Reread the opening lines of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. There, the Founders pledged the nation to bear “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” They vowed to resist the temptation to insist that American views should always prevail. They affirmed that the very idea of liberty intrinsically presumes that we will not all follow the same path.
Of the repeated injuries the Founders claimed against the king of England, the very first was his refusal to “assent to laws,” which are “wholesome and necessary for the public good.” Today, the United States regularly flouts the very laws and norms of trade, international law, and human rights that it expects the rest of the world to follow. The most pressing priority for the next U.S. president will be to end the double standards that the United States believes its strength and stature afford it.
The United States was the leading architect of the international laws and organizations sculpted in the wake of World War II. It built this multilateral framework because it was useful and because it was right. Yet, during the last decade, the U.S. government has undermined important multilateral agreements concerning climate change, the international criminal court, and nuclear nonproliferation. It has shredded the Geneva Conventions. It has embraced dictators who should have been rightly treated as international pariahs.
Likewise, the United States was born again as a free trader after World War II. Yet, during this decade, the United States has often refused to abide by the very rules it is adamant should apply to others. Unfair “free trade” treaties of the sort that the United States recently imposed on Central American countries hardly deserve the name. Smaller, weaker countries are forced to eliminate their own barriers while the United States insists on disproportionate protections for its own farmers and manufacturers.
Just as U.S. citizens resent the unsolicited involvement of foreign leaders in the choosing of their next president, their government must refrain from bullying voters around the world. Such practices often backfire. Evo Morales is today president of Bolivia in part because the U.S. ambassador denounced him publicly before the 2002 election, bringing him to the attention of voters eager to protest their displeasure with politicians allied with the United States.
Torture? Waterboarding? It is difficult to accept such dishonorable practices being used by the same country that rightly denounced the horrific abuses that its adversaries employed against U.S. soldiers during wars in Korea and Vietnam. The United States should not torture the prisoners it holds, just as it would not want its citizens to be tortured anywhere in the world.
The next U.S. president must rebuild respect for international rules and organizations, many of which the United States once helped mightily to create. Let the behavior Americans expect and prefer on the part of other nations be the most basic guide to their own actions. The U.S. Declaration of Independence pledges “our sacred honor”; the nation’s foreign policies should pledge no less.
Originally published at https://foreignpolicy.com on October 9, 2009.