Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Rights (and Wrongs) of Nations

I need to comment further on the topic of a nation's “right to exist” -- because this topic has serious implications for diplomacy and foreign policy, not unlike the concept of “just war”. I indicated in my previous post that “every nation on earth, basically, has the same right to exist as every other, and that can be summed up as 'the right of conquest'”. Now, I do not mean to imply that the “right of conquest” has any moral or ethical status, for it does not; it's purely a matter of power – of which group, or race, manages to exert sufficient power over another to take over a given piece of territory. So when I say that the right of conquest should be “recognized as the premier criterion for diplomatic recognition”, I'm not taking a moral/ethical stand, but one based more on what's known as “realpolitik”. Which is to say, in most cases we prefer not to question how things “got that way” -- we just accept the status quo and work with it. This is, in fact, the essence of “diplomacy”, which is probably the least ideational of any government enterprise. Diplomats are notorious for being what one might call “value-free”, even though they might be weighted down with various agenda items. And it's this relatively pragmatic, level-headed approach that stands in eternal opposition to the more idealistic, ideational, zealous mind set of many elected representatives, as well as the populace at large. Our diplomats are criticized on a regular basis – by persons on both the left and the right – for being too “soft” on one thing or another... for being relativistic, cynical, jaded, and so forth. And so they are – and so they have been trained to be. If there are few if any permanent alliances in diplomacy, but plenty of “interests” of varying degrees of permanence, then it does make sense for the people who are hired to pursue those interests to be pragmatic and non-idealistic -- “unprincipled” even, if it comes to that. If, for example, cozying up to a dictator or tyrant in Africa or Asia is in the perceived best interests of the United States, then that, clearly, is what ought to be done – and never mind the objections of idealists on the left or right (depending on the alleged political views of said dictator or tyrant – not that it makes any difference in the long run). And this is precisely what has been the case up to now in the Arab/Islamic world – but our counterparts in those places (“counterparts” because they are equally pragmatic and non-idealistic) are falling, one by one, to the forces of change – in this case “change” back to a more traditional concept of what an Islamic nation properly ought to be – back to a form of absolutism that despises, in principle, the cynical, blasé diplomatic attitude. The taking of our embassy personnel as hostages by Iranian radicals back in the 1970s was virtually unprecedented, and was an early indication of this growing gap in world view, which can be summed up as absolutism vs. relativism. The “Arab street” has consistently voted against relativism, cynicism, and collaboration with the power structure of the West, and for what is called a “confessional state” -- i.e. one that is, unabashedly, in favor of a certain creed, and opposed to all others. (I might add that Israel is, and has been from the beginning, a confessional state – but their version is considered perfectly acceptable, unlike the Islamic version. The U.S., which cherishes a mythical “wall of separation between church and state”, seems to have no problem with other countries ignoring this concept – as long as those other countries are Jewish and not Moslem.)

So if the right to exist is based largely on the right of conquest, should any other considerations be relevant in our dealings with other countries? It depends on how far you want to go in enforcing ideals – and whether you consider those ideals to be uniquely American, or Western, or “Judeo-Christian”, or whatever. How much weight, for example, did the right of conquest have in the case of Nazi Germany? We might call the ascendance of Hitler and his cronies a “revolution within the form” -- it was, after all, the “Third Reich”, and not the “First Reich” of a brand-new country. Germany was the same place before the Nazis, and it remained the same place after (speaking now of its core culture). And yet, I think it is still valid to consider it a “conquest” of sorts, because, as I pointed out, “conquest” can also include “insurrection, revolutions, 'regime change'”, and so on. And there is no particular, established moral hierarchy or template by which our State Department decides which forms of conquest they are willing to recognize (and therefore validate) and which ones they aren't. Those decisions are made on a purely political basis, and there's no use denying it. We recognize coups d'etat by the military when it's convenient, and “democratic” elections when it's convenient – and everything in between. So again, one cannot accuse the State Department of idealism – or, let's say, hardly ever (with a few bizarre exceptions like Cuba – and even that may have more to do with politics than anything else; there are a lot of votes in the “Cuban exile” community in Miami).

