Stearns: World Opinion Crucial to Foreign Policy

Stearns: World Opinion Crucial to Foreign Policy

George Mason University professor will discuss current affairs.

How does the world judge the actions of the United States, especially during a time of war? World opinion is “amorphous,” said George Mason University professor Peter Stearns.

“As a nation, we have to ask ourselves, can we feel comfortable when countries we respect think we’ve done something mistaken and immoral? As a nation, we like to think of ourselves as liked and respected, but in a way we have overdone it,” he said.

Stearns will have a chance to discuss that question among others when he gives a talk entitled, “The U.S. and World Opinion,” sponsored by the Vienna branch of the American Association of University Women on Tuesday, Sept. 21, at 7:30 p.m. at Patrick Henry Library.

As provost and a professor of world and global history, Stearns spent the past year and a quarter researching world opinion for an upcoming book that’s due out in April.

“We all know the United States’ standing in world opinion, some would say dangerously, has dropped,” he said.

“Because of recent issues, the advanced hostility of going to war in Iraq, I thought it’d be interesting to see the history of the world’s opinion toward us. How it started, why it started, where it comes from.”

Stearns hopes to define “world opinion” in his talk. “It’s a term that gets tossed around a lot, so I want to define it and give examples of how it works.

“I’m pretty confident that the world is still friendly toward the United States, but hostile toward the government,” he said, as an example.

COMPARING THE world’s opinion and response to the two Gulf Wars, Stearns points out the cost of losing favor in the eyes of allied countries.

“Given the risk and costs involved, we would have suffered less in this current war if there had been more help from other countries,” he said. “The first Gulf War had reduced costs and violence toward Americans because of international support.”

Then comes the question of how current tactics and policies will affect future endeavors of the government.

“This administration has a pattern of defying world opinion on other topics — like land mines, the Kyoto accord, use of the death penalty — that’s out of step with much of our civilized counterparts,” Stearns said.

“I think even the Bush administration would find it hard to do another Iraq anytime soon, because they know how much hostility it would cause and the damage it would do to broader interests,” he said.

Stearns added that “a different president could begin to fix” the way the rest of the world views the United States and its policies.

“It’s a difficult job because some of the steps needed to be taken would cause backlash here at home,” he said.

“Trying to figure out how seriously we take world opinion as one component of foreign policy is important,” Stearns said. “As the most powerful country in the world, we’re going to demand lots of attention, and it’ll make our jobs harder if we don’t care at all about world opinion.”

“It’s an important and interesting issue, but it’s not simple,” Stearns said. “There are times we have to say the hell with world opinion, but it’s complicated. … There are times we have to avoid a knee-jerk reaction. This is one of those times.”

Susan Williams, a spokeswoman for AAUW, said that Stearns' talk will offer “information and another viewpoint” for the group and those who attend the talk.

“We’ve always had a broader reach than just women’s issues,” she said. “Women’s issues can be anything.”

As a nonpartisan group, AAUW is not endorsing or supporting any one political party or ideology.

“We’re all very interested in politics and world affairs,” Williams said. “It would be interesting to be more in tune with how the rest of the world sees us.”

Yuki Henninger, newly elected vice president of programs for AAUW’s Vienna branch, said that she selected Stearns as a speaker partially based on her own Japanese-immigrant status.

“I have many friends overseas that are educated in the U.S. or have been here,” she said. “They used to have very favorable opinions of us, but I get nasty comments now.”

Henninger said that a greater sense of being uninformed about the world in Japan drives its citizens to learn more about the world around them, a sense she doesn’t necessarily see here.

“The U.S. is very remote from the rest of the world, the G-7 countries” she said. “For such a big country, it’s very isolated in a way.”

STEARNS' TOPIC is a “good fit” for the AAUW because one of its drives is to “become better-informed citizens of the world,” Henninger said.

“My opinion is that Americans tend to be very insular and busy with our own work and daily life, and we forget to look at ourselves as citizens of the world,” she said. “It’s good to fill in the gap.”

“Even if you think you’re informed, the U.S. papers tend to focus on U.S. matters and can’t cover everything. We need to look at ourselves from a different perspective,” Henninger said.