Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ron Paul's Foreign Policy: Golden Rule or Relativism?

If you move about those regions of the internets in which righteous display their moral superiority by posting sixty second video clips showing just how bad their opponents are, you have probably seen headlines lately along the lines of "Christians Boo Jesus" or "Republicans Mock Golden Rule". Of course, one hardly needs to watch the clip, because in the dualism that is politicization, everyone already knows that they're right and their opponents are wrong. But after the fifth or sixth iteration, I had to go ahead watch Ron Paul (who else) present his Golden-Rule based foreign policy to boos. Here's the clip in question:

Or if, like me, you tend not to watch posted videos, here's the money quote:
"My point is, that if another country does to us what we do to others, we aren't going to like it very much. So I would say maybe we ought to consider a golden rule in foreign policy. We endlessly bomb these other countries and then we wonder why they get upset with us?"
Now, this sounds superficially high minded, and some people who really are high minded seem lured by it. Kyle, who has an genuine and expansive desire to understand "the other" has his dander up and says:
Last night, while listening to the latest debate, I heard the audience boo the suggestion that we ought to apply the Golden Rule to our dealings and relations with foreign powers and people. Ares forbid we treat strangers the way we want to be treated. Woe to those who put themselves in another’s place and consider the world from his or her perspective.
He links approvingly to Robert Wright over at The Atlantic, who quotes some of the other examples of Ron Paul's "moral imagination", which has made him the unlikely darling of the far left:
Paul routinely performs a simple thought experiment: He tries to imagine how the world looks to people other than Americans....

After observing that Israel and America and China have nukes, he asks about Iranians, "Why wouldn't it be natural that they'd want a weapon? Internationally they'd be given more respect."

Can somebody explain to me why this is such a crazy conjecture about Iranian motivation? Wouldn't it be reasonable for Iranian leaders, having seen what happened to nukeless Saddam Hussein and nukeless Muammar Qaddafi, to conclude that maybe having a nuclear weapon would get them more respectful treatment?
A favorite Paul pedagogical device is to analogize foreign situations to American ones. A campaign ad promoted by a Paul-supporting super PAC begins by asking us to imagine Russian or Chinese troops in Texas. The point is that this is how our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan look to locals.
If you want to see that particular piece of imagination, here that is too:

The closing line here is actually a pretty good example of where this "imagination" breaks down, so although it's a minor detail I'll begin there: "The sad thing is, our foreign policy WILL change eventually, as Rome's did, when all budgetary and monetary tricks to fund it are exhausted."

This ties into one of our pervasive historical myths about the Roman era: That Rome was good and stable and virtuous so long as it remained a localized Republic, but that once it turned into an empire and got big, decay and debauchery soon set in and it fell. This misses out on the fact that the Roman Empire, from Augustus Caesar to Romulus Augustus, lasted some 450 years and was, for all its faults, generally more stable than the Republic had been. Moreover, it was primarily the imperial phase of Rome which provided Roman cultural to the entirety of the known world, a culture which has remained one of the foundational elements of Western Culture (and now global culture) ever since. When the Roman Empire gradually came apart, lapsing into "barbarian" successor kingdoms in the West and the Byzantine Empire in the East, this is generally seen as a bad thing, not an improvement. It's commonly called the "Dark Ages", and although there's some serious historical prejudice going on there, the period from 400 to 800 was indeed generally a lot dimmer than the period from 1 to 400. For whatever reason, however, libertarians of the Ron Paul persuasion seem to be on the side of collapse in regards to this type of history.

