bitter sanity

Wake up and smell the grjklbrxwg, earth beings.

Saturday, March 08, 2003

[posted by jaed at 3:04 AM]
Europe, Multilateralism, and Moral Imperatives Redux:
"That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it..." -- Thomas Jefferson

I don't have to name the document quoted above to any American, and the ideas in it - in particular, the idea that a government exists to do a task for the people, who can judge whether it's performing that task acceptably well or not - form the basic, unquestioned assumptions of our politics. We swim in Jefferson's tradition like fish in water, seldom noticing that our unspoken assumptions aren't widely shared - indeed, that when put into words and applied to current political problems, people who don't share our tradition think of them as crazy, even impossible.

As an American, I tend to see the UN in utilitarian terms, much the way I see the government. (The UN's not a government, but it occupies - or tries to occupy - a similar niche, and is - or was - seen by many as a step toward a world government.) It's there to ensure security. If it fails to do this, or if it actively damages security, altering or abolishing it, and replacing it with something that works better, comes to mind right quick. It's a major step, but not an unthinkable one; the UN's moral legitimacy arises from its utility, and to get rid of it for non-performance is more like firing an incompetent worker than tearing down a temple.

For Americans, protecting international security is the UN's purpose, its reason for being. Looking at the organization's recent history, we can see many instances in which it has failed to accomplish its purpose: the genocide in Rwanda, the incredible fuckup in Srebrenica, UN soldiers stepping aside and allowing the 1967 attack on Israel, and on and on. Clearly not much good at protection.

Now it seems that the Security Council is not only unwilling to aid in ensuring security, it's engaged in strenuous attempts to prevent America from ensuring its own security. (For those who do not think Iraq is a threat to America's security, please note that the Security Council isn't adducing that position as a reason for blocking an eighteenth resolution on Iraq or for opposing American military action.) The UN is not only not useful, it's become actively harmful - not in a trivial "Let's spout some anti-Semitic rhetoric today" way, but in a way that if allowed to succeed will have a real price in blood. To me - having grown up in Jefferson's tradition - it looks like "alter or abolish" time.

But what does it look like to Europeans? I think that Europeans see the UN's mission, not as ensuring security, but as acting as a check on unfettered nationalism. And I see this profound but unstated difference in perception of the UN's purpose as the underlying source of the current UN conflict.

Considering what European nationalism did to the twentieth century - not to mention the nineteenth, the eighteenth, and I could go on for a while - it's reasonable for them to have concluded that nationalism unrestrained is the evil that causes war. And to have turned, after the Second World War, to transnational organizations - the UN, the EC, the EU - as a way of putting chains on nationalism, of keeping it within bounds, of preventing it from ever again drawing the whole world into war. These organizations are entrusted with keeping the old demon of nationalism down, and so naturally, they must have a certain degree of authority over national governments.

In order to do this, the UN - more precisely, the web of transnational organizations, but the UN is the foremost of them - must be endowed not only with political power, but with moral force as well. Nationalism is a spiritual phenomenon and it engages people's hearts. To counter it and to overmaster it, the UN must also call upon spiritual ideas: the brotherhood of all people, the future of the world, and peace itself. It must be conceived, not only as symbolizing these things, but as embodying them. Defiance of the UN becomes synonymous with breaking the community of mankind.

Needless to say, this approach results in a far different attitude toward the UN than the one I described above. Even altering it is difficult to contemplate. Abolishing it is unthinkable, tantamount to giving up all hope of a peaceful world. Withdrawing from it is the same as withdrawing from the family of man.

Steven den Beste suggests that the UN, driven by European and Europe-influenced members, has now adopted opposition to America as its purpose. I agree that this is the effect of what's happening. But I don't think anti-Americanism is the fundamental principle driving UN actions. I also don't think that the European conception of the organization's purpose has suddenly changed.

Rather, I think that Americans and Europeans have always accepted the UN on fundamentally different grounds. I think that for a long time these different principles resulted in the same practical positions, so the differences could be ignored. I think that the new divergence of opinion on the subject of UN legitimacy, and the limits to UN moral relevance, is not really new, but simply exposes a fundamental difference that has been there all along.

