America's Standing Abroad: 'A Political Puzzle'

It was an article of faith among the left that President Bush had damaged our standing abroad and cost us the good will of the world so evident to them after 9/11. As the theory went, we'd have had a broader alliance in Iraq if only Bush hadn't been such a unilateral cowboy, that the UN was working to resolve the matter of Saddam and we needed only to give it more time, and that diplomacy by a more charming multilateralist would have resolved the problems of nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran.

The notion always seemed preposterous and contrary to fact to me. One wonders if the left can fashion a way to extend that theory much longer into Obama's term of office. Did we lose the Chicago pitch for the Olympics? Blame Bush?

I don't think so.

I've always thought the notion fairly nonsensical. I believe foreign leaders who are reasonably sentient (granted a diminishing breed in the age of Chavez, Kim Jong-il and Ahmadinejad) ally with us or not based on their own national interests, and not on how bright the smile of our president or charismatic his stump appeal to the overseas unemployed, European bureaucrats and those students who flocked for free beer in Germany as he addressed the throng.

So, it was a surprise to me to see that the American Political Science Association came out with a study suggesting America's standing abroad has been diminished, and a great treat to read Professor Robert J. Lieber's critique of that paper which emphasized the more rational dissents of professors Stephen D. Krasner of Stanford University and Henry R. Nau of George Washington University.

Professor Lieber says the dissenters observed that the American views sampled largely reflect the partisan identification of those polled. Simply put Democrats polled thought Bush had harmed our standing and Obama raised it.

The dissenting professors according to Lieber also contend -- correctly I believe -- that the views expressed abroad are more a reflection of the politics or policies of those countries than an objective analysis of American standing.

Third, Professor Lieber observes, the dissenters noted that esteem is not the only criterion to be used in measuring standing in the world -- power and the willingness to exercise it count mightily, too, in weighing the ability to achieve objectives through diplomacy.(This is not "Dancing with the Stars" after all.)

Lieber concludes that the authors of the majority APSA report take insufficient account of "the intractability of many world problems, the unique capacities of the United States, and the character of the international system and its leading actors". He continues to describe the political puzzle which puts paid to the lefts' theory about our standing under the Bush presidency:

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."

Perhaps the report is of historic interest only. As Obama keeps falling on his face abroad, even getting a verbal "man up" shove of contempt from France's Sarkozy, you can be certain that the bien pensants will start yammering about the intractability of the world's problems and assuring us that even the most charismatic and "brilliant" and "multilateral" of American leaders cannot remake the world or its international bodies as they are presently constituted.

In fact, I'd say you can bank on that.

What you will never hear them say is that self-deprecating, nonsensical apologies for the most generous and freedom loving nation in the world and treating dismissively our friends like Israel, Poland and the Czech Republic, while currying favor with our enemies is what really diminishes our standing in the world in the only contest that counts on that stage -- the power to defend us and our allies and achieve our national aims.