By Marc Dion
April 24, 2019
*the author highly recommends you enjoy this song while reading this article*
In our most recent Snap Poll fielded in October 2018, the first question respondents answered was “Compared with the past, how respected is the United States by other countries today?” While this is a pretty intuitive question, prompting scholars to compare perceived respect of the U.S., it carries a lot of assumptions that lead to some important questions. What time is the scholar comparing levels of respect to? Is respect a static measurement? Is it a quantifiable measure? I will explore some of these questions here.
What Time is the Scholar Comparing Levels of Respect to?
The question of what date respondents are comparing levels of respect to is a challenging question to answer. Are we comparing it to levels of respect during the Obama administration? Since when Donald Trump first entered office? The question leaves that vague, but we can determine an estimate of what respondents were thinking. We argue that the past compared to was before the Trump administration since a significant percentage of respondents answered that the US is less respected, implying that there must have been some large change assumed to have occurred between now and the comparison period. We argue that this large change is a change of presidency, since that can bring about a radical change in the perceived status of respect. A good way to further narrow down the time period can be to compare the social ideologies of the respondents.
Are Perceptions Only a Reflection of Political Preferences?
When looking at social ideology, we start to see a clearer picture. Conservatives tend to have more disagreement across the board, with almost 30% arguing that the U.S. is more respected today. However, liberals almost unanimously agree that the US is less respected. Therefore, we can suggest that the time compared to would have likely been during a liberal presidential administration, or where liberal values were being advocated more. Looking at times when we have posed the question previously, specifically during the Bush administration, this seems to be the case, where scholars respond with dissatisfaction when their party is not in power. As such, we conclude that people are likely comparing levels of respect to the Obama administration since he represents a liberal administration.
Are Perceptions due to Nostalgia?
When comparing responses to this question in 2004, 2006, and 2008, a strange picture emerges. Each time the question was posed, more than 90% of respondents responded that the U.S. was less respected. Why? I argue that there is an inherent nostalgia associated with the past, which makes scholars/academics feel as though the past is always better than the present. This is because they reflect on the bigger picture of the past and compare it to the minutiae of the present, making it seem as though the present is a worse reality of the past. Perhaps this is the larger reason for such disapproval of the present?
For Whom Does Respect Matter?
We know that 93 percent of IR scholars perceive the U.S. is less respected today relative to the past, but does respect matter in international relations? Three-quarters of self-identifying liberal and moderate IR scholars think the decline in respect for the U.S. is a major problem while less than 1 percent think the decline is no problem at all. Yet, self-identified conservative scholars are more than twice as likely than their liberal and moderate colleagues to view the decline in respect as a minor problem and are far more likely to see the decline as no problem at all.
Pew Research Center explored the public and their perceptions of respect through posing the same question that TRIP had (which was sourced from Pew). We see that there is less consensus in the public sphere: in 2017, less than 70% agreeing that the U.S. had lost respect, with 95% of those respondents saying it was a problem. These results show that the concern with respect is generally important to the public, but not seen as concerning the public as much as scholars.
What is Respect?
With all that in mind, it’s important to discuss what respect entails. We know that all of the TRIP survey respondents are U.S. scholars, therefore we can assume that there is a somewhat unanimous conception of respect, if you assume that U.S. culture is somewhat unified. We will operate under the assumption that U.S. culture is at least somewhat unified due to how we perceive values of respect as being quite similar due to a similar upbringing and education background. While this does not assume that there is no diversity of culture in the United States, we do argue that conceptions of respect are developed through shared communities, and since many communities blend together, all conceptions of respect are somewhat similar.
Respect in the U.S. seems to have a lot of ties to personality politics, where the U.S. President is the symbolic carrier of respect in the United States. As such, choices made by the President have large implications on perceived respect. These choices then are compared to societal and academic status quos that align closely with perceived ideals of rational actors. Therefore, when a President challenges the status quo with their policy choices and is characterized as an irrational actor, they are cast as having lessened the respect of the U.S. This leads to a larger conversation though, one that cannot be easily summarised into a blog post. Regardless, we seek to start a conversation about what respect means in politics, and how societal forces can impact perceived respect, and even challenge how respect is used to credit or discredit politicians.
In conclusion, in the wise words of Aretha Franklin, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find out what it means to me.” Me being the U.S. academy, of course.
For further reading, check out this link.
If you’d like to see more results from the surveys cited above:
TRIP X Snap Poll (Embedded in the 2017 Faculty Survey) (Fielded in October 2017): https://trip.wm.edu/charts/#/questions/44
TRIP XI Snap Poll (Fielded in October 2018): https://trip.wm.edu/charts/#/questions/45
TRIP Survey Data Dashboard: https://trip.wm.edu/charts/#/
Marc Dion is a senior at the College of William and Mary, majoring in International Relations and minoring in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. He has worked at TRIP for 2 years as a Research Assistant. His interests include organizational culture, U.S. foreign policy, and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.