The point I'm trying to close in on is this. Aside from the right of conquest, nations really have no right to exist – not on an absolute basis. We can argue all we want about a “moral” or “ethical” right to exist (and those arguments have been applied in the case of Nazi Germany more than in any other single case) – but that always involves applying our moral and/or ethical standards to another nation, and another culture. Tempting as it might be to say that one ought to declare war on a place like Nazi Germany just because they're “wrong”, or “evil”, we have to face the fact that, as far as the Nazis and many of their subjects were concerned, they were the greatest thing since sliced bread – and that Germany was going to conquer, and dominate, the world in the name of the Master Race. Are our neocons any more rational or reasonable, when they talk about “spreading democracy” through the use of bombs, bullets, missiles, and drones? Is the “democracy” they claim to want to spread really democracy, or is it just a cover story for expanding the American Empire? And if so, how does it differ, in principle, from the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia or Poland? If all ends are political, and power-based, and everything else is words, then I don't see how we can claim any sort of moral superiority. Granted, the yoke of the American Empire may be lighter than that of the Greater German Reich, but, in principal, it amounts to the same thing.

All I'm saying is when we start to judge another nation's “right to exist” based on what we consider sound moral and ethical considerations, we enter upon a slippery slope. For one thing, we risk mistaking “democracy” for the height of human freedom and liberty – and, in fact, it is nothing of the sort. “Democracy”, in pure raw from, can be every bit as tyrannical as the most blatant of tyrannies... and, at the same time, an absolute ruler can be benign and benevolent if he so chooses. So it's a matter of confusing structure with principle, or “system” with moral/ethical standing. We promote “democracy” overseas because we expect those who adopt it to conform to our interests – diplomatic, military, commercial. And let's not forget that we promote a certain form of democracy; not just any one will do. It has to be the kind that holds elections that Jimmy Carter will find no fault with. That, right off the bat, should tip you off that there's something wrong with that scenario. Carter was notorious in his adulation of Third World dictators, and never mind how they acquired power.

Another point, and perhaps the most important, is that nations are made up of people. Now, the rights of individuals and the “rights” of nations are not the same. Some would argue, in fact, that nations have all the rights, and individuals have none; this was certainly the premise underlying the Soviet regime. In our time, the issue has come down to an energetic debate among various contingents, the “tea party” and the Obama administration being, perhaps, the two leading contenders in the debate as to which comes first, the government or the governed. But the real argument for liberty comes from the libertarian side – and very few of their arguments fully penetrate the muddled skulls of the tea partiers. For the latter, it's more a matter of pragmatics; for the former, it's a matter of principle. Liberals, on the other hand, hold that the basic unit of human existence is the group, or state – not unlike a bee hive or ant hill. Under this model, the individual is of no intrinsic value and is justifiably dispensed with once his “value” to the group is exhausted (or before he even has a chance, as in the case of abortion). When they talk about “freedom”, for example, you'll notice that they're always talking about freedom of a group, not of individuals; individual freedom would be far too threatening to their agenda.

But let us, for the sake of argument, relegate the delusions of liberals to the ash heap of history where they belong. Let us propose, for example, a completely radical notion... one that only the most fervent, fanatical zealot would come up with... the notion “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Oh, very good, class! This is from the Declaration of Independence, which is supposed to be one of our “founding documents”, but which, if uttered today in public, would be considered “hate speech”. But that is beside the point, which is that there really are such things as individual rights, which, I would say, are infinitely superior in stature to any alleged “rights” of nations. In fact, I would suggest that any “rights” of nations are no more than the aggregate of the individual rights of their citizens. And notice also that the source of these individual rights is not the state (no matter what Obama says) but the Creator – i.e. God. Now, we can argue all we want about whether the Founding Fathers were Deists – and whether they were pursuing a purely Freemasonic agenda – but they did, in fact, use the world “Creator”. That's what's in the document. It's not “blind watchmaker”, or “spirit of the Universe”, or “mutual aspirations of mankind”, or any other sort of humanistic/agnostic nonsense. And were they simply catering to the inclinations of the mob? It doesn't matter. It remains as a definition – not perfect, perhaps, but superior to most – of human rights. And, by contrast, any alleged “rights” of the state fade into insignificance. Without the support of a free people, a state or nation has no rights. With the support of a free people, it only has the aggregate rights of those people, not some sort of emergent, extraordinary rights based on popular consensus or mandate.