With that bit of historical perspective, let's think a little more deeply about Ron Paul's "moral imagination". Looked at a little more closely, I think we'll find that "moral equivocation" is a little more like it. Let's try a little moral imagination of our own:
Think on the lot of the gang leader. There he is, running a great business of selling crack on the street corners, extracting protection money, and pimping out hos, when what should happen but a bunch of cops show up pointing guns at his gangbangers, knocking down doors to his crack houses, arresting his homeboys. What can you expect him to think? If the cops have guns, he's going to want to have guns. If the cops knock down his door, he'll want to knock down their doors. If they lock up his people, he'll lock up their people. How can we go treating these gang members in ways that we don't want to be treated?
Now, as the basic level, this arguably does describe the logic of the gang leader. If he wants to keep doing what he's doing despite the pressure of law enforcement, he's going to resort to violence and intimidation in response to what he sees as violence and intimidation aimed at him. Does that mean, however, that the solution is simply to cede ownership of swathes of large cities to gang leaders because doing otherwise would involve an escalation in mutual violence between gangs and government authorities. Well, actually, with Ron Paul, he may mean that. But for those of us who are sane, there's a difference between the two side of this situation which this exercise in imagination fails to grasp: the gang leader is breaking the law of being destructive to the common good while the law enforcement is trying to enforce the law and protect the common good.

Is protecting the common good, occasionally by resort to force, a violation of the Golden Rule? Only if the Golden Rule is applied with complete moral relativism. Understood properly, arresting people who gun down their rival crack sellers or extract protection is money is compatible with the Golden Rule, because through their endorsement of the legal order those who enforce the law by arresting these lawbreakers also want to be arrested if they too break the law. They are enforcing the laws that all of us have chosen to live by, and in so doing we as a society are treating others as we want to be treated.

When we elide the moral context, we can make it look like enforcing any kind of justice or order is a violation of the Golden Rule, but as the above example shows, this is clearly not the case.

Having established this basic principle, it now remains to address Ron Paul's more specific points. After all, it might be that police enforcing the law against gang members is perfectly legitimate, but does that principle apply to the US having military bases in foreign countries, or to trying to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons? Aren't all countries, at least, basically equal and deserving of equal rights?

Let's think about Ron Paul's logic a bit here.
Wouldn't it be reasonable for Iranian leaders, having seen what happened to nukeless Saddam Hussein and nukeless Muammar Qaddafi, to conclude that maybe having a nuclear weapon would get them more respectful treatment?
Well, yes. It is logical for Iranian leaders to think this way. They're maintaining a moderately brutal dictatorship that many of their own people would like to see replaced with another form of government, and they're trying to exert greater power in the region after being moderately successful in fighting a low level proxy war against the US in the Shiite regions of Iraq. The other regional powers are Turkey and Israel, both of which have nuclear weapons, and if they could get their own nuclear weapons they would insulate themselves from outside attack (as North Korea has by acquiring nukes) while perhaps buying themselves some time from their own people if regional domination wins them benefits which can be shared around at home.

But what all that internal logic leaves aside is: Does that mean that we, as an outside power, should simply shrug and not mind if they acquire nukes with these aims?

After all, isn't it a generally good thing that Saddam Hussein's brutal Baathist dictatorship fell (as the citizens of the other Baathist dictatorship in the region, Syria, are dying in large numbers to achieve in their own country) and that Qaddafi's oppressive regime has also fallen? Isn't it generally a bad thing that the neo-Stalinist regime in North Korea has won added staying power (and the ability to continue killing tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of their own citizens every year through oppression and starvation) through acquiring nuclear weapons? Not to mention that it may yet turn out to be a very bad thing for some of North Korea's neighbors if the regime goes unstable and actually does launch nukes at South Korea or Japan?

Moral imagination can help us understand that many in the Soviet Union of the '30s really were convinced that "wreckers" were threatening the socialist paradise and needed to be stopped, that many in Wilhelmine Germany really did think that they needed to start a European war before Russia overtook them in economic and military power, and that many in the '30s really did think that "Judeo-Bolshevism" was the greatest threat to their freedom. It can also help us understand that which side of a war someone fights on (and what someone believes about the purpose of a war) often has a lot more to do with where that person was born than with any kind of cool consideration of the issues at stake.

