September 28, 2006

CRAMMING FOR HIS GLOBAL TEST:

Free For All (Peter Beinart, 09.28.06, New Republic)

In 1991, the sociologist Orlando Patterson published a book titled Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. Our understanding of freedom, he argued, comes from the Greeks. But, for many Greeks, freedom was intimately connected to slavery: Unless you dominated others, you weren't really free. (Southern slaveholders made a similar argument.) Patterson called this "sovereignal freedom," which he defined as "the power to act as one pleases, regardless of the wishes of others." And he contrasted it with "personal freedom"--the right to act as one pleases while respecting the rights of others to do the same. [...]

Sixty years ago, when the United States supplanted Great Britain as the greatest power on earth, American leaders argued that the age of imperialism was ending. Freedom meant self-determination for formerly subjugated peoples (including peoples subjugated by the ussr). And self-determination for the weak meant limits on the power of the strong. As Harry Truman said in a speech to the then-fledgling United Nations, "All of us must recognize--it doesn't matter how great our strength is--that we must deny ourselves the license to always do whatever we want."

This sentiment, to be sure, was sometimes honored in the breach. But it disposed the United States to a generally positive view of international institutions and international law. When the United States embraced civil rights at home, it rejected the argument for sovereignal freedom that white Southerners had been making since slavery. And, when the United States committed itself to international standards on human rights, it rejected the argument for sovereignal freedom implicit in the imperialism of the past.

Did that prevent Third World nationalists from calling the United States a neo-empire that purchased its growing freedom and prosperity at the expense of others? Not at all. But it furnished Americans with counterarguments. Human rights and self-determination, leaders like Truman insisted, were not merely masks for U.S. domination; they were principles that restrained the United States as well.

That argument never convinced everyone. But it convinced many more people than it does today. In the Bush era, as even a thoughtful neoconservative like Robert Kagan has acknowledged, "America, for the first time since World War II, is suffering a crisis of international legitimacy." And it is that crisis on which men like Ahmadinejad and Chávez feed.

Combating Ahmadinejad and Chávez does not require abandoning the language of freedom. To the contrary, it requires rescuing it--by recognizing that, unless freedom imposes restraints on the United States as well as on other nations, it will sound to many in the postcolonial world like domination.


You can almost feel sorry for the folk of the Decent Left, who think that international legitimacy matters a good goddamn. Americans understand the matter better, tracing legitimacy a tad higher:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --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, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

It's worth noting that Americans believe in neither of the freedoms of which Mr. Beinart and Mr. Patterson speak, but instead in republican liberty.



Posted by Orrin Judd at September 28, 2006 3:20 PM
Comments

Wasn't American "legitimacy" dead in 1968 (because of Vietnam)? Wasn't it dead in 1974 (because of Watergate and Nixon)? Wasn't it dead in 1981-1989 (because of Ronald Reagan)?

The question is not "is American legitimacy dead"; rather, it is "why should anyone care what the rest of the world thinks"? That is the point of American legitimacy in a nutshell. And if we invaded Darfur tomorrow, or killed Mugabe tonight, or even if we decided to kill Chavez, respect for American legitimacy would go up (except at the UN and in the Democratic party).

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 28, 2006 3:41 PM

What would be the value of a legitimacy that depended on leaving Mugabe in power?

Posted by: oj at September 28, 2006 3:50 PM

I'll note as well that Patterson is full of it with regard to the Greeks.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at September 28, 2006 4:26 PM

"Did that prevent Third World nationalists from calling the United States a neo-empire that purchased its growing freedom and prosperity at the expense of others? Not at all. But it furnished Americans with counterarguments. Human rights and self-determination, leaders like Truman insisted, were not merely masks for U.S. domination; they were principles that restrained the United States as well."

I think Beinart hedges his point practically out of existence here -- does he really imagine that we don't have counterarguments today too? They don't persuade everyone, of course, but Beinart forthrightly admits that the old arguments didn't either. The people getting persuaded are different, naturally -- Europeans whose continuing global influence is rooted in international institutions erected back when they still had pretensions to "Great Power" status find the new arguments particularly unpersuasive. But they are not the people we are trying to persuade; they're not going to close their borders to us, cut off trade, or try to attack us. Other than England, and possibly France, the main thing they can give us is diplomatic cover. Invaluable under the old paradigm, but not quite so central under the new.

Posted by: Taeyoung at September 29, 2006 6:48 AM
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