February 16, 2005


Power, Lies and the White House: Michael Ignatieff investigates the human rights record of the Bush Administration (Michael Ignatieff, February 2005, The Dubliner)

Action in respect of international relations is defined by national interest. And the US employ a different set of calculi to the calculi of little powers. Take Canada, for instance. Canada signs up to every international club going because, if a country doesn't have much power or muscle, multilateralism is the game it has to play. It is in national interest to multiply multilateral commitments, even if it constrains sovereignty, as it makes the little power a member of all the big guys’ clubs. Europeans may disagree with this analysis, but it must be said that the European view of multilateralism is, to be blunt, slightly pious or pompous. European countries make multilateralism sound like God’s word, when it is manifestly in the national interest of these states. And it is manifestly less in the national interest of a super-power. The calculations simply are different. Both types of power are working from the same principles, national interest, but coming to different conclusions. Geo-politics, or what Americans call realism, is of limited use as an explanation for American exceptionalism. For, if national interest was the only consideration, Roosevelt would never have got the US to ratify the UN Charter. If national interest was the only consideration, the US wouldn’t have agreed to this day to the substantial abridgements imposed on its sovereignty by membership of the Security Council. Such limitation is perhaps most clearly demonstrable in the pre-Iraq war debates with the UN. So why did the US sign up to rules that constrain its sovereignty? Geo-politics will not explain that paradox of American conduct and behaviour. One must look to a second range of explanations. In particular, we must explore the cultural implications of the American nation. The US is a very particular national project, a country with a strong sense that the history of its freedom and creation is of universal significance. From the pilgrim fathers through to George W Bush, there runs an authentic native language of American mission, which believes that the American story is of universal significance, and also of significance for export. In this respect, human rights are understood as American freedom, internationalised to the world. America’s gift to the world. This, of course, irritates other countries of the world not a little, since each of these countries have their own traditions of freedom. But in the eyes of the American, theirs is the only country that has managed to universalise its own national political narrative and export it to the rest of the world.

Therein lies the paradox: the belief that these notions of freedom and rights are for export, but not for import. The US believes that it has a great lesson to teach the world, but it doesn’t have much to learn from the world, as it has the freedoms that all mankind conscientiously desires. Such a mindset breeds a deep reluctance to be judged by external standards that it believes it exported.

But there is something more important at the heart of the issue. That is, there lies doubt about the democratic legitimacy of international law itself. If the US experience is the great project of freedom, then that experience is deeply legitimate to the Americans, as it is authored and created by them. International law and international human rights appear to them to be a lot of unelected lawyers working in Geneva somewhere, lacking the grounding legitimacy of the democratic project. [...]

What cost does the US pay for American exceptionalism? The Iraq war most starkly demonstrated the tremendous social, political and economic cost of exceptionalism. There is simply no doubt, when one looks at the effect of unilateral exceptionalism on the pursuit of American objectives, that it is imposing massive costs on the US. The 1991 Gulf War cost the US almost nothing, as it had UN approval and financial assistance from other countries. The second Iraq war cost $300 billion and counting. If a country doesn't have international law behind it, massive transactional costs accrue on the exercise of national power, and Americans need to consider that. Indeed, the most rational argument against exceptionalism is: “it’s gonna cost you, it is costing you, it will cost you evermore.”

As for the rest of the world, what does it pay for US exceptionalism? The most obvious cost to the international community is that it slows the emergence of international law. It’s slowing Kyoto, it’s slowing the emergence of the International Criminal Court, it’s delaying a lot of pieces of international legal architecture that many of us believe are necessary for the development of a global order to prevent a runaway world. Countless nations want a world that is governed, and American exceptionalism is slowing that down.

It is, however, not stopping it.

As Mr. Ignatieff himself point out, the paradox is false: America exports self-rule to oppressed peoples. We refuse to import transnationalism, which would oppress us by allowing others to govern America. In both cases we vindicate freedom and democracy.

As for Mr. Ignatieff's question about what price the rest of the world pays for American exceptionalism, it is the continuing divergence of America from its former peers in terms of economic and political power. The future of our economy, unbridled by Kyoto, as opposed to that of Europe, already weighed down by EU bureaucracy and ideology, is likely to be an even starker contrast than that which already obtains. Those nations that want to be governed are effectively signing their own death warrants.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 16, 2005 5:39 PM

The Iraq war most starkly demonstrated the tremendous social, political and economic cost of exceptionalism.


Posted by: David Cohen at February 16, 2005 12:47 PM


Ignore the re-election and the economic boom....

