In light of my recent post on the economic liberalization policies during the 1980s and onwards, I was hoping to discuss what is today being referred to “globalization.” Something else has been on the top of my mind lately, however, so that post will wait. What I wish to discuss instead is something that I have referred to numerous times on blog, which is the idea of moral universalism and specifically as it relates to U.S. foreign policy.
I promised someone a while ago I would discuss the Afghanistan War, and unfortunately I have been putting that off (along with most other issues dealing with foreign policy). The issue, in fact, is fairly complex but is one that can be simplified in terms of discussing the morality of it. The simple question we ought to ask ourselves, at all times, is whether what is right or wrong for us also right or wrong for others?
This is a very simple moral question and deals with what’s called moral universality. Namely, we should apply to ourselves the standards we place on others. I think Noam Chomsky, a leading and influential public intellectual, offers a good description of this moral principle: “… the principle of universality: if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others — more stringent ones, in fact — plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil.” He explains, “Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow.” So, back to the question, do we follow this basic moral principle?
The answer to the question is a resounding no. This is plainly evident from my discussion of Israeli and U.S. war crimes in Palestine. It’s merely assumed, by virtue, that U.S. is allowed if not obligated to violate international law and human rights. I referenced something U.S. Justice Robert Jackson said during the Nuremberg Trials that also deals with the idea of moral universalism: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. And we are not prepared to lay down the rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us. We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”
But this is something that cannot even be comprehended in the United States, even among intellectuals. Saying we should apply some basic standards to ourselves (minimally, those we apply to others) would be considered absurd in some circles, if comprehended at all. For example, some people use the September 11, 2001, attacks as the justification for criminal wars and occupations of two destitute countries. Is that the correct response to terrorism? Well, let’s ask what standards we place on others. How should the myriad countries, usually poor and defenseless, across the globe react to Western state terrorism? Let’s take the extreme yet uncontroversial example of the United States’ terror campaign that President Reagan launched against Nicaragua, which left tens of thousands dead and its economy in ruins even to this day. Who of those advocating the bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq also advocate the bombing of Washington by Nicaragua? Who in the 1980s was saying Nicaragua should declare war against the U.S.? Would Nicaragua have the right to targeted assassinations of our terrorist leaders and those who support them? The answers lead us, invariably, to the conclusion that what’s right for us is wrong for them. We cannot even rise to a minimal moral standard in which we can say what’s wrong for them is wrong for us too.