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.More from GPS: Intelligence oversight situation unacceptableIndeed, 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.