March 04, 2005

Child Executions and Soft Power

Will Baude and David Fontana weigh in on the Supreme's Court using the "overwhelming weight of international opinion," as Justice Kennedy put it, to help decide the juvenile execution case. Both essays raise good points, but overlook an obvious blooper on Kennedy's part. International opinion, for the most part, is almost surely in favor of capital punishment. Canadians love executions almost as much as we do—around 70 percent roughly in favor. See similar results in Britain. And Italy. Even in Sweden and France the death penalty has close to majority support.

Admittedly, I don't think American institutions are very democratic. (Just ask me what I'd do to the House, Senate, presidency, and electoral college if I could get my grubby hands on the Constitution.) Still, they seem to have responded to popular opinion on the death penalty issue better than other countries. I imagine this is because we vote for candidates rather than parties: a candidate can always use the death penalty debate to say something about him/herself as a person, so he or she is more likely to demagogue on the subject. The downside is that the candidate-centric system also explains, in part, why we don't have universal health care (it's much easier for a centralized party to design, pass, and implement this sort of thing than it is a loose coalition of elected officials). You can also blame the idiotic nature of the Senate.

But whatever. That's not what I wanted to talk about. In the TNR essay linked above, David Fontana claims that the Supreme Court, by using international opinion, will increase America's standing and respect among the world. Of course, what he really meant is that it will increase America's standing and respect—it's "soft power," if you will—among world leaders. That's obviously important, since it makes it somewhat more likely that those leaders will adopt American norms, or trust American intentions, or whatever else. But trust among leaders isn't everything. Ideally we also want to increase our standing and respect among populations in other countries, since popular opinion constrains what those world leaders do. It's not clear that abolishing the death penalty for minors will win us many fans among the masses abroad.

To see the difference between the two types of soft power, look at how Americans interact with Europe. European leaders could in theory do a number of things over the next four years—like play a larger role in training Iraqi troops—that would endear them to officials in the Bush administration. Tony Blair has a good deal of soft power in White House circles, it seems, and there's no reason Chirac and Schroeder couldn't acquire the same. Nevertheless, even if they did so endear themselves, back in the U.S. it's still going to be popular among the cro-Magnon wing of the Republican party to bash Europe from time to time. This happens because enough Americans genuinely don't like Europe, so "Freedom Fries" and other shenanigans have a good deal of currency.

That fact, in itself, will continue to put strains on the transatlantic relationship. All things considered, I don't think Sen. Norm Coleman believes in his heart of hearts that the UN should be annihilated. Clearly, though, an important subset of his Minnesota constituents like the fact that he's poking his finger in the eye of Old Europe. Some of them—many of them—have internet connections and blogs. The only way for European leaders to stop this nonsense would be to do things that endear themselves to the American people—or at least the subset that thinks Europeans are all weenies. I don't know how they would do this (go on more hunting trips?) or if they'd even want to. The point is there's a distinction.
-- Brad Plumer 3:02 AM || ||