if provoked. Certainly no one will take seriously a promise made when the ability to fulfill it is obviously lacking. But everyday "credibility" is more about your record--a product of having kept promises and refrained from making promises you can't keep.

The APSA report makes the claim that " 'standing' is significant for both scholarship and policy," and certainly that is easy to see with regard to the "credibility" component. Policymakers pay careful attention to the record of their adversaries and allies alike in assessing the likelihood that they will keep their word. A reckoning of the balance of military power in Europe in the 1990s would have shown that those European countries most concerned about ethnic cleansing in the Balkans had the ability to go to war to stop it on their own, without the United States. But Serbian ruler Slobodan Milosevic responded not so much to capability as to their recent record on the use of military force. He was undeterred. Credibility as capacity as well as a record of making good on promises (or failing to do so) is always worth studying. Israelis talk about the need to "restore" deterrence from time to time--that is, to take action to back up their threat to punish attackers. Such actions seek to demonstrate credibility.

But is credibility always an element of standing? A lack of credibility will presumably lower one's international standing, but high credibility will not necessarily increase it. That depends on the nature of the promises one makes. One does not advance in standing by credibly promising to do things no one else likes.

This is where "esteem" comes in. But esteem is a much more elusive concept. The report's first crack at a definition, "stature," is distinctly unhelpful. You could just as easily say that the two components of standing are "credibility" and "stature," defining the latter as "the esteem in which others hold the United States." If one is esteemed, one has stature. If anything, stature is a broader category than esteem. Stature might be construed as importance or consequentiality for better or worse, with esteem denoting positive stature.

The rest of the definition, "what America is perceived to 'stand for,' " begins to get us somewhere, but it needs examining. First, we need to know what others think America stands for. Then we need to know whether they like it--and why.

If America stands for things Americans and others think are good, then the esteem the United States thereby wins from others is straightforward. When America comes to stand for something that most Americans think is bad--the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. service members at Abu Ghraib comes to mind--the United States suffers a loss of esteem that Americans themselves may agree is at least partially justified. But a genuine analytical problem arises when America stands for things others think are bad but Americans think are good. Credibility is always helpful, even (perhaps especially) for a liar--or someone who's bluffing. Esteem, not so. The Machiavelli aphorism quoted in the report only scratches the surface of the problem. Esteem in the form of approval of what America stands for is something U.S. policymakers might reasonably and knowingly choose to forgo; they might for good reason make policy choices they think will meet with the disapproval of others. If esteem is indeed an element of standing, high international standing will never be in the first rank of policy pursuits.

This problem will be familiar to those who have thought seriously about the related question of anti-Americanism: A certain large amount of it (though not all) is simply a response to policy choices the United States thinks it has made correctly but others don't like. The only way to avoid the negative reaction would be to make different choices.

And in the highly unlikely event that U.S. policymakers were willing to make the approval of others the gold standard for successful policymaking, they would still find it impossible to put the pursuit of good international standing first. The reason is simply that others disagree on what the United States should do in order to win their approval. This disagreement is sometimes fundamental: Think of what the United States might do to make the Arab world happy about Middle East policy versus what U.S. actions might please Israelis. Or the Chinese versus the Taiwanese. The esteem of one comes inseparably with the disdain of the other.

This permanent opposition brings to light the problem in its sharpest relief: One can take a perfectly "realist" approach to the question of esteem if one likes. Esteem is what you get when others approve of your conduct and therefore what you "stand for." But esteem is not then something of intrinsic value. The esteem of Britain is as good as the esteem of China is as good as the esteem of Libya is as good as the esteem of Sudan. Yet that is surely not what APSA is getting at.

The esteem of others is only intrinsically worthwhile if it reflects a common view of what is worthy of esteem. You need a norm of estimable conduct. Unfortunately, the way the norm usually arrives on the scene is by someone sneaking it in through the back door. You end up acting as if the esteem of those with whom you disagree over basic standards of behavior--for example, whether it's acceptable to persecute ethnic minorities or imprison people for expressing their political opinions--is the equal of the esteem of those with whom you agree on such standards. You reproach yourself for having earned the disdain of those whose views you yourself, in fact, disdain. Isn't that being a little hard on oneself?

The Krasner and Nau dissent focuses first on the partisan element (the tendency for Democrats to lament the loss of international standing when a Republican is in the White House and vice versa), next on the policy choices (in our example, what Taiwan would want versus what China would want), finally on whether "esteem" as opposed to credibility really explains anything.

Their points are well-taken, yet it is finally unpersuasive that the esteem of others doesn't matter at all to diplomacy. The main effect of the photos from Abu Ghraib was indeed to galvanize disapproval of the United States in a way that made life more difficult for Americans. At a minimum, as APSA president Peter Katzenstein remarked at the report's unveiling at the National Press Club, disapproval imposes opportunity costs, as policymakers have to spend their time addressing it.

But there are better and worse ways to think about esteem, its effects on U.S. standing, and what to do to address them. It is possible to worry too much about the bad opinion of others, especially when their opinions are not grounded in the same basic view of human rights and political rights. Better to focus on living up to one's own standards and on the potential for enlarging the space in which others share them.

Tod Lindberg, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and editor of
Policy Review.