Sunday, September 03, 2006

Assigning Grades

John R. Hamilton, a recently retired Foreign Service officer, suggests that one of the techniques used to impose American values on the rest of the world--the use of "report cards" to name, shame, and sometimes sanction foreign governments--is causing resentment abroad. Writing in Friday's Washington Post, Hamilton stated:

Attempts to explain the vehemence of anti-U.S. feeling abroad correctly home in on Iraq and other unpopular policies of the current administration. But over the past three decades the kudzu-like growth of another U.S. practice, used by Congress and by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, has nurtured seething resentment abroad.

This is what might be called "foreign policy by report card," the issuing of public assessments of the performance of other countries, with the threat of economic or political sanctions for those whose performance, in our view, doesn't make the grade. The overuse of these mandated reports makes us seem judgmental, moralistic and bullying.

Here are some of the "report cards" that the Department of State and other agencies of the United States government are required by law to issue:

In addition, the United States monitors and in some instances imposes sanctions on countries that violate domestic or international norms regarding nuclear nonproliferation, labor rights, conflict diamonds, and sea turtle protection.

"The point is not," as Hamilton writes, "that these goals are illegitimate." It is desirable that we should try to control human trafficking, drug trafficking, and the spread of nuclear weapons, just as it is good that we should try to promote human rights and the protection of sea turtles. "But in the aggregate," Hamilton states,

our public reports have reinforced the view abroad that we set ourselves up unilaterally as police officer, judge and jury of other countries' conduct. Often, governments in developing countries in particular are committed to the objectives we are promoting, but they are overwhelmed by poverty, political instability and other existential problems that, in their view, dwarf the issues on which we would have them concentrate. Even so, they struggle to improve, say, performance on human trafficking, only to be found lacking with respect to drugs or labor rights. They may well conclude that, however much they try, their best is never good enough for us. The result is demoralization, anger and sullen resistance where we otherwise might have made common cause.

We could adjust this approach, especially where the objectives enjoy broad support in the international community, to advance them through multilateral organizations. We have effectively promoted more vigorous action against money laundering through the broadly based Financial Action Task Force. Several years ago, and as resentment over our annual narcotics certification process threatened to spin out of control, Congress softened the approach and, with modest success, we sought to make the Western Hemisphere portion of it multilateral through the Organization of American States.

Scaling back in other areas would help. It is critical, though, that we refrain from using this tool as we seek to promote new objectives--however worthy--in the future. The tolerance of other societies for being publicly judged by the United States has reached its limits.

No one likes to be judged and found wanting. But what better way is there for the hegemon to enforce its norms in the international system than by assigning grades and imposing sanctions on those who fail to measure up? (Indeed, what better way is there for a professor to encourage his or her students to meet the standards imposed in a classroom?)

If you're not comfortable with the analogy to the classroom, then either you're not a fan of hegemonic stability theory or you just don't like thinking about grades. If it's the former, then take heart because there is a liberal internationalist response to the U.S. government's emphasis on assigning grades. Hamilton, in fact, presents it in his penultimate paragraph: In those instances "where the objectives enjoy broad support in the international community," it would be possible "to advance them through multilateral organizations" rather than through a unilateral system of grades and sanctions.