Posted by: oj at February 16, 2005 12:59 PM

these creaky old farts like issakoff think they can still just manufacture "facts" and have them blindly accepted. how can you measure the costs before the entire venture is over ? it would be better if people like issakoff just print in huge letters "I KNOW BEST" and leave it at that.

it is becoming tragically obvious that the best writing talent available is not working in the msm, it is working outside of it. oj, for example, is far wittier than anyone writing for tv today.

let the dinosaurs roar and stomp, in their death throes, no one will miss them, and the world will be better off after their passing.

Posted by: cjm at February 16, 2005 1:01 PM

OJ: And we're left with the social cost of the huge and disruptive anti-war movement?

Posted by: David Cohen at February 16, 2005 1:12 PM

The current incarnation of the anti-war movement is neither large nor disruptive. I think most people just view them with low key contempt. Maybe it's different in Europe, but who cares about them?

Posted by: Governor Breck at February 16, 2005 1:42 PM

The cost is $300 billion and counting...what percentage is that of GDP?

Posted by: Bartman at February 16, 2005 3:22 PM

Let us cut to the core: American's are not slave minded and will act like free men. Others like us will join us. Slaves want and need to be governed. Ignatieff wants to be a capo in the slave compound.

Posted by: Luciferous at February 16, 2005 3:30 PM

These guys like multi-lateralism because then they can avoid showing moral courage. They can gather in the herd and bray. Luciferous is spot on. Ignatieff wants to be the enlightened one among the (docile) sheep, but we know where that leads - "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others".

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 16, 2005 3:58 PM

These people, who don't seem likely to be underestimating, put the incremental cost of the Iraq war to date at $154 billion. It's not clear when they started counting, but let's say that this money has been spent over the last two years, during which GDP has totaled about $23 trillion and the federal budget has totaled about $4.5 trillion. So, the incremental cost of the Iraq war has been about 3.5% of federal spending and about two-thirds of a percentage point of GDP.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 16, 2005 4:08 PM



Posted by: oj at February 16, 2005 5:39 PM

I'd like to throw out a question about American exceptionalism. Most of what I've read on the subject emphasizes the Declaration and writings of the Founding Fathers for obvious reasons. But while no one else has produced anything like them, most other countries in the Anglosphere and some in Europe did in fact waddle their way to the basic elements of freedom and democracy---universal sufferage, civil rights, freedom of religion, rep. by pop., independant judiciary, abolition of aristocratic privilege etc., and I'm not sure it's easy to make the case that was due to American influence (although it clearly was to an extent in Canada)or "exported" by the States.

But while there is lots of freedom and democracy in the world, what strikes me as truly exceptional in the past few years, and to America's glory, is that Americans are the only people (as opposed to courageous leaders like Blair and Howard)who by a majority embraced a moral perspective on Durban, 9/11, the intifada and the WOT, while everyone else desperately tried to hide behind legalisms, stability and other pacts with the devil, even dabbling in anti-semitism to try and placate the purveyors of evil. I wonder whther the roots of this aren't more in the Civil War than 1776. I'm just into my third read of MacPherson's wonderful Battle Cry of Freedom and it is striking how so much of the political debates between the Mexican war and 1861 reminds me of contemporary Canadian discourse--endless threats of secession, a new wild and crazy theory of federalism every week, desperate attempts to placate and compromise, etc. Round and round and round it went with no solution and no amelioration of the north/south divide. Finally, the matter had to be brought to a head and solved, and boy, did you ever do that. Unlike with Europe, I don't recall ever reading a serious civil war history that said it was all a huge mistake, that the deaths were senseless and that under no circumstances could it ever be allowed to happen again.

If I were asked to explain to a European or Canadian why I thought America was exceptional, I wouldn't talk a lot about freedom and democracy. I'd say that it is anchored in a strong sense of right and wrong and isn't shy about actually solving problems and confronting wrong, rather than just trying to manage or marginalize them. That also could provide a key to why dissent in America can be so strident to the point of skirting with sedition compared to the rest of the world. So, dear friends, am I on to something and does it indeed come from the Civil War? Thanks in advance.

Posted by: Peter B at February 16, 2005 5:40 PM

other western countries have the appearance of democratic government, but in reality they are not at all responsive to the voters' wishes. the rule of law is "flexible".

Posted by: cjm at February 16, 2005 5:58 PM

--its delaying a lot of pieces of international legal architecture that many of us believe are necessary for the development of a global order to prevent a runaway world. Countless nations want a world that is governed, and American exceptionalism is slowing that down.---

That nasty constitution again.

Governed by who?

Typical euro, stability over all.

