The danger of America’s declining moral authority
November 18th, 2013
08:29 AM ET

The danger of America’s declining moral authority

By Kristin Lord and Paul J. Saunders, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Kristin Lord is executive vice president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Center for the National Interest and served as Senior Advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs in the George W. Bush Administration. The views expressed are their own.

So far, the twenty-first century has been a frustrating one for Americans. The United States has extraordinary military might and technological prowess, which it uses to protect itself, its allies and its partners. Yet, for many here and around the world, the ways in which America exercises this power – revealed in part by Edward Snowden's one-man crusade against the National Security Agency – have contributed to searching questions about the United States’ future and its international role. Such questions have begun to undermine America's moral authority – and U.S. leaders ignore them at their peril.

The United States is not just a great power, but an idea. Americans like it that way and we are justifiably proud of an exceptional if complex history. Particularly during the twentieth century, moral authority became one of our nation's most important strategic advantages, a source of strength that pulled allies closer and proved difficult for adversaries to challenge. The value of this strategic advantage endures today.  Losing it could do more to harm American power than any realistic military or economic threat on the horizon-and regaining it could take decades.

U.S. moral authority has suffered real damage over the last two decades.  There are many reasons for this, ranging from well-intended military interventions that have produced mixed results, to perceptions that the United States has applied human rights standards inconsistently, allegations of torture and other abuses like those at Abu Ghraib, a major financial crisis, and apparent political dysfunction within our own borders.

Some of the change in global attitudes toward the United States is inevitable in the post-Cold War information age – social media, 24 hour media cycles, and the rise of entertainment news expose (and sometimes overblow) every misstep.  Meanwhile, the existential confrontation between democratic capitalism and communism (never actually that simple) has ended and a decade has passed since the 9/11 attacks.  Though a wide range of threats still loom, few appear existential, raising new questions about whether America can continue to justify what many consider extraordinary means.

The reality is that U.S. actions, like recently revealed Internet and telecommunications monitoring, do influence how others view us and the potential reaction to U.S. policy decisions should weigh heavily as U.S. leaders consider their options.  Even U.S. allies and friends like Germany, France and Brazil have objected forcefully to the scope of National Security Agency intelligence gathering operations as well as some prominent targets. It is unclear what intelligence would justify offending an important ally like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who called President Obama to complain that her cellphone was monitored.

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Indeed, this episode could have serious practical consequences if U.S. friends limit future cooperation or impose stringent privacy restrictions on American firms to satisfy angry populations.  It may also undermine counter-terrorism cooperation and standards of openness on the Internet.  Within the International Telecommunications Union, a U.N. body that facilitates international cooperation on information and communications technologies, a network of authoritarian governments and developing nations persists in challenging the U.S.-supported institutions that establish norms and practices for the Internet.  This movement has in its sights the open Internet that promotes commerce and allows dissidents to remain anonymous.  Will the United States be able to credibly defend these standards as its security agencies monitor millions of people around the globe?

Most dangerous of all, however, may be the growing perception – one that spans the ideological spectrum – that the United States shows too little concern for international rules and norms.  Many are especially troubled by the U.S. use of force, whether on a large scale or in unilateral, low-level drone attacks, as well as by the monitoring and intelligence gathering from even our closest allies. This perception undermines a central goal of American foreign policy for much of the last century: developing a rule-based international system that advances U.S. interests, promotes peace and prosperity, and sustains American global leadership.

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Vital American national interests may require the United States to go its own way at times and ignore global opinion more frequently.  The United States must do what is necessary to protect its most important interests.  But creating the impression that U.S. leaders have a casual disregard for international rules and norms undermines American leadership, which is ultimately founded upon our ability to solve common problems-not our skill in looking after ourselves.  This is a central reason that governments like those in China or Russia can often challenge U.S. leadership but are unlikely to supplant it.

With this in mind, strengthening America's moral authority should be an important goal of U.S. foreign policy, and it must be attempted honestly and seriously if it is to succeed.  Moral authority is not a product of pious pronouncements or noble intent.  Nor is it earned through moral-sounding policies that fail to deliver moral results. On the contrary, we can earn moral authority only by delivering demonstrably moral outcomes, abroad and at home.

