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THE NEO-CONSERVATIVE AGENDA: HUMANISM VS IMPERIALISM
by Rodrigue Tremblay, professor emeritus of economics University of Montreal
Being presented at: 63rd Annual Conference of the AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION
May 7-9, 2004 Las Vegas, Nevada

My first basic observation is that the United States has been moving to the right of the political spectrum for some time, in fact for at least 25 years, and is now at a crucial juncture and could move to the far right of the political spectrum, as compared with the political climate existing in other democracies, in Canada, in Australia or in Europe.

My second observation is that the ideology behind this fundamental shift to the right is more and more antagonistic to humanist values.

I. As humanists, we share a commitment to some basic humanist values and principles that we would like to be universal, even though they are not, i.e. the respect for the dignity of human beings, for human lives, the constitutional implementation of basic fundamental individual rights such as freedom of thought and of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of choice, freedom of and from religion, freedom from governmental interference outside of the due process of law and of justice, and basic collective rights such as the embodiment of the sovereignty of the people in a democratic system, and its corollary, the right of political self-determination, the right to have an impartial, neutral and secular state for all; in summary, the right to live in an open and free society and the right to pursue happiness as one sees it.

Such humanist values and principles can be viewed as idealistic since their adoption and implementation are expected to improve the fate of humanity and of human civilization.

These values do not contradict the reality that different peoples have different interests and objectives, but they emphasize the point that the pursuit of these legitimate interests must be accomplished within the framework of individual freedom and in a climate of tolerance. That is why we have supreme laws called "constitutions" in order to protect the interests and choices of minorities, - and, in a democracy, everybody is a minority of one - from the tyranny of the choices and interests of the majority.

II. Of course, public affairs can be organized along other values, other ideologies, and along other principles. In fact, throughout History, the implementation of humanist values in public affairs has been an exception, rather the rule. There is nothing inherently inevitable about the democratic form of government with decentralized political power. Quite the contrary, the Law of the Jungle favors much more strongly the concentration of power in a few hands and the rule of despotism. Even the best democratic constitutions can be violated when the people in power do not believe in their principles.

What are these other values and principles which compete nowadays with humanist values and principles, not only in the United States, but in many corners of the world? I would summarize them by saying they are: theocratism; militarism; and imperialism.

Theocratism professes that all power in a society is ultimately derived from abstract deities, and not from the people themselves.

Militarist supremacism professes that "Might makes Right" and that laws ultimately and realistically consecrate the military superiority of some over others.

Imperialism, of course, can be a mixture of the first two ideologies, in the sense that it can argue that it is the "mission" of some peoples to conquer militarily other peoples, for their own good and the good of humanity. This was the credo behind the British empire in the 19th Century, following Kipling's 1899 poem, the WHITE MAN'S BURDEN , when it was said that it was "The duty of the white man is to conquer and control, probably for a couple of centuries, all the dark people of the world, not for his own good, but for theirs."

In fact, for most of the 19th Century, from 1815 to the First World War in 1914, the imperial system ruled the world. There was the British Empire which controlled a quarter of humanity. There was the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Central Europe (Austria, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia, the present Czech Republic), there was the Ottoman Empire that allowed the Turks to control the Arab world, there were the French and Belgian Empires in Africa, and there was the Nippon Empire (Japan, Taiwan, Korea) in Asia. Such empires were supranational, imposing their rule upon other nations from an autocratic center.

Strangely enough, imperialist supremacist thinkers and apologists, such as Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, advance nowadays, at least for the Middle East, the same crude idea that the Arab and Islamic culture and religion are backward and that the 22 Arab countries of the region should be force-fed "liberal democracy" through military action. It is, according to Lewis, because "most Islamic countries have failed miserably at modernizing their societies" that outsiders, i.e. the Americans, must intervene and invade them to change their politics and their cultures. Even if one agrees with the first part of the reasoning, i.e. the backwardness of many Muslim countries, it does not follow that the second part, i.e. outside intervention, is justified.

