Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Importance of Ideas and Values in Foreign Policy

At the time of a clash of civilizations it is not unusual for both sides to re-examine, define, and even sometimes codify their basic values and cultural institutions in order to both preserve and convey their basic values and traditions. At the time of the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, the United States did this poorly. We have made a similar mistake in our war against terrorism, which is very much a battle of ideas and ideologies and will have to be understood as such for any chance of a long-term resolution and reconciliation. The values of freedom, equality and human rights in the Western liberal tradition are now also being challenged by the autocratic regimes of China, Russia, and Iran and their proxies in North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela. Our response of economic and military nationalism may be necessary and pragmatic, but we should also do more to describe, defend, and convey our values.

We have thus been missing a defining opportunities in the history of the moral and political philosophy of the liberal tradition; first, by not defining our primary moral value as equality, understood as a respect for the dignity and worth of our common humanity; and second, by not defining our government as a constitutional democracy, which is the only way to convey both the substantive and the procedural concepts of equality that it incorporates.

First, at the time of the fall of communism, the media, the academics, and our government almost universally described the United States as a capitalist democracy. This was in part because we allowed the Soviet Union to describe their communism to be primarily an economic system rather than a totalitarian political system, which denied any concept of moral or political equality. The primary alternative to communism should have been constitutional democracy. It is the constitutional aspects of our government, such as the Bill of Rights, that incorporate our substantive concepts of equality. These constitutional principles are placed beyond the usual majority rule of the legislative process. It is the democratic aspects of our government that incorporate the procedural aspects of equality, such as “one person, one vote.”

Bill of Rights

Second, after the events of September 11, 2001, there was seldom a mention of our primary moral concept of equality. The terrorist attack of 9/ ll was an attack on both our freedom and security and it is perhaps understandable that our values have thus been described primarily in those terms. In the Declaration of Independence, however, the first premise was that “all men are created equal” and that put everything that followed, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, in a moral context. Even the great reformers, such as the women suffragettes and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not repudiate these principles, but urged us to live up to them and place them into practice.

Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense, was asked how the United States was faring against the extremist ideology in the global “battle of ideas.” He said, “If I were grading, I would say that we probably deserve a D+ as a country.” We are indeed in a “battle of ideas”, in part, with a radical version of Islam. Islam, the religion of 1.2 billion people, is based on a submission to the will of God. Much of the liberty that we convey, on the other hand, is seen by others as the self-indulgence of our culture. We also unnecessarily lost much of the moral high ground with our initial waffling on the issues of torture and human rights.

During the current war on terrorism it may be appropriate that we emphasize freedom. To achieve our objectives we will also need the cooperation of many countries that are not constitutional democracies. To win the peace, however, we will need to understand and convey that our primary moral value is universal equality, understood as a respect for an inherent personal dignity and our common humanity.

Third, there is now a de facto collaboration of autocratic regimes to replace the current world order based on the Western liberal tradition. The Preamble to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights begins by stating “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” The Ideas and values of the Western liberal tradition should thus play an important role in foreign policy. This is important, for It is the recognition of personal dignity and our common humanity in a pluralistic world that makes the accommodation of a wide variety of attributes, cultural differences, desires, and beliefs possible without the use of coercion or being the cause of alienation.

James H. Rutherford, M.D.

Author of Moral and Political Philosophy