What does this all add up to? In judging whether a nation has “the right to exist” we have to, first, defer to the time-honored concept of “right of conquest”. It may seem cold and non-idealistic, but without it we would be confronted with chaos on all sides. It would be like what we see now on the domestic side, where a new group demanding “reparations” comes into existence every week or so. Everyone has grudges... everyone has been bullied and mistreated by someone else at one time or another... and, heartless as it may seem, the message that should be delivered to these groups, more often than not, is: Get over it!! A life of resentment is no life at all. And, once again, these “class actions”... these resentments and feuds... are the product of “group think” -- of the notion that my value, my worth as an individual, is predicated on the recognized worth of the group to which I belong (racial, ethnic, religious, gender, etc.) and nothing else. So if I'm born into a loser group, I'm a loser, and vice versa. Isn't the whole idea of America to get past this mind set? I mean – if there is anything still good and commendable about this country, it's the idea that we don't have to be prisoners of our heritage... or background... or DNA. And yet every “victim group” will assert precisely the opposite – that they are, indeed, prisoners, and helpless, and the only thing that can make them whole is new entitlements and preferences. This is the new “American way” -- but it will wind up destroying the old American way and all that it has produced.

So when it comes to diplomatic stances and strategies, what would I recommend to all of those jaded, elitist, WASP-ish types who fill State Department ranks? Number one, recognize, in a non-abashed way, the right of conquest as a pragmatically valid starting point for any sort of diplomatic negotiations. In other words, the people who occupy a territory are, and should be, in nearly every case, the people we should be dealing with – not the “right” people who are probably already in exile, or in retreat, or in hiding. And yes, this is the epitome of “realpolitik”. Then, we might want to venture, very cautiously, into the area of a moral or ethical right to exist. But here's where there is a fork in the road. The typical American diplomat will define “moral or ethical” as no more than the extent to which a given nation's, or regime's, point of view matches our own – which, in this day and age, amounts to the extent to which they're willing to become part of the American Empire. But that's not what I'm talking about. If our diplomats would, just once, sit down on a quiet Sunday afternoon next to a cozy fire, with a dram of Scotch at hand, and study the Declaration of Independence, they would discover that individual rights are not only paramount, but they are the basis for all other rights and privileges – i.e. of the collective sort. And if they were to – in a fit of subversive derring-do – add to their reading list the Constitution, they would discover, basically, the same message, with hints as to its application. So, if this set of basic principles is good enough for us, why isn't it good enough for other nations – or, at least, for our dealings with them? In other words, why can't we turn the usual paradigms of “realpolitik” upside down and say that the “system” of government of any given country doesn't matter as much as the human rights of its citizens? That no matter what the system is called, or what its leaders claim, it means nothing if the basic rights of the citizenry are violated on a regular basis. This would be diplomacy, or statesmanship, of the highest order – but it would also grossly violate the values and priorities that are implanted into the skulls of anyone who wants to enter into diplomatic service. It would amount, that is, to us really and truly defending that which we claim to believe in – and surely a violation of hypocrisy of that magnitude would shake the foundations of American diplomacy.

To put all of this into a schema of sorts, I propose that we recognize, first and foremost, an individual's right to exist, as stated, quite explicitly, in the Declaration of Independence. This could be called a metaphysical right – based on our status as creatures, i.e. created beings – and also as a moral right. Another way of saying it is that we have a right to exist because the Creator – i.e. God – put us here, presumably for a reason. In other words, our existence is superior, in some way, to our non-existence – but only if we accept that it has purpose; a random/accidental model like that proposed by the hard-core “Darwinists” doesn't do the job. (How does one establish the superiority of one type of randomness over another, or of one result of randomness over another? It can't be done.) Even a hard-core existentialist, who has no interest in religion, will hold that existence is, in some way, preferable to non-existence. In fact, for them, material existence is all that there is, which means that they will hold it in even higher regard than someone who believes that we are a combination of matter and spirit.