Under a militarist and imperialistic regime, nations or empires which devote a lot of resources to armaments such as the U.S., which accounts for half of all annual military expenditures with less than 5 percent of world population would acquire ipso facto the "right" to meddle in other countries' affairs under the main pretext that they have the means to do so.

Because of this need for one nation to control other nations through fear and violence, imperialism rhymes with militarism, unilateralism, interventionism, expansionism, invasion, domination, exploitation and wars. This is the nature of the beast. This is fundamentally contrary to the ideals of democracy and of philosophical humanism which rhyme with liberty and dignity for every human being, individual freedom of choice, participatory democracy, economic and social progress, self-determination, multilateralism and international peace.

Since empires find their legitimacy in guns and military might, they cannot allow competing nations to encroach upon their controlled territories. They must launch "preventive" wars of aggression to protect themselves and their supremacy. They can maintain "order" and stability for relatively long periods, as the study of the 19th Century reveals, but as circumstances change, they ultimately result in huge destructive wars, pitting empires against one another. The First World War was such a war, pitting the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire against the British and French Empires.

Regarding theocratism, (as I developed at a greater length in a recent book, "The New American Empire"), most religions have historically favored the feudal system with kings, princes or emperors, or diverse forms of dictatorship, over the democratic form of government. This is true in the Islamic world, but it has also been the case in the Christian world, that is until the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th Centuries, and especially until the 18th Century, the century of the Enlightenment, which gave us the American and the French revolutions. At that time, a revolutionary idea took hold, i.e. the idea that the individual possesses absolute sovereignty and that political power does not come from abstract deities, as all religions have historically taught, but from the people themselves.

Nowadays, unbelievably, the idea that political power comes from God or Allah is coming back in force and is being proposed, not only by Muslim fanatics, but also by fundamentalist religious groups. At the same time, and this is not necessarily a coincidence, the idea that power does not only comes from God or Allah, but also from guns and armaments, and, the concomitant idea of an imperial form of world order, are all being espoused and promoted by some ideologues as having validity and legitimacy.

There may be a coming war of ideas, when the democratic and humanistic ideals will have to be defended. This new war of ideas will be camouflaged underneath a "war of civilizations", "a war of cultures" or a "war of religions", but basically it will be a war of ideas and of values.

III. When the totalistic ideologies of theocratism, of militarism or of imperialism are advanced in some remote countries, with different histories and different cultures, they are not a direct menace to humanist and democratic ideas in our own democratic countries. However, when such ideas and principles are proposed by people in authority in our own countries, this should, at the very least, raise eyebrows and provoke a debate.

Sadly to say, such is the case in the United States today.

Since September 20, 2002, the United States government has officially adopted an imperial doctrine, known as the "Bush Doctrine", that is based on militarist and imperialistic values and principles, with some theocratic overtones, even though such a doctrine was not debated during the 2000 Presidential elections, and therefore, was never endorsed by the American people.

The Webster's dictionary defines democracy as " the government by the people, usually through elected representatives".

It also defines imperialism as "the extension by one country of its authority over other lands and peoples by political, military or economic means." In this definition, imperialism becomes the "government of a few people, for a few people, by a few people."

This is a fundamental fact: an imperial regime is intrinsically undemocratic. It concentrates political power instead of spreading it among the people. In the case in question, only American citizens, and in fact, only those who participate in the electoral system, would have a voice in the running of this new American empire. There are no checks and balance in this application of power. It becomes the privilege of a few persons, irrespective of what millions or even billions of people think.

Six months after its enunciation, the new American imperial doctrine has been applied to justify an unprovoked war against Iraq, which began on March 20, 2003.

Who are the proponents of this new imperial doctrine for the United States, at least in modern times, and what are its ideological underpinnings?

