The Chronicle Review

A Contested Analysis of America's Standing Abroad

October 01, 2009

Based on their concern that America's reputation in the world had "declined dramatically" in the past decade, the president and governing council of the American Political Science Association created the 20-member Task Force on U.S. Standing in World Affairs.

Toward explaining the centrality and timeliness of the topic, the group writes: "In a summer 2008 poll, more Americans ranked 'improving American standing in the world' as 'very important' (versus 'somewhat' or 'not' important) than any other foreign-policy goal listed, including 'protecting the jobs of American workers' and 'preventing the spread of nuclear weapons' … and that was before the current economic crisis unleashed a new torrent of international criticism of the United States."

In beginning their work, the conveners initially sought feedback from more than two dozen foreign-policy scholars (full disclosure: I was among them) and, after an initial meeting in June 2008, its members gathered in November 2008 and March 2009 to develop their report.

The document, scheduled to be released today, defines "standing" in terms of how America's credibility, morality, and stature are seen in world affairs, and it explores those in three categories: in international society and organizations, among regions and countries, and within the United States itself. The authors express the belief that standing is a significant subject both for scholarship and policy, that fundamental elements of it have been ignored, and that it has a major impact on the effectiveness of American foreign policy. In addition to their analytical aims, the authors assert a more ambitious purpose, writing that they "hope to advance public discourse and deliberation, and to benefit political action and policy making in the United States and abroad."

An APSA task force on a subject of national importance is infrequent but not unheard of. As the main professional organization for political scientists in the United States and many of those abroad, the 106-year old group mainly focuses on services for its 15,000 members and on advancing the study of the discipline through its prestigious journals, annual conferences, and job posts.

But over the years it has also convened task forces on other pressing subjects. The most influential and controversial of those was its 1950 study, "Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System." More recent though less widely known efforts have included task forces on "Inequality and American Democracy," created in 2001, and on "Political Violence and Terrorism," established in 2005.

On the whole, this latest task-force effort shows the knowledge and steady hand of its organizers, particularly of the recent association president, Peter J. Katzenstein of Cornell University, the co-editor and contributing author of a thoughtful, well-received 2007 book on anti-Americanism. Much of the work is scholarly and nonpolemical, with frequent caveats and qualifications to buffer some otherwise simplistic observations about foreign policy. In places, however, the writing becomes tedious, as the authors take us through definitions and closely related synonyms for the concept of "standing," including "esteem," "credibility," "legitimacy," and "reputation."

The latest report should, however, prove more controversial than its recent predecessors and, as if in anticipation of that, the task force, in its report, has provided space for a vigorous dissent by two of its members, Stephen D. Krasner of Stanford University and Henry R. Nau of George Washington University, both of whom have served in government foreign-policy positions. While those authors praise the exemplary good will and collegiality that went into the report, they express three strong caveats.

First, they remind us that Americans' views of their country's standing are strongly influenced by partisan identification. Hence they believe the report overemphasizes the recent drop in U.S. standing, and implicitly indicts the Bush administration and endorses President Obama's rhetoric to "restore" that standing.

Second, and more important, the dissenters argue that dissatisfaction and doubts abroad about America often have more to do with the politics or policies of foreign countries than with their objective assessment of America's standing. They observe that the decline in support for the United States at the U.N.—a point emphasized in the report—has been under way since the 1950s, and that this may be as attributable to the increasing number of member nations in the U.N. and their political orientation as to America's problems of credibility and esteem. They remind us that European views of the United States as clumsy, warlike, and uncultured originated in the 19th century, and that European criticisms now reflect Europe's own military weakness, as well as its underlying attitudes against the use of force.

Opinion data from the latest "Transatlantic Trends" survey by the German Marshall Fund reinforces this point. In a poll conducted in 12 European countries and the United States, 71 percent of Americans agreed that "under some conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice," while only 25 percent of the Europeans agreed. Culturally and socially rooted differences of this kind provide evidence that there is much more to the issue of standing than the personality or efforts at multilateral openness of any specific American president.

Third, the dissenters are skeptical about the impact on diplomacy of standing itself. Instead, they emphasize credibility, noting that the latter rests on power and past performance rather than on sentiments (what the report terms esteem). The report's authors claim that standing involves both credibility and esteem, yet Krasner and Nau point out that while President Obama has raised American esteem, he has not gained additional European troops for Afghanistan, security or human-rights transparency from North Korea, or progress in dissuading Iran from pursuing nuclear armament. In contrast, they cite the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan triggered sharp decreases in America's standing through his defense buildup and Euro missile deployment, and, more recently, George W. Bush's surge in Iraq at a time when his and U.S. standing were at record lows at home and abroad. In both instances, esteem and standing had limited effect and, far more important, both policies essentially succeeded, in undermining Soviet power and in largely suppressing the Iraqi insurgency.

The task-force leaders deserve credit for including among their members a commendably varied group of scholars. And qualifications in the text attest to the editors' desire to produce a document that can stand as a serious, original, and insightful treatment of the subject. But as the dissent implies, there remain, particularly in some of the contrasts the authors draw, signs of the bad-Bush-good-Obama interpretation of America's role in the world. Perhaps that is not surprising, given the well-documented political preferences of the American professoriate.