I wrote a while back about the different perceptions of what "unilateralism" means. (Summarized: to Americans, "unilateral" means "acting alone", while to Europeans, "unilateral" means "acting outside transnational organizations".) One thing I didn't bring up is that to Americans, even "acting alone" is not ipso facto wrong or immoral; in fact, the lone man who speaks and acts to bring justice, against the opposition of all, is a common part of American myth. Unilateral (in the American sense) policy may be imprudent or dangerous in a given situation - one may need the help of friends to successfully carry it out, for example - but it's not a bad thing in itself. And, of course, there's the fact that we do have allies - not the Germans and French to be sure, but "without Germany and France" does not equal "acting alone".

Between one thing and the other, the charge of "unilateralism" does not carry anywhere near the sting it's clearly intended to convey. Americans have not been that impressed by this rhetoric. Those making the charge seem puzzled that it hasn't brought us up short. This is because when sent, the message reads "You are doing a horrendously immoral thing!", but at the point of reception, it reads something closer to "You're not obeying us (and we're confused about the root meaning of 'uni-')!"

When Europeans look at America now, they see nationalism rearing its head again. They see God only knows what - a new Nazism, a new Fascism, an age of empire (the real thing, not "the US is an empire because 'Baywatch' reruns and McDonalds are popular") - because those are the associations nationalism has had for Europeans. Americans do not tend to carry these fears, because their experience of nationalism hasn't been the same. And because this is all part of the background, the water we swim in, the assumptions tend to be unspoken, and when they collide like this people may not even realize that they're working from fundamentally different pictures of the way the world works. This is why there's such a disconnect; this is why we are not reacting the way the Europeans expect.

And they see the UN's role now, in this dangerous time, as reining in America - not out of fundamental anti-Americanism but out of anti-nationalism. Sovereignty, in this way of looking at the UN's purpose, must be constrained by transnational institutions. Unfettered sovereignty is dangerous, and the more powerful the country, the greater the danger. America is the most powerful country in the world, and its president is saying in so many words that America's decisions regarding its security will not be limited by UN mandates and that in this matter we do not have to ask anyone's permission to defend ourselves. This doesn't sound unexceptionable to an American ear, but to a European who sees limiting nationalism as the UN's sine qua non, it strikes at the heart of the entire UN project and all it embodies. America's willingness to ignore UN wishes and UN procedures, if need be to protect itself, is not just pragmatism in this view. It's almost blasphemous.

And there's worse coming. If Stephen Pollard's sources are right, and we provisionally leave the UN if a nineteenth resolution on Iraq is vetoed, Americans will see it as a major act - but as, fundamentally, a pragmatic one in intent. The UN is no longer serving its purpose, the reasoning will go, and it's therefore a waste of time and money and attention. If other countries want to keep doing it for their own entertainment, fine, but there's no point if it's not doing what it was designed to do.

But if I'm right about their mindset, Europeans are more likely to see US withdrawal from the UN not as a practical act but as a symbolic of throwing off all civilized bonds. Such a thing carries a symbolic weight for them that we have a hard time understanding. As with the "unilateralism" charge, the message will be distorted in transit by our differing background assumptions. They'll say "But you can't! It's madness!" and we'll hear something more like "Come back here so we can finish beating you up!" We will not hear the depth of their fear at the implications of this action.

den Beste says that if we do leave the UN over this, fight a successful war, and find the evidence we expect to in Iraq, "it's going to make it obvious to anyone who isn't blinded by anti-American paranoia that the UK and America were right, and that the UN clearly wasn't able to fulfill its nominal role." I'm not convinced of this. If the Europeans shared our assumptions about the UN's role, this would be true. But for those who see the UN's nominal role as curbing runaway nationalism, a US withdrawal followed by a quick victory will only stoke their worst fears, regardless of what evidence about Iraq is found. For them, Iraq is not the issue because Iraqi nationalism is not their predominant fear.

The UN is about to come apart. On the one side, it's taken an explicit stand against a member country doing what it's made clear it needs to for its security, and on the other side, a member country is about to go against its explicit wishes. The organization cannot survive such a breach as anything more than a shadow, and maybe not even as that.

But the seeds of its destruction were sown long ago, at the time of its founding. It's just that it's taken until now for a situation to arise that reveals the internal stresses that have been part of its flawed foundation all along.

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