The main proponents of this imperial doctrine for the United States have been a relatively and astonishingly small group of well-connected neoconservative ideologues who, in the spring of 1997, launched the American imperial project under the name of "The Project for the New American Century". Their main objective was to use "America's surplus of military power" after the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, to impose a worldwide "Pax Americana", which would help promote U.S. interests abroad and those of its close allies, such as the state of Israel, in the Middle East region.

By now, everybody knows the main proponents of the imperial neoconservative ideology, since many of them signed a letter to President Bill Clinton, on January 26 1998, asking for the overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. In their own words, they were asking that the U.S. foreign "strategy should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from power" in Iraq. The main argument put forward then was the threat the government of Saddam Hussein posed to "the safety of American troops in the region, [to] our friends and allies like Israel and the moderate Arab states, and [to] a significant portion of the world's supply of oil." There was no mention, at that time, of "weapons of mass destruction", the rallying cry for the 2003 war against Iraq. The true reasons for the proposed war were clearly enunciated, i.e. military control of the Middle East, the protection of Israel and the control of oil supplies.

The neocon cabal has been led for more than a decade now by people such as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis "Scooter" Libby and Douglas Feith, -all high level officials surrounding the actual Vice President, Dick Cheney, and the actual Secretary of Defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld.

What is important is that their ideas have been translated into an imperial unilateral foreign policy by the United States, characterized by preventive aggressive wars, by the casting aside of the United Nations and accepted international law, and by the adoption of a militarist posture by the United States in the world.

Besides being actively supported by a few far-right think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, the basic underpinnings of the new imperial doctrine go back to an obscure political scientist at the University of Chicago during the sixties, Leo Strauss.

Let me quickly outline Strauss's main political ideas, to show how far they are from traditional democratic ideas:

First, moral liberalism and moral relativism must be rejected and replaced by some form of moral absolutism and a strategy of permanent confrontation with what is perceived as evil;

Secondly, religion and faith, as representatives of such moral absolutism, should be put back into politics, even though Strauss himself believed religion to be a "pious fraud" which is useful only to exert social control.

Thirdly, Strauss rejects individual rights in favor of state power. he argues that classical and Christian natural law did not impose strict and absolute limits on state power, but that the exercise of such power is better left to the prudential judgment of the wise statesman.

Fourthly, Strauss proposes for the United States a "farsighted" imperialism and the adoption of militaristic policies.

A fifth idea from Strauss states that political philosophers could lie to their readers for the sake of the "social good".

Such totalistic ideas have rarely being openly discussed in the general public, but their implicit acceptance forms the basis for many policies being implemented by the Bush administration. The first one, and not the least, is the ongoing war against Iraq.

III. I will conclude by saying a few words about the legality and the morality of the war against Iraq.

1. First, about the legality of aggressive or unprovoked wars. This first war of the 21st Century is a direct result of the 2002 "Bush Doctrine", which is incidentally a nearly identical reenactment of the infamous 1968 Soviet Union's "Brezhnev Doctrine". Brezhnev challenged then the United Nations and intended to justify, in retrospect, the illegal invasion of Hungary in 1956, and justified the military invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and of Afghanistan in 1979, both of them equally illegal.

The United Nations Charter admits only two circumstances in which one sovereign country is allowed to use military force against another sovereign country:

  • When a country must defend itself against an attack from another country;
  • When the Security Council authorizes the use of military force against a country that is in violation of the principles of the U.N. Charter.

It would seem obvious that the new Bush Doctrine of "preventive" and unilateral military intervention, just as the old Soviet 1968 "Brezhnev Doctrine" goes against modern international law. Article 2, paragraph 4, of the United Nations Charter clearly states that:

"All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations."

There is also Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which stipulates that it is only in the case of legitimate self-defense following an armed attack, that one country may attack another, and only "until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security." The doctrine of "preemption" and of "war on suspicion" is not a part of the United Nations Charter and of international law.

