Report cards fail as foreign policy tool
By JOHN R. HAMILTON
Attempts to explain the vehemence of anti-U.S. feeling abroad correctly home in on Iraq and other unpopular policies of the current administration. But over the past three decades the kudzu-like growth of another U.S. practice, used by Congress and by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, has nurtured seething resentment abroad.
This is what might be called "foreign policy by report card," the issuing of public assessments of the performance of other countries, with the threat of economic or political sanctions for those whose performance, in our view, doesn't make the grade. The overuse of these mandated reports makes us seem judgmental, moralistic and bullying.
The degree to which public reports accompanied by the threat of sanctions have been institutionalized in U.S. policy is stunning. A partial list:
Each year we issue detailed human rights reports on every country in the world, including those whose performance appears superior to our own. We judge whether other countries have provided sufficient cooperation in fighting illegal drugs. We place countries whose protection of intellectual property has been insufficient on "watch lists," threatening trade sanctions against those that do not improve. We judge respect for labor rights abroad through a public petition process set up under the System of Generalized (trade) Preferences. We publish annual reports on other countries' respect for religious freedom.
And more: We seek to ensure the adequacy of civil aviation oversight and the security of foreign airports through special inspections and categorizing of government performance. We ban shrimp imports from countries whose fishing fleets do not employ sea turtle extruder devices and yellowfin tuna imports where the protection of dolphins is in our view inadequate. We report on trafficking in persons and categorize the performance of every country where such trafficking is a problem, which is just about everywhere. And we withhold military education, training and materiel assistance from countries that do not enter into agreements with us to protect our nationals from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
Legitimacy of goals
The point is not that these goals are illegitimate. The large majority of Americans would probably support most if not all of them and would be reassured to know that the government is working assiduously to promote them. It is also true that foreign governments do sometimes improve their performance to avoid sanctions or the embarrassment of a critical public report.
But in the aggregate, our public reports have reinforced the view abroad that we set ourselves up unilaterally as police officer, judge and jury of other countries' conduct. Often, governments in developing countries in particular are committed to the objectives we are promoting, but they are overwhelmed by poverty, political instability and other existential problems that, in their view, dwarf the issues on which we would have them concentrate. Even so, they struggle to improve, say, performance on human trafficking, only to be found lacking with respect to drugs or labor rights. They may well conclude that, however much they try, their best is never good enough for us. The result is demoralization, anger and sullen resistance where we otherwise might have made common cause.
We could adjust this approach, especially where the objectives enjoy broad support in the international community, to advance them through multilateral organizations. We have effectively promoted more vigorous action against money laundering through the broadly based Financial Action Task Force. Several years ago, and as resentment over our annual narcotics certification process threatened to spin out of control, Congress softened the approach and, with modest success, we sought to make the Western Hemisphere portion of it multilateral through the Organization of American States.
Scaling back in other areas would help. It is critical, though, that we refrain from using this tool as we seek to promote new objectives -- however worthy -- in the future. The tolerance of other societies for being publicly judged by the United States has reached its limits.
Hamilton, who retired last year after 35 years as a Foreign Service officer, served as ambassador to Peru and Guatemala.