Wednesday, October 20, 2004

What's wrong with unpopularity.

In the second presidential debate, someone pointed out that we're not very popular in the world right now. The question she asked was, "What is your plan to repair relations with other countries given the current situation?"

Bush's answer was a list of things he's done that have made us unpopular, and he summed up this way: "And so, what I'm telling you is, is that sometimes in this world you make unpopular decisions because you think they're right." He also said, "People love America. Sometimes they don't like the decisions made by America, but I don't think you want a president who tries to become popular and does the wrong thing." He didn't say a word about repairing relations. He basically talked a lot about how popularity is unimportant compared to "doing the right thing." How he justifies his decisions as "the right thing" is left as an exercise to the reader.

When Kerry got his chance to speak, he pointed out how Bush's answer "promises you more of the same over the next four years." Then he went on to talk some more about how he thought Bush had handled the Iraq war badly. Again, no discussion of how to repair relations with anyone, but in Kerry's case, not even any discussion related to the question that he's not answering.

Certainly popularity is no guide to morality. It's also easy to say that unpopularity is the result of a misunderstanding. It's tempting to say that a misunderstanding isn't a real problem, but it is. Unpopularity can have concrete consequences beyond harsh words, even when that unpopularity is not based on anything concrete. If that can be changed with some diplomacy, some communication, some new understanding, there's no excuse for leaving foreign relations in that state.

If it's not a misunderstanding, it may be that we've done something that's in our self-interest but not in the interest of the rest of the world. If it really is important that we do that (and important enough to risk those concrete consequences of unpopularity), then there's nothing to be done. There's no misunderstanding to smooth out, and there's no taking a different course for the sake of popularity.

The last way I think the popularity problem can occur is when there's no misunderstanding, and our self-interest isn't worth the consequences of the unpopularity it generates. That value judgment is the hard part, though.

I think the rest of the world sees well enough what's happened. There's no misunderstanding to clear up. I think there is some justified anger out there over the results of recent United States foreign policy, and I think that will have consequences for us in the future, but I don't really know what those are. I also am unclear on what exactly we gained. I think it will be a long time before we can know for sure whether unpopularity has been "worth it."
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