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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What does “liberalism” mean?

The word “liberalism” is a key concept both within the political vernacular of post-industrial societies as well as within the academy. But this word does not seem to have a fixed, singular meaning, rather different groups seem to use this term to refer to entirely different social phenomena and theoretical justifications. In this entry I would like to unpack some of the different ways in which the term “liberal” and “liberalism” is used and show that we ought to explain what we mean by this term when using it in conversation with others because it seems to refer to a disparate set of phenomena and ideas.

In everyday use in North America the term liberal refers to someone who is on the left side of the political spectrum. In this sense the word liberal denotes a broad acceptance of, and enthusiasm for a welfare state that will ensure the equality, and freedom of all, as well as a broad acceptance of difference. Liberalism, in this sense, let’s call it Sense 1 Liberalism, is defined in opposition to conservatism which is understood in terms of adherence to free enterprise, and a general uneasiness with the recognition of difference, whether cultural, racial or sexual. Within everyday political discourse when someone says liberal this is typically what they mean, however there are many other uses of the terms liberal, and liberalism, which display very different meanings.

Another sense of the term “liberalism” is that which refers to an approach to political economy which emphasizes the efficiency of markets and their self-regulating nature as well as the fact that the state should be as minimal as possible as is consistent with ensuring a large degree of economic growth. This is often referred to as neoliberalism; the rationale behind calling this orientation towards the economy neoliberalism is that it is return to the 19th century liberalism of laissez faire capitalism. But for our purposes let us call this Sense 2 Liberalism, as people will still often refer to liberal economics or liberalism to refer to this doctrine that emphasizes the primacy of markets.

One other way in which the term liberalism is used is particularly predominant in the academy among critical theorists (Marxists, Radical Feminists etc) and some Communitarians. In this context liberalism is a pejorative used to describe a mixture of political, cultural and economic attitudes within liberal democratic societies. This term does not describe any particular theory, but the status quo within liberal societies such as Canada, the United States, and many countries within Western Europe among others. Let us call this Sense 3 Liberalism.

One final way in which liberalism is used is common within the Anglo-American academy, especially among Political Philosophers and Political Theorists. This sense of liberalism posits that liberalism is a family of political philosophies that emphasizes that the point of the state is to ensure the equal freedom of all individuals under it. There are of course differing variants of liberalism in this sense that range between more market capitalist oriented interpretations and more egalitarian interpretations that accept as much state intervention in the economy as most socialists would. Furthermore, some variants emphasize that ensuring equal freedom is necessary to support an autonomous life, while others suppose that ensuring equal freedom is not necessary to another end, but something that is required to treat a person with respect, but they all share this broad commitment to equal freedom of the individual. Let us call this Sense 4 Liberalism. The philosophies of Locke, Mill, Rawls, Dworkin and Waldron would all be examples of Sense 4 Liberalism.

Now we can see that all of these meanings of liberalism share some commonalities, in that they all have something to do with freedom and the individual, but beyond that there is not much that unites them at the level of meaning. For example, I would say that I am a supporter of Sense 4 Liberalism, while I am not a supporter of Sense 2 or Sense 3 Liberalism. The fact that I think that the state should ensure that all those who live under it are accorded equal freedom, need not mean that I support the current state of culture, politics, and economics within liberal democratic societies. Societies that are based on principles that correspond to Sense 4 Liberalism do tend to have vices similar to those of Sense 3 Liberalism, but this does not mean that supporters of Sense 4 Liberalism need to support these vices.

The trouble is that often people use one sense of the term liberalism, without explaining what the term means, to either support or critique liberalism. When this occurs the others listening to this person will often be confused because if the person is critiquing Sense 3 Liberalism, and say liberalism necessary leads to a shallow society, and their interlocutor thinks of liberalism in terms of Sense 1 Liberalism then they will be puzzled and confused by the critics comments. Furthermore, if they are a supporter of Sense 4 Liberalism they may get very defensive because this person is suggesting that a mere commitment to the notion that ensuring equal freedom is the fundamental aim of the state means that one is also encouraging the creation of a shallow society. Consequently, using the term liberalism without explanation of what one means is a strategy that tends to lead to confusion. It should be noted that each of these senses of the term liberalism flourishes in differing set of topical spaces, but these spaces often overlap such that if the exclusive user of Sense 2 Liberalism is encountered by exclusive users of Sense 4 Liberalism and neither party is willing to explain what they mean by liberalism than confusion, will ultimately arise. Consequently, we should be very careful when using the term liberalism to explain what we mean, so that they we don’t confuse our interlocutors.

