May 14, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Daniel Warner:
Bill Keller is former Executive Editor, Managing Editor and Foreign Editor of the New York Times as well as a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter. Not only is his a voice that is heard, it is a voice that is regularly thoughtful and provocative. His column on Hillary Clinton as a potential vice-presidential candidate in January 2012 set off a political firestorm.
Keller’s May 13 New York Times editorial “Diplomats and Dissidents” (appearing today, May 14, in the print edition) is thoughtful, as to be expected, but decidedly skewed in terms of human rights. He uses two lines of argument that are widely assumed, but should not go unchallenged because they underline much of what is wrong with U.S. foreign policy. If Keller asserts that dissidents “speak truth to power and challenge us to be better,” his arguments should be challenged as well, and indirectly U.S. foreign policy that follow the line of reasoning.
The article begins by asserting that dissidents are difficult: “They moralize. They don’t compromise”. This distinction between morality and compromise harkens back to an image of morality that is absolute, as if all norms are ingrained in stone. Thou shall not kill is a good example. Is this true of self defense? The Charter of the United Nations, for example, clearly forbids aggression except, of course, in self-defense. It is not a pacifist manifesto. The question of killing should always be seen situationally; it is not an absolute. Even one of the Ten Commandments can be “compromised”.
Keller’s distinction between dissidents with their particular morality and the activities of American diplomats “who have important business to transact with countries that don’t share our values” has several assumptions. First, he implies that “our” values are absolutely moral and completely separated from anything immoral. Second, he implies that doing business in itself may not be moral. And third, he posits the problem of doing business with countries that do not share “our” values. Keller poses the problem if and how “we moralists” should do “business” with those who are different as if doing business is different from the world of morality and we are fundamentally different from others. Pity the poor diplomat who has to make these choices.
Michael Walzer’s famous article on the problem of dirty hands extended the notion of immorality to politics as if any movement away from absolute morality sullies the hands of the statesman. The vision of the dissident’s world that Keller is invoking is a vision of morality separated from society, a vision that led several of our politicians to worship on Saturday or Sunday and order the most horrendous bombings on Monday morning when they entered the world of dirty politics. To profess absolute morality in isolation is to invite this kind of schizophrenic behavior. There is an image here of Thoreau leaving the corrupt world to commune with nature or Kevin Costner dancing with the wolves away from the evils of civilization.
Keller’s distinction between realists and idealists goes back to an old binary debate that has dominated American foreign policy especially during the establishment of the League of Nations and later the United Nations. The focus of the debate has been the realistic, national interest of the United States versus idealistic, universal interest represented by international organizations such as the League and the U.N. The idealists, according to those who constructed the debate, live in a world separated from the day to day in asocial perfection. This idealism, constructed for obvious reasons, allows the so-called realists to perform as they wish since we live in a corrupted world with no chance of salvation. All human rights activity, such as Keller’s view of the lonely dissident, must be admired, but ultimately ignored. As Morton Kaplan has written, “We are corrupted and compromised by life”. Thus, because all life is corrupted, all is permitted. In the absolute world there are human rights, in the real world of politics and business there is no morality. National interest and power trump multilateralism and cooperation.
But, the second important part of the article is what Keller completely ignores and his glaring second assumption. He writes about Chen Guangcheng. He writes about President Obama’s record on human rights and those of his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He talks about the Dalai Lama, the Green Revolution, the U.S. in Bahrain, Joseph Kony, all outstanding cases of violations of civil and political rights. What he completely omits, which is part of the same ideology that separates realists from idealists, are economic, social and cultural rights. The United States refused to have a universal declaration of human rights with one covenant after World War II that included these rights. They were considered “Red Rights” associated with socialism and the Soviet Union. As a result, there were two covenants of rights, with the United States still not ratifying the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The debate over Obamacare falls into this debate. No right to housing, no right to health care, etc.
So, when Bill Keller writes that “America operates in the real world,” he means that the United States operates in its own real world of prioritizing civil and political rights over economic, social and cultural rights although the two sets of rights are supposed to be interdependent. Ask the Chinese about human rights, and they in turn will ask about the level of poverty in the United States, the number of uninsured and the expensive health care system. The Chinese, among others, can point to capital punishment and other human rights abuses within the United States, but Keller prefers to use his understanding of human rights as the ultimate yardstick. Economic, social and cultural rights are excluded from his human rights agenda.
While it is interesting to read Bill Keller, it is even more interesting to see how he falls into two of the most outstanding ideological traps of recent U.S. history. Ideas do matter. As Robert Cox famously wrote: “Theory is always for someone and for some purpose”. The binary distinctions between idealists and realists as well as between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights are ingrained and assumed. They shouldn’t be, and they shouldn’t be allowed to go unchallenged.
Daniel Warner is a political scientist living in Geneva, Switzerland, and the author of “An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations”.