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July 05, 2012

Founding Text -- Do We Still Believe in "A Decent Respect"?
Posted by David Shorr

320px-Signing_of_the_Declaration_of_IndependenceIn its opening lines, the Declaration of Independence notes the necessity of showing "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind."  When the founders announced their decisive break with the motherland, they felt obliged to explain themselves -- to argue the case for revolution in the court of world opinion. The document is essentially a claim to the moral high ground and an appeal for global public sympathy.

The main body of the text lists sixteen forms of abuse by King George (with nine sub-examples under one of them). Stressing also that they had given the monarch many chances to relent, the founders were basically saying "We were provoked!"  Rather than the presumption of a righteous cause, the Declaration is an exposition of its justness, highlighting especially the misdeeds of the other party. The signers of the Declaration were throwing the gauntlet down only after patiently building (i.e. enduring) an extensive catalog of grievances.

Now transplant this idea to contermpoary foreign policy discourse. By my reading, the ideals of our remarkable republic are too often treated as a claim of immunity if not infallibility. As some tell it, the pursuit of international support is for wimps. More than anything else, this makes our national sense of self sound so brittle -- kind of delicate in how easily it takes offense. The national conversation about America's actions in the wider world has a loud strain that rejects any notion of heeding others or questioning ourselves.

We don't debate over America's best case for seeking international support, but whether America should have to make any case at all. Is "decent respect to the opinions of mankind" 18th Century-speak for "apologizing for America"?

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