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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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.