Universalist Rhetoric and American Foreign Policy

Often within American politics, those who are seen as too radical, and in particular, left leaning are seen as, and referred to as “un-American.” This statement suggests a form of particularism in which those who live in America, must adopt American political views and act in American ways, whatever that means. Furthermore, this particularism is not confined to the right, although the right is more prevalent in its appeal to it. We can see that this particularism is not confined to the political right by the way in which Snowden has been painted by the Obama regime (a regime of the mainstream left in America) as a traitorous un-American criminal. Yet, somewhat unexpectedly, especially in the area of foreign policy, rhetoric in American politics, is avowedly universalistic. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all have appealed to universalistic notions such as freedom, democracy and a defense of human rights as the foundation of their foreign policy. In relation to this I will suggest that there is one strain of political rhetoric in American foreign policy which disguises the particularism of American political speech under the cover of universalism. Furthermore, I will argue that the use of this form of speech that disguises American particularism as universalism is deeply problematic, because it is deceptive and makes it difficult to take the use of ethical notions seriously within the realm of international politics.

When examining American rhetoric with regard to foreign policy over the last ten years, one is apt to see many appeals to freedom and democracy as the aim of American foreign policy. However, it is interesting to note that even though the rhetoric appeals to “freedom” or “democracy” in general, it is quite clear from the actions that the US has taken that what is being pursued is not freedom or democracy simpliciter, but rather the interpretations of freedom and democracy that undergird American culture and politics. This can be seen by the fact that during in the reconstruction of governments in both Afghanistan and Iraq the aim has been to create a liberal capitalist democracy, with traditional party based representative institutions rather than developing a form of democracy that is sustainable within the country given the history and divisions that were present within the country. This is not to suggest some crass thesis that suggests that developing countries are not capable of liberal democracy, but rather to express the more basic political truth that in order for political institutions to be sustainable they must be acceptable to all significant populations within the state, and it is not clear that American style liberal capitalist democracy meets this condition. Similarly, the way in which the US only supports the particular American interpretation of freedom and democracy within the international realm can be seen in the support that the US has put forth for the coup against the Morsi government in Egypt; Morsi was democratically elected, but he threatened to turn Egypt into an illiberal democracy, and so America could not support him, as the democracy he wanted was not the universal democracy that the US stood for. Democracy is sacrosanct in American foreign policy as long as those who are elected adopt the right policies; this can also be seen in the attitude and policies that the US had towards Hugo Chavez. Consequently, there is certainly a strain of political rhetoric in America that tries to pass off a defense of values related directly to American political institutions and culture with a general defense of democracy and freedom simpliciter.

It might be said that the thought process above really just shows that the US is committed to supporting universal values like democracy and freedom, because while there are other interpretations of these terms, the interpretations that the US takes are the correct interpretations of these values, while other interpretations are flawed.

In response to this I would say that there are some interpretations of freedom and democracy that constitute Orwellian doublespeak such as the idea that North Korea is a democracy, but it seems to me that there are a whole host of institutional interpretations of democracy and freedom that stand apart from the American interpretation of these terms that have legitimacy. Here, we have to be careful of identifying a particular good, with a particular set of institutions. Multiparty systems with representative institutions have worked reasonably effectively in supporting democracy, but this does not mean that other institutional embodiments of democracy whether they involve allotment, representation by stakeholder/ethnic group or direct democracy are necessarily not in keeping with the general spirit of democracy, that the government is run by the citizenry and in their interest. Consequently, we have little reason to think that the interpretations of democracy and freedom that undergird American politics and culture are the correct interpretations while others are simply illegitimate.

The fact that the US speaks as if it defends democracy and freedom simpliciter, while only supporting the very particular version of these values that undergirds their politics and culture is problematic. It is so because speaking in this way constitutes a form of deceptive rhetoric which passes off the attempt to try to ensure that other nations have similar institutions to the US as a humane defense of something that everyone can reasonably accept (democracy and freedom). This form of rhetoric is quite clearly deceptive, but it is deceptive in a particularly problematic way as it reduces the currency of ethical notions within the realm of international politics. When the US uses terms like freedom and democracy as a cover for the pursuit of other objectives, like ensuring nations adopt similar institutions to the US, it reinforces the idea that talk that involves ethical notions is just a mode of persuasion that is used as a cover to pursue other objectives. This makes it far more difficult to take seriously the use of ethical notions in the international realm, as it seems that whenever people use these terms they are merely using them as a cover or a tool to support other interests. It should be noted that the US is not the only nation that does this, in fact many nations take a similar path in using ethical notions as a cover to pursue brute self-interest, but I wanted to shed light on the American example because of the large role that they play in the international realm.

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