News your connection to The Boston Globe

The White House and world opinion

THIS WEEK the Supreme Court rejected the death penalty for juvenile offenders. Even more, it repudiated a central principle of George W. Bush's presidency. Call it the Dubya doctrine.

Under the Dubya doctrine, world opinion simply doesn't matter. The United States isn't just the strongest country in the world; it's the best. So we don't need to consult other nations when we make decisions.

But the Supreme Court decided otherwise. In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy pointedly acknowledged ''the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty." Since 1990, Kennedy wrote, only seven countries have executed juveniles: Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, Congo, and China. All have since disavowed the practice.

Kennedy's opinion sparked a stinging dissent from Justice Antonin Scalia, who insisted that ''foreign approval has no place in the legal opinion of this court." During oral arguments last fall, death penalty opponents cited Thomas Jefferson's dictum in the Declaration of Independence that America must show a ''decent respect to the opinions of mankind." Scalia sneered. ''What did John Adams think of the French?" he quipped, as laughter echoed through the normally hushed chambers of the court.

To Scalia the joke was on anyone who cared about world opinion. This White House doesn't.

Start with the war on Iraq. During the presidential campaign, challenger John F. Kerry charged that the United States failed the ''global test" of persuading other countries that the war was just. President Bush's response was clear and steadfast: It doesn't matter. The United States will pursue its own goals and interests in Iraq regardless of world opinion. You can't fail a global test if you don't even take it.

On nearly every other international issue, the White House assumed a dismissive attitude. The Kyoto treaty on the environment? It will hurt American business. The International Criminal Court? Not enough safeguards for our soldiers, especially in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

And capital punishment? Please. Why should we care if the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and the pope have condemned juvenile executions here? Or that the only other countries that have practiced it are places like Iran and China? We make the rules of the game as they suit us.

But the founders of our own country didn't view the world in such a blithe manner. Men like Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were inveterate internationalists, paying close attention to our young nation's standing and reputation around the world.

Both men served as diplomats in France. And John Adams -- no friend of the French -- thought America's leaders should be ''well versed" in the ''public law of Europe" and in the histories of England, France, and Holland. All of these people were zealous patriots, as befit the fathers of a new nation. To them, however, preserving the nation required a careful cultivation of global opinion -- not a brazen neglect of it.

Even in the 20th century, when the United States matured into a world power, its leaders tried to further the national interest by engaging other countries in dialogue and negotiation. To Woodrow Wilson, the foremost architect of modern American foreign policy, the world would never be ''safe for democracy" -- or for American interests -- without an international forum for airing and resolving disputes.

Wilson's vision would suffer a huge blow after America rejected membership in the League of Nations. But the vision revived after World War II, spawning the United Nations. It continued into the administrations of cold warriors Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, whose efforts at detente with the Soviet Union lay squarely in the Wilsonian tradition. When he became president, in fact, Nixon moved Wilson's old desk into the Oval Office so he could work at the same place as his hero.

At first glance, President Bush's tributes to freedom and democracy resemble Wilson's paeans to self-determination for nations around the globe. Under the Dubya doctrine, however, Bush believes that the United States can accomplish this feat on its own. He pursues Wilsonian ends via decidedly un-Wilsonian means.

Even more, he turns his back on the Founding Fathers themselves. Last time I checked, conservatives were supposed to preserve America's original principles and purposes. But the Dubya doctrine flouts them. A ''decent respect for the opinions of mankind"? That's, like, so 1776.

Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches history and education at New York University, is author of ''Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools."

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months