Posted by: Sandy P at February 16, 2005 6:09 PM


Isn't the Civil War rather a function of that fierce and unique moralism? Is it possible to imagine that one portion of Canada would actually fight to keep the other in a union?

Posted by: oj at February 16, 2005 6:46 PM

Well, parliments are the devil's playgrounds, but that's beside the point.

It's all smoke and mirrors, Peter, and we try not to stare at it too closely, lest the illusion dissappear. But I do think that it is the Spirit of '76, not the spirit of '65. In part it's the whole "thought experiment" chestnut, but more particularly it is our constructive universalist ersatz nationalism, which basically says that we're exceptional because anyone living here -- particularly if they had to suffer to get here -- is the equal to anyone else living here. Ours is a fiat nationalism, just as ours is a fiat currency, and oddly all the stronger for it.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 16, 2005 6:57 PM

OJ: I'm right here. No need to shout.

Apparently Ignatieff meant the tremendous social, political and economic cost of opposing the war.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 16, 2005 7:00 PM

Sorry. I type too slow to start over when I make a mistake.

Posted by: oj at February 16, 2005 7:05 PM


More like the spirit of 1620:


Posted by: oj at February 16, 2005 7:06 PM

1630 is my final offer, but I'm surprised you're not offering 0.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 16, 2005 7:17 PM


No, it isn't and, tough as it would be on the old emotions, I don't think that is a sign of moral weakness or bad thing anymore than it was a bad thing that the Czechs let the Slovaks go without a fight or the Swedes the Norwegians. Canada is an agreeable and quite successful country, but, contrary to what the left up here keeps trying to pretend, it is not a fount of civilization or cultural homeland and there are no underlying, indigenous principles of universal import that transcend it. Nothing wrong with that. Neither are Switzerland, Singapore, Australia or many, many other countries. How many founts of civilization can the world handle at any one time?

(BTW, Ignatieff's piece was very disappointing and hackneyed considering he was one of the pro-war liberals two years ago and took a lot of flak for it. He is the son of a well-known Canadian diplomat and man of letters who was one of the UN architects and fathers of 1950's liberal internationalism--big pal of Adlai Stevenson if memory serves. It's no surpise he is at Harvard as I'm sure he considers everywhere else in the world to be too parochial.)

Posted by: Peter B at February 16, 2005 7:35 PM


As the former Christendom (Europe) shows, it's rather harder to maintain a decent democracy than just be a democracy.

Posted by: oj at February 16, 2005 7:37 PM


But you're citing ethnicities separating, which is the difference between us and other nations. America is an idea not a blood group. And it is necessary for that idea to be universal, which means once you're in you're in for good. If you allow nations to devolve into their constituent parts then you eventually end up with naught but tribalism or even individualism.

Posted by: oj at February 16, 2005 7:50 PM


Right, but Canada is neither a blood group nor an idea in that sense, and it is a federation. If one part decides to head off, what argument would there be for trying to stop it by force? Sorry, but my kids aren't going to war over healthcare and multilateralism.

That being said, living year-to-year under a principle of ongoing, revocable consent is not necessarily as fragile as one might think. I couldn't even name you one respectable Alberta or Western separatist. Quebec shows it is a heck of a lot harder to leave than logic would seem to dictate and there is more glue there than meets the eye. Perhaps that's our equivalent of the "smoke and mirrors" mystery David referred to above.

Posted by: Peter B at February 16, 2005 8:08 PM


You stop them because of principle. On the other hand, there's nothing that says nations have to be principled. We just happen to be.

Posted by: oj at February 16, 2005 8:43 PM


Oh, well-played. Nations can be built on principles, but only individuals are principled.

Posted by: Peter B at February 16, 2005 9:18 PM


Nations can be built on principles, but how many have been? Pretty nearly only the U.S..

Folk get terribly confused sometimes about the importance of the U. S. Constitution. Any nation can have a document that sets out how the nation will be governed, but that's just a set of means. what matters are ends. The American Constitution begins with principles;

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

The "moral perspective" you originally mentioned is the point of the exercise. The "basic elements of freedom and democracy---universal sufferage, civil rights, freedom of religion, rep. by pop., independant judiciary, abolition of aristocratic privilege etc." are merely tools used to achieve it. Note that it is not even liberty that they speak of but the "Blessings" that flow therefrom.

Posted by: oj at February 16, 2005 10:22 PM


I'll buy that. It also explains why European elites, having eschewed nationalism and religion, have been driven to embracing abstract transnationalism with such fervor.

Posted by: Peter B at February 17, 2005 4:43 AM