Popularity Contests

Amy has a post up noting that a number of foreign heads of state have offered at least tepid endoresements of Barack Obama. Naturally, commenter “Jim”, who I previously pwned in a prior debate on health care, snarks:

Come on, remember when all of those foreign leaders secretly endorsed Kerry in 2004?

Whether or not presidential hopefuls secure endorsements from abroad is typically thought of as a sort “bonus”, and this, essentially, is as it should be.¬†American presidents should be willing to protect our national interest in the face of unpopular foreign international opinion. However, it’s also typical for conservaties to deride foreign support as essentially meaningless (see above), and in some cases, even be used to paint certain candidates as un-American. This is because many conservatives naively believe that national best interest exists as entity completely alienated from foreign opinion. This is dumb.

Given that American military or economic dominance does not, contra neoconservative beliefs, afford us the power to simply impel the world to act in accordance with our wishes (see: Russia, Georgia), it is actually quite relevant, in the context of achieving foreign policy goals, to account for how other countries perceive us. Indeed, one might suspect that in a “War on Terror” waged against an international foe existing largely outside of, and without regard to, the international state system, we might want to, when possible, consider behavior that would encourage the support of international coalitions rather than behavior that weakens their legitimacy (see: Iraq, War In). Of course, this principle can be applied not only to legal international bodies like the UN and NATO, but also to garnering the support of allies in general. That is, if a given country’s population views the United States more favorably, it is logical then that their government will pursue policies more amicable to US interests than they might if they had to fight popular opinion to do so.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest we should elect a president based simply on their perception abroad — this would be rather misguided — but immediately dismissing the importance of foreign popularity betrays a rather simple understanding of national best interest.


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