American Politicians Should Care More About Global Public Opinion

Candidates might love to trumpet American exceptionalism, but what non-Americans think about us still matters for international relations

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Ron Paul at a campaign event / AP

Robert Wright at The Atlantic offered an observation this week about what may be Ron Paul's most important contribution to debate on foreign policy. That contribution, suggests Wright, is not so much Paul's specific policy positions but rather his insistence that we try to look at troubling situations and issues from the perspective of people other than Americans. Paul has applied this perspective--for which he has taken much heat from the other Republican presidential candidates--to such matters as why Iran might be interested in developing a nuclear weapon and why others resent the presence of U.S. troops on their territories (just as Americans would strongly resent someone else's troops on our own territory). Wright says that what Paul is saying helps to fill a damaging gap in "moral imagination"--the ability to see things from the perspective of people in circumstances different from one's own.

I agree, but the inability, or unwillingness, to consider non-American perspectives has effects that go well beyond what is captured by the concept of moral imagination. There is serious damage to U.S. interests regardless of what role any moral considerations may play. That is true under a variety of policy paradigms. Consider, for example, what a hard-boiled realist who is focused like a laser on U.S. interests would want to know. The perceptions, interests, objectives and even the emotions of those outside the United States at whom his policies are aimed are very important to know and understand. They set the boundaries of what the United States can and cannot accomplish with its own instruments of policy. Without that understanding, hoped-for results of policy initiatives are not achieved, and deleterious and unexpected consequences of those initiatives are incurred.

The most important aspect of foreign viewpoints to be understood is how foreigners view the United States itself, and U.S. policies and actions. Those views go a long way to determining how much U.S. interests can be advanced by obtaining the cooperation of foreign governments, and how much U.S. interests are endangered by countervailing action taken by governments that fear, resent or hate what the United States is doing. Realists, or more precisely neo-realists, understand well that when the United States or any other power is seen as a threat we can expect other states to balance against it in an effort to check its influence.

The perceptions of the United States among foreign populations, not just foreign governments, matter a lot for U.S. interests as well. This is true partly because popular sentiments and resentments constrain what a government (even in a not-particularly-democratic nation) can do. A regime facing strongly anti-American sentiment among its own citizens will, for that reason, be less cooperative with the United States than it might otherwise be. (See Pakistan for an obvious current example.) Anti-American sentiments, rooted in perceptions of American policies and actions, also matter to U.S. interests because of what members of foreign populations are motivated to do individually or in groups, especially in the form of extremist violence. How foreign populations feel about the United States and U.S. actions and policies, and thus what proportion of them may resort to extreme measures to strike back at the United States, will do more to determine how many Americans will become victims of international terrorism than will the hunting down of al-Qaeda minions.

Of course, many who engage in debate about U.S. foreign policy do not sound anything like realists, including that larger trend within the Republican Party that continually trumpets some version of American exceptionalism. But no matter how much exceptionalists believe that principles of international relations somehow do not apply to the United States and that America is so different from other nations that it doesn't have to pay attention to what other people think, any value of exceptionalism in foreign affairs ultimately does depend on what other people think. To be a shining city on the hill, others need to perceive you as shining, as well as being on a hill. Anything that mars the shine lessens the effect.

All of this ought to be fairly apparent, but one would not think so listening to most presidential candidates other than Paul. Somehow a careful consideration for how non-Americans think and feel has become equated with insufficient love for America itself.

This article originally appeared at The National Interest, an Atlantic partner site.