Yet a further difficulty occurs in that liberalism is a word that typically attracts either feelings of condemnation or praise. Whatever sense of the word liberalism is dominant in someone’s lexicon, they ordinarily have strong thoughts about it. Thus, the term liberalism tends to be used less as a device to explain one’s position, than as a rhetorical device that signifies either pure goodness or wretchedness. For example, many critical theorists use liberal or liberalism as a synonym for bad (the badness of late capitalist society). While many market liberals use liberalism as a synonym for goodness (the goodness of the market). Thus, it seems that in the context of the use of the word liberalism at the very least Alasdair MacIntyre is right to suggest that in the modern world concepts that seem to have a distinct meaning are used more to express approval and disapproval than to actually convey a coherent position about the nature of the right or the good. Clearly, it would be problematic for rational ethical/political dialogue if all that we were doing through it was expressing approval or disapproval without conveying a substantive coherent position about the good, but if we continue to use the term liberalism as it is being used then at least in the case of liberalism we would not actually be engaging in a rational exchange about the nature of the good, rather we would be trying to bludgeon one another with our approval or disapproval of an abstraction.

Given the dilemma sketched above, we have to ensure that when engaging in ethical or political dialogue with others we use terms like liberal, that at once refer to disparate phenomena, but also are subjects of condemnation or praise, in a way that recognizes that the other may not just disagree with us about whether the term deserves praise or condemnation, but rather may mean something entirely different by the term. This will require us to avoid using the term as a merely polemical device, and rather require us to explain what it is we are supporting and condemning. In the abstract this may seem like an obvious requirement of rational dialogue, but the dialogue in our society suggests that then we are confronted with opponents we rarely engage in dialogue in this way. Consequently, when engaging dialogue we need to think about what we are doing, and be sure that we are taking the steps necessary to help the other understand our position, rather than merely beat them.

Plato’s Laws and Liberal Neutralism

In Plato’s Laws the character of “the Athenian” notes that laws are much more effective if they have preambles which lay out why following the law is something worth doing, rather than just simply prohibiting some act. These preambles will often involve eloquently explaining why an admirable person would obey such a law, and why it is disgraceful, not simply imprudent, to disobey the law. The Athenian’s reasoning for this argument is that persuasion should be an element of law, and these preambles will persuade people to follow the law cooperatively, and learn from the teachings of the law.

This argument raises an important problem for contemporary liberal political philosophy. A dominant approach within contemporary political philosophy in the academy is liberal neutralism, and according to certain variants of this approach to political thought it would be inappropriate for the state to use such preambles in its laws, as this would violate state neutrality. Such preambles would violate state neutrality, as any preamble which justifies a law by reference to an ideal of character or the inherent worth of a particular set of acts will imply a particular sectarian belief about the good and according to the principle of state neutrality the state must have laws that do not rely on any particular conception of the good. But, if the laws include reference to a particular conception of the good, they quite clearly violate the state neutrality requirement. Consequently, for these particular varieties of liberal neutralism, let’s call these varieties strong neutralism, the Athenian’s approach to the writing of laws is clearly prohibited. So the question becomes how does such a state persuade its subjects? It can of course draw upon reasons that are independent of a particular conception of the good, such as that long term self-interest is best secured by obedience to the laws, but it will not be able to say that citizens should obey the laws because it is an intrinsically valuable part of life to be an obedient citizen. This approach to state neutrality avoids the evil of the state imposing a good on its subjects, but is the cost in terms of its lack of ability to draw upon an image of the good to persuade its citizens a cost that it makes sense to endure? The answer to this question is not completely clear to me, although I certainly prefer the evil of having a state that is unable to draw upon images of goodness to inspire fidelity to law, over the evil of having the state which is in danger of imposing a sectarian conception of the good on its people by persuading them that a particular conception of the good is correct.

There is another approach to liberal neutralism, let’s call it weak neutralism, which would in principle allow for such preambles, but nonetheless even for this approach the Athenian’s preambles would be deeply problematic. For this approach laws need to be justifiable on the basis of reasons that do not rely on a particular conception of the good, but this approach is silent as to how the laws are to be presented to the subjects. For example, with this approach you could have a law against theft that was justified because no matter what a person’s conception of the good is they have an interest in having their property secure from theft. However, the law might be presented in terms of the fact that a good person respects the right of his fellow citizens’ right to property. However, if a state were to take this approach the question arises as to why neutrality is required for the reasons justifying a law, but not required in terms of the presentation of the law to the people? It seems arbitrary to say that neutrality is important in justification of law, but not in terms of the presentation of the law to the people. So, it seems that weak neutralism is faced by the same dilemma as strong neutralism, in that it must choose between maintaining its commitment to neutrality and having the option of drawing on particular images of the good to persuade citizens of the importance of obeying the law.

