Friday, October 07, 2005

Schoolmistress in Politics?

Last week Secretary of State Dr. Condoleeza Rice delivered a speech to the Woodrow Wilson School in which she outlined current United States policy towards the Middle East, with particular regard to Iraq. Overall it was a tolerable bit of speechmaking, though I did find several points Dr. Rice made to be either disagreeable or problematical. One argument she made stuck in mind:

To support the democratic aspirations, we must recognize that liberty still faces opponents in our world. Some will never support the free choices of their citizens because they stand to lose arbitrary powers and unjust privileges. Others know that the ideology of hatred they espouse can only thrive in a political culture of oppression and poverty and hopelessness. In a world where evil is still very real, democratic principles must be backed with power in all its forms: political, and economic, and cultural, and moral, and yes, sometimes, military. Any champion of democracy who promotes principle without power can make no real difference in the lives of oppressed people.

I was going to let it pass unremarked, but another piece of news arrived that would seem to go to Dr. Rice's point. Yesterday Human Rights Watch issued a sharp condemnation of the war crimes and crimes against humanity which have been committed by the insurgency™ in Iraq. Surreal juxtaposition: the report is structured and worded like any other report from Human Rights Watch, but it becomes painfully obvious to any thinking reader that several of the groups singled out for criticism really don't care about international humanitarian law. Not one iota. When people say "The U.S. doesn't really care about international humanitarian law," or "The United Nations Commission on Human Rights doesn't really care about international humanitarian law," they are typically pointing to a gap between rhetoric and actual practice, making an accusation of hypocrisy. Often enough it appears that false pretenses pose more of a threat to the social order than actual violations of the integrity of other human beings. But how does one parse the statement, "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia doesn't really care about international humanitarian law?" One can hardly call Al Qaeda hypocrites on that score, for they are in word and in deed irrefutably hostile to international humanitarian law and the humanity it is meant to serve.

So is Dr. Rice right? Can I say meekly that she makes a valid point? Can I go further and say that the current crop of Republicans truly are the legitimate heirs to Wilsonian internationalism? No, I can't.

President Woodrow Wilson, in his Second Inaugural Address, put forward a rather different understanding of the relationship between democratic principles and power.

We are provincials no longer. The tragic events of the thirty months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world. There can be no turning back. Our own fortunes as a nation are involved whether we would have it so or not.

And yet we are not the less Americans on that account. We shall be the more American if we but remain true to the principles in which we have been bred. They are not the principles of a province or of a single continent. We have known and boasted all along that they were the principles of a liberated mankind. These, therefore, are the things we shall stand for, whether in war or in peace:

That all nations are equally interested in the peace of the world and in the political stability of free peoples, and equally responsible for their maintenance; that the essential principle of peace is the actual equality of nations in all matters of right or privilege; that peace cannot securely or justly rest upon an armed balance of power; that governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed and that no other powers should be supported by the common thought, purpose or power of the family of nations; that the seas should be equally free and safe for the use of all peoples, under rules set up by common agreement and consent, and that, so far as practicable, they should be accessible to all upon equal terms; that national armaments shall be limited to the necessities of national order and domestic safety; that the community of interest and of power upon which peace must henceforth depend imposes upon each nation the duty of seeing to it that all influences proceeding from its own citizens meant to encourage or assist revolution in other states should be sternly and effectually suppressed and prevented.

I need not argue these principles to you, my fellow countrymen; they are your own part and parcel of your own thinking and your own motives in affairs. They spring up native amongst us. Upon this as a platform of purpose and of action we can stand together. And it is imperative that we should stand together. We are being forged into a new unity amidst the fires that now blaze throughout the world. In their ardent heat we shall, in God's Providence, let us hope, be purged of faction and division, purified of the errant humors of party and of private interest, and shall stand forth in the days to come with a new dignity of national pride and spirit. Let each man see to it that the dedication is in his own heart, the high purpose of the nation in his own mind, ruler of his own will and desire.