Since March 1999, one could also invoke the Kosovo precedent, which would seem to allow a coalition of countries to invade militarily another country, if basic human rights of its population are violated, such as in the case of a genocide. It remains to be seen if the Kosovo precedent will remain an isolated case or if it is going to be incorporated formally into international law.

If the 2002 imperial "Bush Doctrine" were to remain the official foreign policy of the United States, we can say that the U.S. would in fact be declaring itself to be above international law and be claiming the right to provoke political changes in other sovereign countries, at its own discretion. This would be an illegal and illegitimate objective. (Sometimes, one can get away with an illegal act, if it is legitimate; sometimes, one can get away with an illegitimate act, if it is legal; but, it is most difficult to get away with an act which is both illegal and illegitimate).

Regime change in a sovereign nation, as a goal of military intervention, violates the system of international relations, not only since the advent of the United Nations in 1945, but also since the Westphalia Peace Treaty of 1648, which was signed after the devastating Thirty Years War of religion .

[I do not have time to elaborate on the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, or on the 1837 Caroline clause, or on the 1975 10 principles of the Helsinki Accords, which are at the core of international law regarding national sovereignty and regarding wars of aggression.] Suffice here to say that The Treaty of Westphalia incorporated four basic principles:

1. The principle of the sovereignty of nation-states and the concomitant fundamental right of political self-determination;
2. the principle of (legal) equality between nation-states;
3. the principle of internationally binding treaties between states;
and,
4. the principle of non-intervention of one state in the internal affairs of other states.

The creation of the League of Nations in 1920 and the establishment of the United Nations in 1945 were attempts to enshrine the Westphalia principles and to replace empires with democratic institutions. And thirty years ago, in 1975, these principles were solemnly proclaimed in the Helsinki Accords.

Practically, the implementation of the 2002 imperial "Bush Doctrine" would mean a de facto neutralization of the United Nations, at least concerning the U.S. The U.S. could bypass the U.N. to wage unilateral wars, not only against stateless terrorist groups, but also against sovereign states, each time its government thought it was necessary for the defense of America's national interests. But, once the United Nations is eclipsed, who will be left to prevent war?

2. Secondly, how about the morality, humanistic or otherwise, of aggressive or unprovoked wars?

Regarding the morality of modern warfare, one useful set of criteria is the 'Just War' theory which, following Augustine of Hippo in the 4th Century and other scholastic philosophers during the Middle Ages established five conditions for a "moral" war. I have summarized these conditions in The Humanist in last year's May-June issue. Suffice here to repeat them and apply them to the war against Iraq.

a) the war must be undertaken for a just cause i.e. military force may be used only to correct a grave threat, where the basic rights of a whole population are at stake.

b) The war must be waged with the right intention and for good reasons; that is to say, it cannot be undertaken for revenge or for economic gain and to acquire territories or riches, but to restore peace and not be carried on for the sake of pursuing a victory won by violence;

c) the war must be authorized and declared by a legitimate authority, that is, an emperor or a king. Today, when considerations of international peace and good order are paramount, war can only be authorized by an international authority, either an international organization or an international court of justice;

d) The war must be fought as a last resort, after all avenues of peaceful negotiations have been exhausted; and,

3) the war must be carried out in a proper manner, without killing innocent people indiscriminately.

With the tremendous and awesome destructive power of modern weapons, it is hard to argue that such principles of "Just War" can be invoked to launch aggressive wars.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to submit the on-going war against Iraq to the test of the five traditional conditions for a just war.

In fact, such a war violated all five main criteria for a "Just War".

First, it was not a just war because it was not a war of self-defense, but an offensive war "on suspicion", a war of revenge and of retribution to make a statement and to avenge the Islamist terrorists' attacks of September 11, 2001.

Second, this war was not authorized by the United Nations or the International Court of Justice, and therefore it violated the second condition for a just war.

Third, notwithstanding the denials, the desire to control Iraq's riches in oil reserves, as it has been amply documented in my book, "The New American Empire", was a paramount preoccupation with the Bush-Cheney administration. This violated the third condition for a just war.

