By R. K. Ramazani (First published by The Daily Progress, July 4, 2010)
This principle is rooted in the phrase, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" of the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. Therein, the founders endeavored to justify the causes of America's separation from Britain before what they termed, "a candid world." Knowingly or not, they planted the seeds of today's evolving international moral standard of respect for the opinions of the peoples of the world.
Two other precepts of the Declaration have also evolved over time into principles in the relations of states. First, today's principle of self-determination is rooted in the American assertion of the necessity to "assume a separate and equal" status in world politics. This assertion was revolutionary in the eighteenth century when the world was dominated by powerful empires including Great Britain. And after World War II this historic American proclamation spurred the process of decolonization, resulting in the rise of many new separate and equal sovereign states in the world arena.
Second, today's well-known principle of universal human rights is also rooted in the Declaration, which asserts that " all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Inspired in part by this uniquely American idea, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted on December 10, 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The standard of respect for world public opinion, however, is less known than the principles of self-determination and human rights for two main reasons. First, it is still evolving in the relations of states. Second, it had not been well studied until recently. In just the last decade the concept of world public opinion has become clearer because numerous international public opinion polls have been conducted.
According to Steven Kull, the Director of World Public Opinion Organization, "there have been a substantial number of surveys" conducted in numerous countries across the world. As a result, it is discovered that "the majority of humanity" has reached consensus on "a wide range of issues facing the planet."
I mention here four of the most important issues identified by Kull. First, majorities of people in fifteen out of nineteen nations polled believe that their government should give higher priorities to climate change than it does now.
Second, most people of the world support a world order based on international law, not merely on self-interest and they reject the idea that international rules should be ignored when they are at odds with national interest.
Third, large majorities of the public around the world, including in nuclear weapons states such as the United States, favor elimination of all nuclear weapons by international agreement. Furthermore, publics worldwide would support a United Nations-based international regime that would stop countries from producing nuclear fuel and would instead supply them needed fuel for energy production.
Fourth and perhaps most important in my view, majorities in 43 of the 46 countries surveyed say they see themselves as "global citizens."
These findings would delight Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, because I believe, he planted the seeds of the idea that has sprouted over time into the universal moral standard of respect for world public opinion. He alone wrote in what he called an "original Rough draught" the core phrase, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." This phrase contained in essence the idea that has evolved into what today is called the standard of world public opinion. This Jeffersonian phrase survived all the subsequent alterations of the wording of the Declaration which was finally adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776. In his draft of the Declaration, Jefferson wrote, "For the support of this declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes &our sacred honors."
We celebrate today primarily our independence, but, in effect, we are also celebrating the little known fact that America on this same day set the foundation of the emerging moral standard of respect for world public opinion.
President Obama is committed to improving America's image in the world because he believes that world public opinion matters. He is not only honoring the founders' legacy, but also the opinion of the majority of humanity.
Much as we value, as we should, our patriotic feelings, we should remind ourselves on this historic date not to equate them with provincialism, since respect for global opinion is a foundational American idea. A "decent respect to the opinions of mankind" is in th e enlightened self-interest of our nation and of other nations across the world.
About the autor: Holder of the Thomas Jefferson Award and coeditor of two books on Jefferson, R. K. Ramazani serves on the Advisory Board of the International Center of Jefferson Studies at Monticello and is the Edward R. Stettinius Emeritus Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia.
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