And in the historic Fourteen Points Speech, President Wilson concluded:

We have spoken now, surely, in terms too concrete to admit of any further doubt or question. An evident principle runs through the whole program I have outlined. It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak.

Unless this principle be made its foundation, no part of the structure of international justice can stand. The people of the United States could act upon no other principle, and to the vindication of this principle they are ready to devote their lives, their honor, and everything that they possess. The moral climax of this, the culminating and final war for human liberty has come, and they are ready to put their own strength, their own highest purpose, their own integrity and devotion to the test.

To a certain degree Rice and Wilson are on the same page, naturally, and yet the difference between their viewpoints is of real consequence. After all, Dr. Rice has gone on the record to say that she has no idea what John Kerry meant by saying that a preemptive exercise of military power must pass a global test, you know, "the global test where your countrymen, your people, understand fully why you're doing what you're doing, and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons."

What place is there in Dr. Rice's view for an international community of interests and of powers? Does she view such a community a prerequisite for lasting peace? Does it not therefore place a check on the legitimate exercize of power? Most essentially, in Wilson's view military power may be said to be secondary or indeed even subordinate to democratic principles. A true Wilsonian would not hold that a militarily weak nation can make no real difference in the lives of oppressed people. On the contrary, according to the Wilsonian view a hypertrophic build up of military power could be said to be a threat to political stability, and profoundly irresponsible--to say the least.

Ah, but Dr. Rice very explicitly said "power in all its forms: political, and economic, and cultural, and moral, and yes, sometimes, military." One gets the sense that the last item in the list may not actually be the last item in the agenda, and the items in the middle are perhaps the most provocative. Unintentionally, perhaps. The trope of hard power vs. soft power is common enough in foggybottom thinking. What assumptions are entailed in such a formulation? That power is some kind of tool one uses to advance national interests, I imagine. A utilitarian or instrumentalist view of military power seems pretty unobjectionable on the face of it. Unlike the other forms of power, military power impinges on the field of ethics primarily as a matter of relations between enemies, to whom our ethical obligations are catagorically limited, and secondarily as a concern for the status of civilians or noncombatants. By contrast, economic power, for instance, more directly involves ethical relations between neutral parties, or, perhaps, in principle, one might say "equals." And that of course is where the instrumentalist view runs into trouble, because if economic relations are not predicated upon relations between equals, then any exercise of economic power would carry with it certain moral imperatives, and if economic relations are predicated upon relations between equals (putatively, more or less), then the wielding of economic power to advance national interests would almost certainly have to be regarded as hostile, or, shall we say, destabilizing.

Well, I'm no economist, that's for sure. These thoughts were suggested to me by the inclusion of that other item in the list: moral power. Moral power? Can we easily accept a view of morality as an instrumentality for the projection of national interests? At this point I may wonder if it was right of me to attribute a utilitarian viewpoint to Dr. Rice. On the other hand, one musn't expect to find the State Department populated by Bodhisattvas. Even in one of the most enlightened liberal democracies, it would seem that people have jobs.

I'll try to pose this as a question of what I'll call shoolboy pragmatism though it may be pragmatist merely for the sake of argument, Heuristically then, what are the consequences of the projection of national power through this modality, the moral? It would be foolish (i.e. impragmatic) to believe that it was of no consequence whatsoever, that morality endures despite what it's made to do. And here, in this subordination of morality to a higher power, we see the possibility of a fatal contradiction, of morality being put in the service of the immoral. Concievably it should be possible at this point to acknowledge the death of the moral--not to be confused with the thesis that morality never existed, though the popularity of that thesis too may be attributable, in part, to the rise of industrial-strength moral power. Or less drastically, we might acknowledge the possibility that morality may cease to be, being subjected to various forms of abuse as it is, and this awareness may compel us, morally, or for other motives, psychological, existential, what have you, towards a revitalization of our own relationship with morality. This would be quite a burden to place on humanity, to say in effect that you, each and every one of you, must perpetually reinvent or rediscover morality for yourselves. Somewhere in here the door has been opened for all kinds of diabolical agencies. Life's hectic enough as it is. Small wonder then that people rebel, or simply misplace their moral principles here and there, which probably betrays a far deeper hostility than we'd like to believe.

