America as Beacon and Abu Ghraib responses

My third question was as follows: Do you believe that in order to effectively promote goals like democratization and human rights around the world, the U.S. must itself be seen as an exemplar of these values? Do you believe that our status as a standard-bearer of justice and liberty is so well-entrenched that revelations like ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and the author of The Ideas Industry.

My third question was as follows: Do you believe that in order to effectively promote goals like democratization and human rights around the world, the U.S. must itself be seen as an exemplar of these values? Do you believe that our status as a standard-bearer of justice and liberty is so well-entrenched that revelations like the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo won?t negatively affect it? The commentariat seems to be split on this one. Many people think the Abu Ghraib abuses were serious, and probably not taken seriously enough. Quite a number of others seemed to regard the abuses as the work of a few rogue underlings acting without instructions. This was probably the result of my poor phrasing, but few addressed the broader question of how Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and related developments impact the U.S.'s ability to promote democracy and other values like human rights and the rule of law that we would like to seed around the world. In my view, there are many regimes around the world that would like to undercut the appeal of American ideals in the minds of their own people. They are fearful that if their populations begin to demand the political and economic freedoms we enjoy, that they will lose control. On the other hand, as by fellow Democracy Arsenal co-blogger Heather Hurlburt and others pointed out as part of the thought-provoking debates at the washingtonmonthly on this subject, the most powerful force for democratization even in intractable regions like the Middle East is the will of the people themselves who crave freedom. Historically, such people have often been inspired by the example the U.S. has set. One of the most serious consequences of the U.S.'s lapses in upholding the human rights and related standards that we purport to represent is that we play into the hands of those who claim that our ideals are empty or hypocritical. We allow them to call into quesetion the promise that our principles signify in the minds of their populations. We sow doubts in the minds of people that would otherwise tend to cleave in the values the U.S. stands for, rather than listening to the promises of corrupt leaders. We can write off Abu Ghraib as the work of a few misfits. But in the eyes of much of the rest of the world the abuses were linked to a pattern of disregard for international norms governing the treatment of detainees. Particularly given our under-investment in public diplomacy, we have limited ability to shape how our actions are seen from the outside. When we are seen as not taking the problem seriously, that adds further fuel to the fire of those trying to fan skepticism about American motives. Though we may not always see the link, I suspect we will be living with the consequences of Abu Ghraib for a long time to come in the form of charges of hypocrisy, doubts about American sincerity, and a sense around the world that America does not hold itself to the standards it would impose on others.

My third question was as follows: Do you believe that in order to effectively promote goals like democratization and human rights around the world, the U.S. must itself be seen as an exemplar of these values? Do you believe that our status as a standard-bearer of justice and liberty is so well-entrenched that revelations like the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo won?t negatively affect it? The commentariat seems to be split on this one. Many people think the Abu Ghraib abuses were serious, and probably not taken seriously enough. Quite a number of others seemed to regard the abuses as the work of a few rogue underlings acting without instructions. This was probably the result of my poor phrasing, but few addressed the broader question of how Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and related developments impact the U.S.’s ability to promote democracy and other values like human rights and the rule of law that we would like to seed around the world. In my view, there are many regimes around the world that would like to undercut the appeal of American ideals in the minds of their own people. They are fearful that if their populations begin to demand the political and economic freedoms we enjoy, that they will lose control. On the other hand, as by fellow Democracy Arsenal co-blogger Heather Hurlburt and others pointed out as part of the thought-provoking debates at the washingtonmonthly on this subject, the most powerful force for democratization even in intractable regions like the Middle East is the will of the people themselves who crave freedom. Historically, such people have often been inspired by the example the U.S. has set. One of the most serious consequences of the U.S.’s lapses in upholding the human rights and related standards that we purport to represent is that we play into the hands of those who claim that our ideals are empty or hypocritical. We allow them to call into quesetion the promise that our principles signify in the minds of their populations. We sow doubts in the minds of people that would otherwise tend to cleave in the values the U.S. stands for, rather than listening to the promises of corrupt leaders. We can write off Abu Ghraib as the work of a few misfits. But in the eyes of much of the rest of the world the abuses were linked to a pattern of disregard for international norms governing the treatment of detainees. Particularly given our under-investment in public diplomacy, we have limited ability to shape how our actions are seen from the outside. When we are seen as not taking the problem seriously, that adds further fuel to the fire of those trying to fan skepticism about American motives. Though we may not always see the link, I suspect we will be living with the consequences of Abu Ghraib for a long time to come in the form of charges of hypocrisy, doubts about American sincerity, and a sense around the world that America does not hold itself to the standards it would impose on others.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and the author of The Ideas Industry. Twitter: @dandrezner

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