Two gifted orators, Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, have referred to the power of America's moral authority in describing the United States as a "shining city on a hill." The challenge is to more consistently match word with deed, something that requires being more deliberate about what we do as well as what we say.

Restoring the power of the American example will be no easy task – balancing immediate national security concerns, like transnational terrorism and cyber threats, with America's overarching reputation and values, is simply hard to do.  But it might prove easier if American leaders remember that these values are fundamental to American power.

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Topics: United States

soundoff (87 Responses)
  1. Jasila

    It's like the athelete that seems to have almost reached perfection...and he turns out a doper

    Our founders did what they could think of to avoid us ever being laughed at

    November 18, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Reply
  2. Jose Luna

    Good let someone else be the "moral authority". It hasn't done anything to help any of our citizens.

    And these countries may not think we're a moral authority, but I bet they have no problem taking our money.

    November 18, 2013 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  3. LiveFree

    Moral starts at home. When we have a system that disregards the well-being of our own citizens, e.g. massive financial fraudulent, scam of the dotcom and mortage, an economic policy that encourages massive outsourcing, tax-evasion ..., without anyone being held responsible, ... dont even mention the well-being of others. The world knows this. Obama has an opportunity to correct the situation, but he failed, because if he digs deeper, many who support him will go to jail or being partly blamed for. The party keeps going...

    November 18, 2013 at 7:57 pm | Reply
  4. chrissy

    Omg @ Joseph, isn't that just the truth! They've lied to us for so very long! And i am so sick and tired of the romper room shenanigans going on in Congress day after day, week after week etc. Their work ethics absolutely stink! Most of us would be fired in a hot minute if we had those same work ethics, and somehow these clowns get to make a career out of it! Time to fire the whole lot of them and start over!

    November 18, 2013 at 9:13 pm | Reply
  5. chrissy

    And @ livefree, i totally agree with your post with the exception of one thing! Obama did NOT have a chance to correct ANYTHING! He was doomed from the very beginning! Our congressional brats said from the very beginning they would make sure he failed, and with the help of their special interest groups (corporate america) they did just that! Shame on every last one of those unamerican jackals!

    November 18, 2013 at 9:20 pm | Reply
  6. shrinkDave

    Our congressmen, and corporate leaders have been so obsessed with looking out for number one, that they've stepped into number two.

    November 18, 2013 at 10:32 pm | Reply
  7. chrissy

    Lmao @ shrink Dave, now THAT was funny! Almost poetic even! Omg im still giggling over that one. Thank you! ;)

    November 18, 2013 at 10:53 pm | Reply
  8. novaskyland

    I think the world sometimes forgets and takes for granted exactly how much we do as a country for the international community. We fund a large percentage of the UN, more than any other country. We run NATO at the benefit of all our allies and our financial cost. We run military ops that no one else is willing to do in the name of human rights, overthrowing merciless dictators, eliminating extremist terrorist groups, and bringing democracy to a region in an authoritarian crisis. We send carrier groups and millions upon billions of aid to countries that face natural disasters. And we fund most third world countries, providing defense and economic spending in an effort to industrialize a push these countries towards a higher quality of life.

    As a result people complain that our hands are everywhere and complain when it turns out that in addition to funding and protecting the world, we also gather information and make sure no one tries to screw us over in the process.

    So I ask you, the international community. Do you want the US now, or absolutely no US involvement or funding anywhere. Take your pick, because we aren't just gonna give you these things and not expect our interests in the international community to be preserved

    November 18, 2013 at 11:13 pm | Reply
    • Really?

      ^ Example of American media brainwashing. The US supports as many dictators as it overthrows. The amount of spying is simply unethical. Never mind other issues like drones...

      November 19, 2013 at 9:22 am | Reply
    • Balance please

      That's like asking whether you want extreme cold or extreme heat ... neither are good options. Try some balance ... we exist on this planet because of a balance of forces. Most people like moderate warm. Even America's friends and allies who want it to play a constructive international role do not want it to behave like a global bully or tyrant. And try playing a little fairer and practicing what you preach.