But it does not mean that none of these issues matter, and that there is not a right and a wrong side to a dispute. (Or in the gray tones of the real world: a better and a worse side.) It's all very well to ask how people would feel if there were a Chinese or Russian military base in Texas. However, it would be most fruitful to ask people in Tibet whether they'd rather have an American military base in the area, that behave roughly the way the US military bases in Japan and South Korea do, or if they'd rather stick with the way the Chinese occupation treats them. Openmindedness is somewhat fetishized in our relativistic society, but the fact of the matter is that being "occupied" by the US is generally a much more healthy experience than being occupied by the Chinese or the Russians. This by no means should be taken to mean that the US never does anything wrong while acting as the world's policeman, but when you look at the other folks lining up to be world or regional policemen, it looks like a pretty attractive alternative.

The Christian approach is not found in pretending that there is no difference between viewpoints in disputes between nations, but in realizing that even when we are locked in combat with "the other", we must recall his humanity. C. S. Lewis, I believe, staked out the true Christian viewpoint on such issues when he said in Mere Christianity:
I have often thought to myself how it would have been if, when I served in the first world war, I and some young German had killed each other simultaneously and found ourselves together a moment after death. I cannot imagine that either of us would have felt any resentment or even any embarrassment. I think we might have laughed over it.

I imagine somebody will say, `Well, if one is allowed to condemn the enemy's acts, and punish him, and kill him, what difference is left between Christian morality and the ordinary view?' All the difference in the world. Remember, we Christians think man lives for ever.


August said...

Paul is not a relativist, nor is Iran what you think it is. The problem is, you are getting at least some of your information from the real relativists- Hilary and co. in the State Department- who want you to think it is legitimate for them to go to war with Iran. I am sure there are things wrong in Iran, but America has more citizens in jail than anybody. We don't have any moral high ground. We also have evidence- the Iraqi constitution and the ensuing mess of a government- that our 'nation-builders' seem more interested in creating chaos than stable governments and a freer people.

The government is run by people who think the 2nd world war ended the great depression. The real danger isn't Iran, but rather folks in D.C. who are tempted by bad economic theory. Think about this- why would Iran close the Straits of Hormuz? This is what the pro-war people are saying, but it would lock Iran in! They couldn't ship anything out themselves. That shipping lane is more important to them than to the U.S.

And no matter what you think the situation actually is with Iran, you can at least look back and see the U.S. has not done a very good job achieving objectives.

Morgan said...

The main problemz with your argument is 1) that we have some moral authority and 2) that to not invade Iran would be to "cede" authority over a country which we have no right to or authority over.

Iran is none of our business and is certainly not worth losing more American lives over. Especially since Iraq and Afghanistan went so well... don't you think we should at least learn from our mistakes?

Darwin said...


Well, it's difficult to have argument about matters of fact, especially when one party to the argument is willing to distrust many mainstream sources.

I certainly don't think that anyone in our current government or among the Republican hopefuls imagines that a war with Iran is necessary to stimulate the economy. If some sort of action or threat of action did become necessary against Iran, it would be in response to attacks or threats against US forces in the region or US allies in the region.

Ron Paul's apparent belief that we should simply walk out on the region and let the regional powers fight it out (including allowing Iran to become a nuclear power) is, however, pretty clearly irresponsible, and although you may have special knowledge that he is not himself a relativist, the "golden rule" argument that he deployed in this case certainly appears to be relativist, as is his "how would we like a Chinese military base in Texas" argument.


I'm a little unclear what you're trying to say with your first paragraph and the two points in it. I have the feeling perhaps word or two got left out.

However, on principle I'll clarify a couple points which may be what you're trying to get at:

1) You can call it moral authority or not, but the fact of the matter is that the US is the one superpower in the world. One can like it or not, but generally speaking this seems to result in a much more peaceful world than the old "balance of powers" that existed in prior centuries. I think it would be irresponsible of us to walk out on that role.

2) I don't think that we "cede" authority by not invading Iran, nor do I advocate that we simply invade Iran on principle. As of this moment, Iran has not, to my knowledge, done anything that would require military action on our part. However, this does not mean that it is not reasonable of us to make it clear that certain actions such as staging a unilateral shut down of regional trade, building nuclear weapons, or staging an attack on one of our allies in the region would result in military action on our part.

3) While mistakes have certainly been made, Iraq and Afghanistan have actually gone pretty well from a US perspective. While I think it's important for us to learn from our mistakes and do better in future small wars, our performance there is certainly nothing that would suggest we should go back to pre-WW2style isolationism.

