August 29, 2007


Liberty & Security for All?: a review of Security First by Amitai Etzioni (JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN, August 29, 2007, NY Sun)

One doesn't usually write a book on current affairs unless one is exercised about something and Mr. Etzioni is mightily exercised in "Security First" (Yale University Press, 338 pages, $27). He thinks America has gone off the rails with an excess of democratic enthusiasm; indeed, he pronounces the policy of pushing democratization abroad a failure. Liberal interventionism, he believes, misconstrues matters by equating the spread of democratization with enhanced prospects for peace and security. But democracy, Mr. Etzioni insists, "does not beget security."

By contrast, Mr. Etzioni's "Security First" foreign policy — and it should be noted that the architects of the foreign policy Mr. Etzioni opposes would cavil at the suggestion that they have not put security first — would require America to eschew officially any plan to overthrow rogue governments and to ignore relatively "minor" threats. At the same time, his plan would require us to take the lead headfirst in the Rwandas and Darfurs of the world where security needs were, and are, ignored and another of Mr. Etzioni's first principles, "Primacy of Life," is violated in systematic and egregious ways. Basic security for all, he claims, does not mean democratic or constitutional regimes for all. The world will resist our attempts to democratize it but happily go along with our efforts to "provide security for one and all." This is a rather amazing conviction and a formidable challenge: How on earth do you focus on security for all, assuming it is in America's best interest? And on what grounds can one proffer reassurances that the world will welcome our "security for all efforts" with open arms?

Mr. Etzioni subsumes American national interest under service to the common good of a global community. He construes this as the vehicle to move from a "pragmatic and realistic foreign policy into one that is also principled and legitimate." At present, American foreign policy suffers from what Mr. Etzioni calls "Multiple Realism Deficiency Disorder," which invites us to get many important matters backwards. Putting democracy before security is but the most glaring example. But I am hard pressed to think of an American president or administration that put democratic initiatives abroad before American security needs.

What does "Security First" entail? Mr. Etzioni answers: freedom from deadly violence, maiming, and torture. Where is this security lacking? Primarily in failed states, in newly liberated states, and in the Middle East.

It is the founding premise of Brothers Judd that all of human thought, history, art, and affairs comes down to one simple question: where do you strike the balance between freedom and security?

The impulse towards both exists in every human being. Our differences are just about which is stronger and how much so.

In general, the problem with the security extremist vision (which Mr. Etzioni appears to advocate here) is that, for most people, the sacrifice of freedom it requires makes absolute security unattractive to most people. In particular, this vision is antithetical to Judeo-Christianity and, thus, to the American Republic. A foreign policy that would tend to prefer that, for example, the Poles be left in the grip of a totalitarianism that provided maximal physical security rather than seeking to help them emerge into an admittedly messy new liberation can never be sold to the vast majority of Americans, who remain faithful to Christianity on the religious front and the ideals of the Founding on the political.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 29, 2007 6:59 PM

A most excellent summation, although you overlooked the part about the extra Y chromosone.

Posted by: ghostcat at August 29, 2007 9:23 PM

My book Security First stresses that we should NOT give up our rights in the quest for full security, that we should limit ourselves to work to gain what I call "basic security". Basic security is defined that one can let one's children go to school without fearing that they will be killed; one can go to work, without fearing that one will be beheaded; and that one's home has not be turned into a jail, because one fears to venture outside. See what is missing in Bagddad, and you see what I mean.

Posted by: amitai etzioni at September 4, 2007 2:44 PM