Fourth, this was not a war of last resort since Bush's war against Iraq was launched without having given sufficient time to the United Nations inspectors to complete their work of inspection and of disarmament of Iraq.

And, fifth, the war against Iraq involved long range bombings, missile launchings and tank blitzes that killed many thousands of innocent human beings.

IV. In conclusion, we can ask if the United States will resist the imperial temptation?

Ever since its foundation, the United States has shown a repulsion to the imperialist approach to world affairs. The Declaration of American Independence was a supreme attempt to escape from the centralized British Empire, from its religious kingdom and from its colonialism.

During the twentieth century, in particular, the United States stood as the main force behind the movement to rid the world of imperialism and of colonialism. Successive U.S. governments remained faithful to the Jeffersonian ideals of democracy, with each individual, rich or poor, having an equal voice in national affairs. The U.S. has supported international law and multilateral international cooperation, and rejected imperialism and colonialism as a basis for international political order, and as a basis for U.S. foreign policy. This is a political philosophy that traces its roots deep in the writings of the Founding Fathers of the Republic (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington...) and in the U.S. Constitution.

Nevertheless, the United States is not immune to the imperial temptation. Indeed, each one hundred years or so, it seems, the imperialist doctrine resurfaces in force, even though the Jeffersionian principles have been inscribed in the U.S. Constitution.

From the very beginning, there was a clash between Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), a firm believer in participatory democracy and in the republican form of government, and Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), Washington's Treasury Secretary, who espoused a much more elitist form of government along imperial lines. For instance, Hamilton proposed a presidency and a senate elected for life, in a plutocratic and aristocratic way, whereas only the representatives would have been elected for short terms. Hamilton was an admirer of the British monarchial empire, while Jefferson wanted a government modeled along the lines of the French republican ideas.

The imperialist doctrine was resurrected one hundred years later by William McKinley (1843-1901) and Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) when the U.S. undertook to replace Spain as a colonial power in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Philippines and the Pacific Islands of Guam.

Generally, however, the United States opposed colonialism and imperialism during most of the twentieth century. one thinks especially of Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), who promoted the idea of the League of Nations in 1920 and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) who actively supported the creation of the United Nations, in 1945.

The 21st Century: Imperial or democratic?

As of today, I do not think that the 191-country modern world is ready to accept a return to a 21st Century version of the 19th Century's imperialism and colonialism - especially not a mere 15 years after the demise of the Soviet Empire. It would be nothing less than scandalous for the United States, which was founded on humanistic and democratic principles, to attempt to replace the old empires of the past and to deny the fundamental democratic right of other peoples and other nations to self-determination .

The strength of the United States is not in its military power, but in its basic philosophy of government. The fact that the U.S. devotes more resources to armaments than any other country - its military budget accounting for half of total world military expenditures with less than 5 percent of world population- does not give it the right to violate other nations' sovereignty simply because it has the means to do so. This would be a throw-back to a very primitive world, indeed.

Like any other country founded on humanistic and democratic principles. the United States should refrain from unilaterally wanting to exert military, political, economic and cultural power over other foreign populations. It should attempt to reinforce its own security through collective legal means, such as is possible within NATO and within the United Nations, and it should use foreign aid as the main lever to assist poorer countries toward reform and democratization. Above all, it should not abandon the ideal of an open and democratic world society. This should be, front and center, the peaceful objective of the democratic world.

American leaders would be well advised to meditate and embrace the wise precepts of Benjamin Franklin regarding public policy in his seven "great virtues" in public affairs: These are: aversion to tyranny, support for a free press, a sense of humor, humility, idealism in foreign policy, tolerance and respect for compromise.

*Author of "The New American Empire",
Achon Books, 2004
dist Infinity (Toll Free: 877-289-2665)
or www.bbotw.com/description.asp?ISBN=0-7414-1887-8
Web: AchonBooks.com

Topplebush.com
Posted: May 7, 2004

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