Friday, September 21, 2007

Is It 1975?

A number of big thinkers are talking about how human dignity should be central to the next administration's foreign policy approach.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of hearing Harvard professor John Ruggie talk about his efforts to get the United Nations to codify corporate responsibility. During his speech to the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, Ruggie mentioned the central importance of human dignity in this age.

Former Carter advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote about the same thing in his recent book Second Chance. David Ignatius puts it like this in his article "A Manifesto for the Next President" in the Washington Post:

Brzezinski argues that the world is undergoing a "global political awakening," which is apparent in radically different forms from Iraq to Indonesia, from Bolivia to Tibet. Though America has focused on its notion of what people want (democracy and the wealth created by free trade and open markets), Brzezinski points in a different direction: It's about dignity.

"The worldwide yearning for human dignity is the central challenge inherent in the phenomenon of global political awakening," he argues. His worry is that America -- enfeebled by "material self-indulgence, persistent social shortcomings, and public ignorance about the world" -- may not get it.

The United States is yearning to restore its moral place in the world. The reason people are so focused on defining a more ethical foreign policy is because that is precisely what is lacking right now.

White House scandals and a failed foreign policy agenda; a tired military; inflation and oil worries; consumer product concerns; environmental worries... the list could go on. It sounds like the 1970s. Let's hope it sounds like 1975 and we are headed for a different, more constructive tone in Washington.

1 comment:

Nikolas K. Gvosdev said...

Having just returned from Europe (where the precipitous decline in the value of the dollar is a real wake-up call to our changed position in the world), there is a real concern among our allies that the United States has become fatally distracted by Iraq, and in the vaccuum, other powers are moving to advance their own agendas.

It is not 1975 in the sense that the United States post-Vietnam gave ground to another superpower bent on expanding its global reach; but what is already happening is that other powers are busily engaged in whittling away at the unipolar moment and reducing America's ability to intervene anywhere in the world without cost. Simply contrast the U.S. ability to put together an effective regional coalition and defy the UN Security Council to act on Kosovo in 1999 with the major difficulties the United States has today to impose its vision of a final settlement.

One major difference with 1975, of course, is that a major argument being voiced in both parties especially in Washington is that the Bush Administration had an ethical foreign policy (spreading democracy) that it failed to implement adequately or consistently--and so the next administration needs to be better at engaging in intervention. So far, if we take the major presidential candidates at their word, there is going to be no real retrenchment in the U.S. presence in the world.

Finally, is it about dignity versus democracy? I'm not sure--but what I think is more accurate is that whether other countries want democracy or they want dignity, they want to do so on their own terms and not under pressure from Washington. Thus the Iranian reformer is just as nationalistic as the most reactionary mullah when it comes to resisting U.S. pressure for change.

And in terms of a more ethical foreign policy, I think the standard ought to be what a country can achieve and not what it preaches.