Does it matter if America is popular?

The LA Times’ Rosa Brooks celebrates the Obama victory today, arguing that the US will now rise in international public opinion and popularity. She is hardly alone in this, as several commentators are arguing now that an Obama presidency will enhance America’s “soft power.” The problem is that, perhaps because she only has a 700-word column to work with, Brooks never quite explains what concretely this new-found “popularity”, if it exists, it supposed to actually do.

I’m sympathetic to the argument, but we need to be more precise about the concept, and also what exactly we think it is going to get for us. And then be prepared to try to demonstrate that it has actually worked.

Neoconservatives, and many traditional realists, have long been skeptical about such notions as “international public opinion,” arguing with some force that it doesn’t necessarily carry any operational strength. “How many divisions does the Pope have?,” Stalin famously asked, and he had a point.

So what exactly will this enhancement of America’s image get for us? I can think of a few possibilities offhand:

1) When we want other countries to cooperate with us, or take a more flexible negotiating position to accommodate us, then politicians in those countries will be more likely to do so if we are popular (especially if they are democracies).

2) Greater American popularity will lead to the election of pro-American regimes and reduced support for Islamist movements.

3) It should also lead to the easier acquisition and development of human intelligence in other countries (as people in other countries might be more willing to cooperate with US intelligence efforts and turn in terrorists trying to melt into the population.).

4) We should have an easier time acquiring basing rights in nations in strategic locations.

Many of these overlap, of course, but the most important point is that we need to start demonstrating that these are not merely theoretical possibilities, but rather developments that we can point to through historical examples.

Pre-Second World War idealists too confidentally predicted that Hitler could never do what he wanted because “world public opinion” wouldn’t allow it, a fatuous argument that discredited the line of thinking. If it is to be resuscitated in rigorous fashion, we need to make the argument more rigorously.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.