What this tells us is that liberal neutralism, has a cost in terms of forbidding the state from persuading its citizens by reference to particular images of the good. It may seem obvious that liberal neutralism requires the state to refrain from such techniques of persuasion, but yet within liberal democracies the rhetoric used to justify laws to the public often draws on particular images of the good. And is it quite probable that full commitment to neutrality would require us to be distrustful of such rhetoric, for if we use rhetoric to justify laws that draws on particular image of the good, we are saying that the state should be in line with one particular conception of the good, rather than all of the others that exist, and this seems to violate the principle that the state should be neutral between conceptions of the good. Thus, a commitment to state neutrality would require us to drastically change our mode of every day political operation by marginalizing state rhetoric that relies on particular images of the good, and thus while liberal neutralism seems intuitively plausible, it may have greater costs than it appears to have at first glance.

Critiquing Political Rhetoric: “Big Government”

The term “Big Government” is often used by the American Right to suggest that anyone who is for “Big Government” is necessarily opposed to individual freedom and individual rights. This use of the concept of “Big Government” is harmful to political dialogue because it covers over the actual disagreements between those who endorse “Big Government” and those who oppose it.

I will begin by noting that “Big Government” simply refers to a state that intervenes to a large degree in society. Now do those who favour “Big Government” actually oppose individual freedom and individual rights? It seems to me that in fact there is no inherent tension between being a supporter of individual freedom and individual rights, and “Big Government.” To explain why this is the case I will examine two possible arguments for why” Big Government” might be opposed to individual rights, and argue that neither of these establish a necessary tension between “Big Government” and individual rights and freedom.

Firstly, one critique of” Big Government” notes that because “Big Government” requires greater taxation than smaller government, supporters of “Big Government” must be opposed to individual rights, because greater taxation necessarily violates a strong right to private property. Let us call this the proprietarian critique of “Big Government.” The problem is this critique of “Big Government” depends on a contentious conception of individual rights in which one cannot be coerced to monetarily support societal imperatives without fundamentally having one’s property rights violated. However, this conception of individual rights is not something that all reasonable people can be expected to hold, and thus it is completely reasonable for someone to believe that individuals have a weaker right to property that is not sullied by high levels of  taxation. The disagreement between the proprietarian critic of” Big Government” and the supporter of  “Big Government” is not that one is for individual rights and the other is not, but rather that they hold differing conceptions of individual rights, and how strong one’s right to property ought to be. 

Secondly, another critique of “Big Government” is the idea that as government becomes larger and intervenes more in people’s lives it will be more likely to endanger their rights.  Let us call this the slippery slope critique of Big Government. This critique however does not show that proponents of” Big Government” are unconcerned with individual rights and freedom, because someone can perfectly consistently recognize this danger, and say that the benefits of “Big Government” are worth it, despite the dangers. Likewise such a proponent of “Big Government” can also support such devices as the rule of law, separation of powers, and third party watchdogs to ensure that the dangers that “Big Government” poses do not erode its citizen’s liberties. It is an empirical question whether “Big Government” actually does endanger the rights of people and history does not seem to suggest that “Big Government” tends to leads to the dissolution of individual rights and freedom within constitutional liberal democratic states. Most Western European States that are characterized by “Big Government” have not experienced much erasure of individual rights and freedom, despite the expansiveness of the initiatives that the state undertakes.

Consequently, there does not seem to be any tension between supporting “Big Government,” on one hand and supporting individual rights and freedom on the other. Many people in both America, and Europe are strong supporters of individual rights and freedom, and supporters of “Big Government.” The position that these people hold is not paradoxical rather it results from disagreements about the nature of individual rights, how dangerous “Big Government” actually is to individual rights, and whether there are constitutional devices that can prevent a strong state from endangering the freedom and rights of its citizens. Consequently, when the American Right use the term “Big Government” to suggest that those that favour a more interventionist state are opposed to individual freedom, they are falling to the level of mere polemic and not actually talking about the actual disagreements they have with proponents of “Big Government.”

Now, let it be known I am not a blind partisan of “Big Government.” The society that “Big Government” creates is problematic in many ways, but “Big Government” has no necessary opposition to individual rights and freedom, and thus opposing it, on the grounds that it is necessarily corrosive of individual rights and freedom is dubious at best.