      November 25, 2013 at 10:53 pm | Reply
  9. ✠RZ✠

    Fareed, the authors of this article, whether done intentionally or through plain ignorance, use the word "America" and have the audacity to pin a flag on it. PLEASE, STOP ASSOCIATING THE MAJORITY OF GOOD AND MORAL AMERICANS WITH THE SLIME THESE ARTICLES SHOULD BE ISOLATING IN THE FIRST PLACE !

    Thank you.

    November 19, 2013 at 8:35 am | Reply
  10. bbco

    Obama is Bush 'light'. No we wont invade somebody, but we will bomb whomever we want. He'll keep Bush's spying program going. But problems with America's 'moral authority,' I believe do not stem from the top, they stem from the bottom. The American people have voted for these people to be in office, and continually approve of what is happening by voting for these people or members of their party. This decline in moral authority is our own fault. Saunders talks about declining moral authority and then states 'allegations of torture...at Abu Graib.' It was torture you jerk! He likes to get out of admitting it cause he's in the same party as Bush, if it had happened under Obama (or a Dem) he would have no problem stating that it was in fact torture. All politicians live in glass houses and we will get nowhere quickly if we keep following them. If you voted dem or rep, you are the problem, the politicians only the symptoms.

    November 19, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Good posting, bbco. Nothing could be closer to the truth! Unfortunately inasmuch as I hate to say it, most American people are truly ignorant and therein lies the problem!

      November 21, 2013 at 9:26 am | Reply
  11. Shon Williams

    Police, Sheriff, Marshall, Detective, State Investigator, FBI, CIA, DEA, NSA equals a Police state.

    November 23, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Reply
  12. USIdiots

    US is crap – and we all know that!!!

    November 24, 2013 at 1:50 am | Reply
  13. Eddie Fonseca

    America has always been seen as a place where people can live free from religious hatred and can live the American Dream of having a good job with a white picket fence, and enough money to support their family's. Sometimes we need our great National Security agency's from FBI to Homeland Security men and women who put their own lives, on the line so we can live in peace from threats of terrorism from some crazy Spanish of Middle East group that has big hatred for America. So this nonsense that we live in a police state or that the government likes to spy on us should be left to the fantasy novels or films, yes I would like a government who takes care of it's citizens safety and put's the country's National Security at the top of the list of things to do. I don't mind if the government does some spying from our Library records to everyday use if it's in the best interest of our great nation. So as American's we know our nation is not perfect but what other nation in the globe is perfect, really every nation has it's fault's but we know as Americans we must to learn to fix what's wrong with our nation and make one that other nation's respect and want to trade with us for years to come.

    November 24, 2013 at 10:47 pm | Reply
  14. Inconvenient Truth

    Americans have perpetually been in love with themselves to the point of insanity. Like a rapist who keeps admiring himself in the mirror and proclaiming endlessly how caring and just he is. America's moral authority is a joke ... American hypocrisy and double-standards though are legendary. From the outset, America was created through genocide, slavery, racism, and violence. Actions speak much louder than hollow lofty words. Whilst America has achieved many admirable things and done good as well, it is a self-obsessed nation of greed that uses force to further its own interests whilst denying others the right to pursue the same. Americans self-righteously lecture others about law, human rights, democracy, and freedom, imaging that they have some kind of monopoly on these univeral concepts even whilst America has done more than most nations to violate these very ideals. Sure there are other nations that may be worse as superpowers than America has been, including China and Russia, but the reality is that America is the only nation is history to have used nuclear weapons against a foe who had practically no chance of winning the war in any case. America supports international pariah states like Israel (regarded as the serial rapist of the region by its neighbours) even helping it to secretly acquire nuclear weapons whilst hounding Iran which does not toe the line. Few still believe the lie of America's moral authority. Certainly not Palestinians who don't seem to qualify for America's democracy and freedom. International conventions and laws are enforced only on America's foes whilst it together with its allies flout and violate the same with impunity. What America does do well is everything possible to maintain the global order which it rules with the acquiescence and support of its cronies and allies who benefit from its protection. And that global order is heading towards a big shakeup, and none too soon.

    November 25, 2013 at 10:44 pm | Reply
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