In places, the dichotomy between unilateralism and multilateralism becomes overly simplified and thus disconnected from the far more complex realities that extend from the Clinton years through George W. Bush's presidency into the beginnings of the Obama administration. While America's standing had fallen to exceptionally low levels at home and abroad during the George W. Bush era, Bush was neither so unilateralist as sometimes depicted, nor is Obama so exclusively globalist. In the Bush case, the report offers only passing reference to the significant cooperation and transnational-organization activity that continued to take place despite his administration's conspicuous rejection of international agreements such as Kyoto, its refusal to recognize the International Criminal Court, and its withdrawal from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. Apart from cursory reference, the report offers little acknowledgment of the Bush administration's major increases in foreign aid to Africa, its huge AIDS program, its engagement in six-party talks with North Korea, its support for the EU-3 (Britain, France, Germany) efforts with Iran, and its leadership of the "quartet" effort in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In analyzing the Clinton administration, the report identifies erosion in U.S. standing but attributes this almost exclusively to early examples of unilateralism on a number of issues. It finds that international collaboration had peaked by the end of the first Clinton term, and then began its decline "when countries arguably began to detect rising instances of the U.S. unilateral exercise of power, such as declining to sign the Ottawa Convention on the Banning of Land Mines, refusing to pay its U.N. dues, failing to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, not waiting for U.N. Security Council approval before the 1998 bombing of Iraq, not seeking U.N. approval in the bombing campaign against Serbia in the spring of 1999." Those observations are unexceptionable—except for what they leave out.

They fail to incorporate the realities of power and primacy, which in themselves generated complaints about "hyperpower." The Clinton administration's problem with the land-mine ban stemmed from the need to defend against a potential North Korean tank attack across the demilitarized zone into South Korea, which the United States, unlike other signatories, had a treaty obligation to defend. The 1998 bombing of Iraq took place in retaliation for Saddam Hussein's making conditions intolerable for Unscom, the U.N. inspection team, which Russia, France, and others were increasingly reluctant to support in the Security Council. And perfunctory references to the Balkans fail to show an understanding of the dilemmas caused by paralysis at the U.N. (where at the time a Russian veto was taken for granted).

In short, although the report refers to the U.S. role in providing international public goods, it attributes blame to unilateralist policies without taking sufficiently into account the intractability of many world problems, the unique capacities of the United States, and the character of the international system and its leading actors.

The report also overlooks the contrast between this low level of esteem in which European elites and publics held the American president, and the reality that some two-thirds of European governments provided either practical or symbolic support for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Even the French and German governments at the height of their disputes with Washington took part in extensive cooperation in intelligence gathering and antiterror activities.

Here the authors missed the opportunity to explore a political puzzle concerning the contrast between the current improvement in America's international standing, which presumably widens the political space for foreign governments to cooperate with the Obama administration, and—at least to date—the relative paucity of actual collaboration with Washington's agenda (think of the impasses in Iran, North Korea, and the Middle East, or rebuffed requests for NATO troop increases in Afghanistan). Conversely, under Bush, low levels of public and elite support presumably narrowed the political space in which foreign governments found it possible or even desirable to cooperate; yet considerable cooperation took place. Instead of grappling with this type of difficult question, the authors simply assume that standing "makes it easier to wield power and ask for burden sharing."

While much of the report is admirably nuanced, such underlying assumptions are likely to be further contested and criticized. Its approach implies that more extensive and unqualified engagement in international institutions will benefit America's standing and thus directly contribute to the achievement of foreign-policy objectives and international cooperation. It devotes insufficient attention to America's unique capacities, through its power and its wealth, and the extent to which collective-action problems and free riding complicate international relations, regardless of international standing.

Its discussion of the causes of America's reduced standing seems to overlook the global economic crisis as an independent variable. In the "Regions" section there is insufficient recognition that U.S. standing in East Asia, large parts of South Asia, and in Africa was actually rather positive in recent years. Reference to "the legacy of Iranian hostility toward the United States" is cited without taking into account that the bulk of Iran's population is so alienated by the repressive rule of the mullahs, their armed cronies in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Basij militia that it has now become much more favorably disposed toward the United States, the regime's major adversary.

In reference to Europe, the report explains that divergences between elites and publics, as on the Iraq War, tend to become issues in the next election, but Tony Blair won re-election in 2005 despite the unpopular Iraq war to which he had committed British troops, and 2005 and 2007 brought to office leaders, Merkel in Germany and Sarkozy in France, who were clearly more Atlanticist than their predecessors (Schroeder and Chirac). While there is much to debate and to criticize about Bush's foreign policy and grand strategy, the notion that it embodied a doctrine of preventive war is an oversimplification. And reference to Obama's "sharp reversal" in foreign-policy priorities seems to suggest that foreign aid will be increased under the new administration, when a decline in the amounts budgeted for that purpose is more likely.

Given its importance to foreign understanding and knowledge of the United States, the treatment of public diplomacy could have been further developed. The report ignores the ill-considered decision of President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright to abolish the venerable U.S. Information Agency and to merge its functions into the State Department, where they suffered in autonomy, priority, and financing. Instead, the report de-emphasizes the subject, cautions against creating a new major government body on the grounds that it might generate foreign suspicion, suggests tweaking the tax code to encourage international activity, and embraces well-worn clichés emphasizing the new media.

The penultimate section of the report sets out "lessons" that fail to do justice to some of the insights in the study itself. Several of the points are unexceptionable ("factor standing into national interest," "use different tools for different jobs," "heed the bond between power and standing"), and hardly justify the time and expertise that went into the study. The call to "move beyond public diplomacy," substituting increased foreign aid, for instance, for information services that might be considered unreliable and tainted, is questionable guidance. And a final recommendation to "support data collection and analysis on standing" is issued without noting that that very task was one of those carried out by the now defunct USIA. The concluding words of the report, calling for "nurturing credibility and esteem," come across as clichés, and the authors cannot resist the all too familiar academic trope that that the subject "deserves more rigorous study."

In sum, the task-force report deserves praise for the effort and the quality of some of its work, but the outcome could have been more valuable had the authors been more willing to challenge conventional wisdom.

Robert J. Lieber is a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University. His most recent book is "The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century" (Cambridge University Press, 2007).