Battlepanda: Patriotism, morality and foreign policy


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Patriotism, morality and foreign policy

One thing that I'm really digging about this 52 Books in 52 Weeks project is that I come across tidbits in my reading all the time that is actually relevent to my blogging. And because I am making a linkage off the blogisphere, it makes me feel like I'm actually contributing something as opposed to just linking to better bloggers than me. Most recently, I discovered this serendipitous definition of morality in Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers' chapter on Adam Smith:
In 1759, he published a book that made an instant sensation. It was entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and it catapulted Smith immediately into the forefront of English philosophers. The Theory was an inquiry into the origin of moral approbation and disapproval. how doe it happen that man, who is a creature of self-interest, can form moral judgments in which self-interest seems to be held in abeyance or transmuted to a higher plane? Smith held that the answer lay in our ability to put ourselves in the position of a third person, an impartial observer, and in this way to form a sympathetic notion of the objective (as opposed to the selfish) merits of a case.
Going by Smith's idea of morality, it is very clear that American foreign policy has been even more immoral than usual of late. We are quite willing to sacrifice the lives of innocent foreign citizens and violate their sovereignty in a manner that would be quite unacceptable if the tables were turned. Kathy Flake asks "Terrorists kill civilians, don't they?" And indeed, this is exactly how those on the shitty end of the stick percieves U.S. action.

As a nation, we have actively turned our back on Smithian morality. Indeed, those who dare raise the question of how we are percieved in the world (a proxy for the third person or impartial observer) are derided as unpatriotic and, worse, weak. As individuals, Americans might still be Smithian moral beings who strive so their actions may be judged favorably by their fellow Americans. But as a nation, we behave as an unabashed creature of self-interest. Our actions are moral to us. But they are moral only seen from our point of view, which makes it a pretty limited morality. Exactly the point those who rail against moral relativism love to make in other contexts.

What is the ramification of this world-view on long-term American interests? Theoretically, we can get away with it if we have enough firepower to keep every country in the world in line. But the limitation of this approach is fast becoming clear -- our hands are full with just two puny little wars. And now we are (probably correctly) afraid of the spectre of a nuclear Iran rising over the horizen like a pall. We've got our finger in the dyke, and another leak just sprung beyond our reach.

How did the most powerful nation in the world get to this place?

This post by Matt Yglesias on nuclear proliferation is quite instructive. I quote:
The end of The Atlantic's A.Q. Khan article makes an interesting point on a more general theme:
In Islamabad I met a smart man close to the military who recognized this risk and the wild-card problem, which is that Pakistan's command-and-control leaves much to be desired. He said, "The best way to fight proliferation is to pursue global disarmament. Fine, great, sure—if you expect that to happen. But you cannot have a world order in which you have five or eight nuclear-weapons states on the one hand, and the rest of the international community on the other. There are many places like Pakistan, poor countries that have legitimate security concerns—every bit as legitimate as yours. And yet you ask them to address those concerns without nuclear weapons—while you have nuclear weapons and you have everything else? It is not a question of what is fair, or right or wrong. It is simply not going to work."
He doesn't come out in favor of universal disarmament, but Morton Halperin's post on the need for a "new grand bargain" on non-proliferation focused on neutral rules is along the same lines. It's pretty clear why the US government would worry more about Iranian nukes than Pakistani ones, and more about Pakistani ones than Indian ones, and more about Indian ones than Israeli ones but that sort of thing isn't the basis for any kind of viable system. At the same time, we're seeing that ad hoc efforts at anti-proliferation wind up posing an almost endless series of bad choices.
If we only take immediate U.S. interests into account, we come to the conclusion that "Israel is our friend. It's nukes will never be targeted against us." So we turn a blind eye to Israel's "secret" programs while we fume over Iran's attempt to get nukes, never making the connection that one is the logical conclusion of the other. We are too consumed with the rhetoric of good and evil, our subjective morality, to take the objective view. If we did that, we would see that it is patently dishonest to have one set of rules and rhetorics for America's friends and one set of rules and rhetorics for America's enemies. Moreover, it would be obvious to us that Iran would try and get nukes in the wake of Israel's nuclear capabilities and our invasion of Iraq -- it's simply in their national interest.

People often talk as if realism in foreign affairs and treating other countries with respect and citizens of other countries as equals are incompatable goals. Yet it is surprising how often what's good for America converge with the decent thing to do. In the long run. Acting in our self-interest, properly understood, often requires resisting our worst instincts today to torture anyone who might have information we can use, bombing the hell out of any village that might harbor our enemy, invading any country that might do us harm at some indeterminate point down the road.

(UPDATE: I changed the title to this post. It seemed confusing.)