Paul Pillar

What Wins Respect for the United States

Much gets said and written, mostly as rhetoric intended to criticize the Obama administration, about the standing of the United States in the world supposedly having declined.  To the extent such rhetoric gets linked to specific policy prescription, it most often amounts to an assertion that respect for the United States derives from throwing its weight around and particularly doing so with military power.  But one doesn’t have to look hard for reminders that this is not really the way the world works.

A word is in order about some of the sentiments involved and how they relate to each other.  Respect is not identical with liking, but even in everyday life positive sentiments toward someone else tend to go together, and so do negative ones.  It is hard to have respect for an authority figure such as a teacher or parent if one dislikes the person.  Dale Carnegie wrote a bestseller called How to Win Friends and Influence People and gave courses that encompassed both.  The clustering of sentiment is at least as true in international relations, where the goal is to influence the behavior of both people and governments.  Riding roughshod over the sensitivities and concerns of other peoples may engender fear, but does not yield either liking or respect.  Moreover, the opportunities for opposing the interests of even a superpower are sufficiently numerous that the weight-throwing approach is not a good strategy for winning influence.  Positive approaches that exhibit respect for the concerns of even those with whom one has significant disagreements are more likely to buy the sort of influence one wants.  Respect engenders respect.

A reminder of such reality comes from The Economist’s Latin America columnist Bello, who observes a trend in attitudes in the region toward the United States during the years of the Obama administration.  Far from relying on the sort of force-reliant bullying that characterized much U.S. policy toward the region over the past two centuries, Mr. Obama’s policies have involved trying to work through partners in the area.  By far the most conspicuous and significant of the administration’s policy moves in the region has been the opening to Cuba, which as the columnist notes “was applauded by both left and right across Latin America.”  The impact on regional attitudes toward the colossus to the north also has been significant.  In region-wide polling by Latinobarometro, the number of respondents saying they have a positive view of the United States has risen from 58 percent in 2008, the year Mr. Obama was elected, to 74 percent this year.

Bello notes that there has been a corresponding trend in governments’ attitudes and behavior.  Brazil’s new government, for example, “does not place the hopes that its predecessor did in ‘south-south’ ties.  Through the region, “many governments are now seeking to draw closer to the United States.”

The knock-on effects go well beyond the diplomatic orientation of incumbent governments.  Bello comments that if the opening to Cuba were to be reversed—as Donald Trump has threatened to do—this “could remove any hope that the transition to a post-Castro leadership, which is due to start in 2018, will involve a loosening of political control.”

That’s the way respect and influence work in Latin America, although one would never guess that by listening to those who want to sustain the failed half-century attempt to isolate Cuba.  It’s also the way they work elsewhere in the world, although one would never guess that from listening to much other foreign policy debate in the United States. 

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