Decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind

When the forefathers penned the Declaration of Independence, they wanted to set forth to the world the reasons for severing their ties to Britain. Specifically they wrote: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Many have attempted to exploit the deference granted to the wisdom of Founders and the phrase “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” as leverage to criticize President Bush’s supposed indifference to opinions of other countries, particularly with regard to the liberation of Iraq. However, such a claim belies an ignorance of the true circumstances of America’s struggle for independence.

Although there was some sympathy in the world for American independence, particularly among long-time enemies of Great Britain, the goal of the American Revolution to establish a large republic certainly threatened much of the global status quo. After all, the ethos behind the American experiment relied on the bold assertion by Thomas Paine that, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” This is hardly a sentiment likely to endear Americans to the powers of the world, made up of mostly authoritarian regimes of one sort or the other.

A more careful examination of the phraseology of the Declaration shows that the consequence of a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind” was a duty to “declare the causes which impel them” to certain actions. Decent respect only required a thoughtful explanation of American reasons, not slavish obsequiousness to the opinion of others. Whether others agree or not with our conclusions, the American explanations at the United Nations constituted dues paid the opinions of mankind. Respect was indeed shown.

Indeed, is it not true that all countries should do what they reasonably believe is correct and ethical unconstrained by the opinions of others? Let us posit for the moment that the French and the German opposition to the liberation of Iraq, despite a century of those countries making exactly the wrong geopolitical decisions, was motivated out of the purest of motives. This proposition may be belied by a number of subterfuges they employed; including French assurances to the Iraqis they could stop the Americans in the UN Security Council. Nonetheless, let us presume that objections to Iraqi liberation arouse out of a deep and abiding affection for the United States.

Should the French and Germans have fought in international bodies to keep Coalition forces from liberating Iraq or should they have, in the name of international collegiality and in order to maintain good relations with the US, acquiesced to American perceptions of threats? Surely, Bush’s critics would argue the French should have done what is right and not submitted their best judgments to a veto by the United States. France and Germany should not do what they believe is wrong just because it would make the US happy and similarly, the US should act in a way it perceives is correct after a due explanation in deference to the “opinions of mankind.”

The question then reduces to what is the best policy, not what others happen to agree with.

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