Al said...

First off, I am certainly not sure that Iraq is in a generally better situation.

Paul is certainly not applying the golden rule with moral relativism. He's not saying we don't have a right to defend ourselves. But these threats that we're defending ourselves from are fabrications.

You say that Iran has not done anything yet that would require military action. All the other Republican candidates seem to be eager to start a war, working under the assumption that Iran is working towards building nuclear weapons. Also, I'm curious whether you think assassination of Iranian scientists is morally defensible.

Also, I would appreciate an explanation of why foreign entanglements are a good idea.

Darwin said...


On Iraq, I guess assessments will vary. I'd tend to think of problems a nation has because of internal conflicts as being a better option than problems a nation has because it's under the boot of a police state and dictatorship.

On threats from Iran being fabrications: It probably in part depends what one means by "treat". Is Iran likely to invade the continental US? No, not remotely. If we decided to pull back from our position as de facto global policeman, is it likely that Iran would get involved in regional power struggles or wars that could well draw us in 5-10 years down the road: probably fairly likely.

A lot of whether one sees it as realistic for the US to be involved in the regional geopolitics of the Middle East has to do with whether one thinks it's realistic for the US to restrict its scope of national interest to North America. (I'd say that we can't -- though it might seem for a while like we were getting away with it.)

I do think it's highly likely that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. (Actually, Paul seems to think that's relatively likely too -- he argues that they would see it as in their interest.)

I don't know whether we are involved in assassinating Iranian scientists, nor do I necessarily have a position on whether it would be morally defensible to be involved if we were. I tend to lean against the moral permissibility of assassination in nearly all cases. (I also think that would be a pretty poor way to try to block a nuclear program.)

On foreign entanglements: I feel like I'm already running long, but a really short answer would be to point out that our two most destructive foreign wars came directly after (and to an extent as a result of) two of our most isolationist periods. By becoming the world's policeman since WW2 and especially since the fall of the USSR, we've got sucked into a lot of smaller wars but with the advantage of not having to engage in big ones.

Al said...

I guess I understand what you're saying. I still don't think I agree with you, but I appreciate your response.

Arkanabar said...

>Some perspective on our relations with Iran and Iraq may be instructive. We (CIA and MI6) worked REALLY HARD to overthrow Iran's popularly elected prime minister in the 50s when he acted to nationalize BP's oil holdings, and under our sponsorship and tutelage the Shah wound up running a nasty autocratic government complete with murderous secret police. Eventually, a cleric he'd arrested a few decades before staged a coup that the military did not object to. That was the 1979 revolution. Within a few years, we were giving military aid and support to Iraq, propping up their murderous Baathist regime so they could be our proxy against the Ayatollah who'd overthrown our autocratic puppet Shah.... and we wonder why they hate us, or why they're so messed up? Aside from BP, who benefitted from this horrific mess?

Darwin said...

Well, BP didn't really benefit much in the end either.

Certainly, there are plenty of examples where the US intervened in other countries in stupid or destructive ways. There are times when we should keep our hands off, or when we should know better what we're doing before we insert ourselves into a situation.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean that Iran in it's present incarnation isn't a problem in the region, or that we should have a policy of never intervening (which appears to be the Ron Paul position.)

After all, for all that the Shah was not a nice guy, as is often the case when not-nice-guys get overthrown, the regime which replaced him is pretty clearly worse and has been pretty much from the get go. Given the choice between the Shah and the Ayatollah, the Shah was arguably the horse to back.

The Iraq issue is messier. It's true that the US was at times aiding Iraq, but at the same time Iraq had a closer relationship throughout the 70s and 80s with the Soviet Union. (Which is why the Gulf War ended up being, in part, a good testing ground for the relative usefulness of the American and Soviet conventional arsenals -- the Soviets had been Iraq's weapon suppliers and they used Soviet tanks, missiles, rifles and other weapon systems, while Americans and American-allies were using American designed tanks and weapons systems.) To hear a lot of people talk now, however, you'd think that Iraq had primarily been a US client state.