14 November 2014

Kissinger and 'fresh' thinking on foreign policy

As he grows more insufferable as an opinionator on domestic politics, George Will still maintains a somewhat reasonable perspective on foreign affairs. In a recent column he calls attention to American politicians ("Republicans especially") who are "thinking afresh" about our country's stance toward other nations. Will goes on to suggest that these fresh thinkers could take notes from a nonagenarian, Henry Kissinger, who has published a new book diagnosing the country's problem. Here's Kissinger as quoted by Will:

The conviction that American principles are universal has introduced a challenging element into the international system because it implies that governments not practicing them are less than fully legitimate. [This] suggests that a significant portion of the world lives under a kind of unsatisfactory, probationary arrangement, and will one day be redeemed; in the meantime, their relations with the world’s strongest power must have some latent adversarial element to them.

Kissinger is a foreigner by birth, after all, and is bound to notice things about us that we don't recognize -- or won't acknowledge. Kissinger and Will invite us to rethink this national bias, and doing so can only be a good thing. Ever erudite, Will repeats the now-familiar John Quincy Adams quote describing the U.S. as "the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." He seems to propose a repudiation of liberal interventionism, the idea that the liberal democracies (the U.S. especially) have a moral responsibility and a right regardless of law to liberate individuals from tyrannical governments. For self-styled conservatives this should be an easy call, but American conservatism as it evolved in the 20th century is, to put it generously, paradoxical to a fault. Many "conservatives" in this country remain wedded to an idea of "natural rights," with corollary assumptions about their universality, that most conservatives throughout history would have laughed at. In this country, "natural rights" have evolved from a Jeffersonian justification for revolution to an existential argument against slavery to an ideological defense against communism and other forms of totalitarianism or authoritarianism. By now I'm not so sure that American conservatives (Republicans especially) can dispense with this pretense. An appeal to natural rights is their ultimate veto against the perceived self-aggrandizement of the state and the perceived whims of the masses. Acting on the commonsense premise that the individual is prior to the state, the idea of natural rights asserts inherent limits to what the state, understood as the ruler and/or the people, can demand of or take from the individual. While alternate ideas like social-contract theory or the romanticism of fascism assert that the individual becomes something different and arguably superior by subjecting himself more completely to the body politic, natural-rights theory, at least as practiced here, assumes that such submission invariably diminishes the individual in an unacceptable way while empowering the state in inevitably more oppressive ways. But for this argument to be more than the preference of certain political philosophers or their wealthy patrons it has to be a universal principle, applicable everywhere on Earth. That makes it hard for some Americans not to judge other countries on the basis of something more, well, judgmental than the "contingent" basis Kissinger prefers.

For "bleeding heart" liberals the problem is even worse, and to the extent that they're "collectivist" rather than individualist they're only more likely to feel that no one on Earth should have to suffer as they imagine people suffer under tyranny.  While it should be easy to imagine a conservative saying it's each person's personal responsibility to liberate himself from tyranny, and not the job of other countries, liberals have a Good Samaritan (or busybody, depending on your perspective or interest) impulse, compounded by their philosophically hedonistic revulsion at the repressive measures taken in many countries, that tells them that whoever can should do something about repression, torture, etc., though most would flee from the inference that this means conquering the world. To the extent that modern American conservatives feel threatened by any (or every) foreign dictatorship, they've only been contaminated by liberal fear, most likely as a result of the mid-20th century Cold War consensus against Communism, while in the past, presumably, conservatives only abhorred tyrants if they refused to trade with us.

If you accept the argument that the military-industrial complex, and thus the American economy, requires a perpetually adversarial relationship between the U.S. and the world's authoritarians, you only acknowledge a further impediment to "thinking afresh." But the biggest obstacle may be one that Will, at least, won't acknowledge. The truth in the assertion that authoritarianism anywhere threatens freedom everywhere, or at least in the U.S., lies in our fear of an example. Recall how Americans assume that Vladimir Putin wants to crush the Maidan revolution in Ukraine because he fears the example it will set for Russians. Presuming that Putin is not a universalist of any sort, it's unlikely he has such a fear. He more likely believes that Russians are culturally immune to any example set by Ukraine, and that only Russia's economy and global prestige, and not his own power, are at stake in that country. If you are a universalist, however, an event anywhere might set an example everywhere. It's more likely that the U.S. fears the success of Putin, or the success of the Chinese, because these might set examples for Americans. Could Americans actually want a more "authoritarian" government? If you define it as a government that "gets things done" and has the power to push around billionaires grown too big for their britches, I could definitely see a constituency for it here, and I can also see that theory of Putin's motives as a form of projection. Some American conservatives may think that the only way to suppress an American desire for a stronger government is to demonize and plead defense against any authoritarian regime that might prove an attractive example. Conservatives should be able to refute the whole idea by saying that American liberty is our particular birthright by virtue of the Constitution while Russian authoritarianism, or any other form, is merely one country's unique cultural legacy. But another problem arises when you acknowledge your system of laws and rights as no more than the work of men, rather than something almost divinely inspired. If the U.S. wasn't founded on universal or unalterable principles, all our laws and rights ought to be subject to review at some point, unless you want to be really conservative and declare a taboo on questioning the ancestors' legacy. Despite all this, there should be some way for Americans to think about foreign policy without turning it into a debate on forms of government and human rights with our own liberties at stake. If old Republicans -- even those with tainted legacies like Kissinger -- can help us figure it out, then they may be useful after all.


Anonymous said...

I have to argue against the idea that the individual is prior to the state. As far back as we can go, historically and anthropologically speaking, humans have ever been tribal. In fact, I would say that for the most part, the farther back you go, the less important the individual was to the "group".

Samuel Wilson said...

The idea is probably more theoretical than historical. It's assumed that an individual can provide for himself and thus need not and therefore should not be dependent upon any collective. Presuming self-reliance, the individual owes the collective nothing more than respect for the personal freedom of fellow citizens. I wonder whether this idea has special appeal for Christians for whom Adam, the lone first man, is arguably a more important figure than he is for other monotheists.