And our existence as individuals is a moral right because any threat to our existence has to have moral implications; this is why murder is “immoral” -- because it violates another person's moral right to exist. And if ethics follows from morals – as it should – then we also have an ethical right to exist, i.e. undue impositions on our freedoms and liberties by others are unethical acts on their part (and this includes the government, by the way).

Compared to all of this, the “right of conquest” seems like a crude, materialistic, arbitrary, conditional thing, subject to the whims and accidents of history. And so it is! A nation is not a creation from on high... it has no metaphysical status, and very little in the way of intrinsic moral or ethical status. Its highest claim, in other words, is that of conquest – although it may offer endless rationalizations to the contrary. And in this era of philosophical relativism – which might be termed anti-philosophy – one cannot even claim, with any hope of success, that one nation is wrong, or evil, compared to another. If everything is relative, then, in fact, everything is relative – you can't have it both ways. So the delusions of the Nazis – the “master race” idea, and “lebensraum”, and so forth, cannot be shown to be – using the currently-in-fashion tools of philosophy – any less valid than the delusions of the neocons. This fact troubles our academic philosophers very little, of course, since they are perfectly willing to set “reason” aside when something threatens their subjective prejudices.

Once again we're faced with the phenomenon that when the typical secular humanist of our time proposes a system of ethics based on a supposedly-universal, agreed-upon vision of humankind, he finds that there are, in fact, countless mutually-incompatible visions of humankind, and that he, working strictly on the level of ethics, with only the tools available (i.e., permitted) to philosophy at this time, has no basis for preferring one over the other, aside from pure subjective preference. Even the most abject tyranny has what it considers a valid ethical system based on what it considers a valid view of the nature of man – and when we have two or more competing systems using only materialistic premises, we cannot hope to ever settle the issue. We wind up with a stalemate – or a “Mexican stand-off”, in popular parlance. Either ethics must defer to morality – i.e. to revealed standards for the conduct of humankind based on a higher truth – or it must remain self-referencing, which means subjective, arbitrary, and, ultimately, subject to politics and the collective whims of the moment.

So while “the right of conquest” is a pretty thin, relativistic argument with no moral standing or nobility, it's the best we can do, on a day-to-day basis, in terms of how to deal with other nations. What makes it tricky is that it's neither “conservative” nor “revolutionary”. It seems to favor the status quo, but that will change the minute a new element gains the upper hand, as has recently happened in Libya. Then any and all loyalty and attachment to the previous regime will be forgotten. Cynical? Fickle? Perhaps. But I'd like to know what the alternative is, that does not involve our chronically getting involved in other countries' business. If we decide to support the status quo at all costs, that's a problem. If we come down on the side of revolution, that's another problem. If we try to come up with a unifying theme that makes sense of what appear to be arbitrary decisions... well, other people can see through all of that very readily. We should adopt a hands-off attitude in order to preserve our own sanity, if nothing else; at least that's a motive people can respect.

In lieu of neatly winding up this discussion and gathering up all the loose ends, I will simply note that if we take the nation, or state, as the starting point in our discussion of ethics, then anything is possible, simply because the nation or state is a work of man – with all of the arbitrariness, cupidity, and viciousness that one would expect from such a thing. So any talk of the “rights” of a nation is already premised on the notion that a nation is something special – superior to the individual. And this is, in fact, the central premise of the collectivist mind set – and, not incidentally, the way in which collectivists work to shirk any sort of individual responsibility or accountability. It is more challenging, in fact, to see the state as an outgrowth of individual human aspiration – since that implies that any state that finds itself working assiduously against the interests of its people is, by definition, a failure. How something can be good for the state, or the collective, but bad for the individual, is the conundrum of our time. But the Gordian knot can be cut simply by recognizing that the state does not exist, in any valid way, independently of its citizenry... and that the only valid basis for its continuing existence is that it serves the interests of those citizens. Otherwise, it might as well wither and die, and the notion that this would be a terrible thing is based on a fetish and a delusion.


Ian I.A. Witter said...

Edifying and insightful reading as always.

Baloo said...

This is a great post! It's linked to and more is said on the subject by Ex-Army HERE.