Alternatively, one might believe from the gitgo that morality is in its essence undying, that it cannot possibly be put to an immoral purpose, and that any attempt to do so would be not only immoral but dishonest as well. From this vantage point, the consequences of the aggressive instrumentalization of "moral" power might well be political alienation, disaffection, corruption and ultimately the total delegitimization of political authority. Even under democratic governments. Especially under democratic governments. Because nobody wants to be governed by hypocrites. And no government can afford to be so naive as to not recognize and sieze upon the potential to advance its interests through the exercize of "moral" power.

Surely that cannot be how Rice intended to be understood by her reference to moral power--and a smarmy question pops into my head: Are the freest people the most moral people because they have the baddest military? Is Dr. Rice's vision in truth more Jacobinist than Wilsonian? That question implies an inimical criticism that has been leveled at the Bush Administration, and the United States more generally: that the American vision of democracy is or threatens to become totalitarian. Of course, from that premise the aggressive promotion of democracy internationally must be viewed as a kind of tyranny. I don't believe that the tyranny of United States foreign policy is greatly in evidence, but the underlying criticism cannot be properly dispensed with so long as the United States, as a matter of policy, expressesly intends to project its influence through the exercize of moral power (and such). Which is not to say that policy should be expressly amoral in order to be believed, although I gather that more than a few critics of United States foreign policy hold such a view. No, that's not the argument here.

A sympathic listener might say that what Dr. Rice meant was that when we act in good conscience, according to the highest moral principles, we acquire a certain kind of influence, call it moral power. It's what accrues to us whenever we do good in the world, and when we feel the need to get something done internationally, we can draw on our moral power to substitute for or to augment the use of military or economic power. There's the rub, you see: spending our moral capital-- as if the laws of moral currency were the same as those governing the use of might. But having recognized this large sum in our account, we find it hard to resist the temptation to go out and spend it. (Some governments may even be tempted to spend on credit. Tsk tsk.) It may be that this is simply the flipside of the call to conscience--like nightmares are the flipside to pleasant dreams. Really, should we be able to sleep at night knowing that statistically nine out of ten democratic governments end in moral bankruptcy-- but it's better than the alternatives?

Thus I'm not prepared to regard Dr. Rice as Wilsonian. Whether it's a question of fundamental principles, or whether it's a more simple matter of emphasis, the differences are too stark to be reconciled in my mind. So can I at least say that Dr. Rice has raised a valid point, one that could be directed to the absurdity apparent in the Human Rights Watch report? Maybe, maybe not. There is a reading of Dr. Rice's argument which is throroughly consonant with the agenda of Human Rights Watch and its criticism of insurgent groups. In that sense it's not absurd at all for Human Rights Watch to engage in dialogue with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in the way that it has. No more than it'd absurd for the United States Marines to engage with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in accordance with the laws of war, as they've been trained to do. If I recognize the courage and integrity of Human Rights Watch in this way, however, I cannot say that Dr. Rice has a point, not as it originally occurred to me, for I strongly suspect that Human Rights Watch would critically engage with international humanitarian scofflaws whether or not the great powers had their back, as it were. And I'm pretty confident in saying that what they do makes a difference in the lives of oppressed people, knowing that the effects might be longer in coming or more indirect than, say, bullets, but no less deliberate or consequential.

So to recap. Dr. Rice doesn't have a point perhaps either because I was wrong about what she was saying, or because her priorities are wrong, or else she does make a valid point, but it's not the one I initially imagined; she may be right about what it will take to win the war on terror, roughly speaking, but she should not be regarded as a Wilsonian internationalist.

posted by Fido the Yak at 2:19 AM.


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