America and the World: Ethical Dimensions to Power
This discussion between Joel H. Rosenthal, Michael J. Smith, William F. Felice, and Donald Eastman took place March 8, 2005.
DONALD EASTMAN: Welcome to this lecture, the third in a four-part series entitled “America and the World: Ethical Dimensions of Power.” The series is being cosponsored by the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs and the International Relations and Global Affairs Program of Eckerd College.
Bill Felice is a professor of political science and serves as the coordinator for students in the international affairs discipline. He runs courses focused on the United Nations and has taken groups on field trips to New York and on study-abroad programs to Geneva. Professor Felice is indispensable to the goals Eckerd College is trying to accomplish in the field of international affairs. Thank you for your leadership.
I will now turn the program over to Professor Felice.
WILLIAM FELICE: Good evening. I have worked on and off with the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs for over ten years now. My first contact with the Council was as a student, when I attended their six-week faculty training seminar on teaching ethics in international affairs, held in 1994 at the University of Virginia. My two teachers were none other than Joel Rosenthal and Michael Smith. It is a pleasure and an honor for me to be on this panel with them today.
Our format tonight will be as follows. I am going to pose some questions to Michael and Joel, and they will then answer these questions one at a time. After we get through the prepared questions, the floor will be open for questions from our audience.
WILLIAM FELICE: I would like to begin by asking Joel and Michael to address two issues:
- How did each of you get involved in the field of ethics and international relations? I’d like to hear an account of your intellectual journey.
- In addition, I hope you can go beyond your individual stories and help us to understand what constitutes an ethical approach to international affairs. What are the biggest challenges in taking such an approach?
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you very much, Bill. I want to just thank President Eastman for his introduction. I take to heart his vision for Eckerd College’s international affairs program. Before the panel started, I talked to some of your faculty about the course that Bill teaches, “The Quest for Meaning”; and I can see that ethics is a big part of your intellectual climate. I’m delighted to see such a large turnout at tonight’s event.
Also, I’d like to say that of the three of us, Michael has been the intellectual pioneer. Bill and I have learned a lot from him.
As to Bill’s first question, I’m glad he asked it because I don’t often get the opportunity to talk about how I got here, about my personal story.
Very briefly, at the start of my career, I thought I was going to be a historian. I majored in history as an undergraduate and continued at the graduate level. While studying for my Ph.D. in history at Yale, I became involved in a course called “The Intellectual Roots of American Foreign Policy,” taught by Professor Gaddis Smith, as well as a course on contemporary American political history taught by Robert Westbrook.
After a while, I came to the conclusion that the most interesting, thoughtful, and challenging classes had to do with moral and ethical dilemmas, or choices. It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up the issues that caught my attention—in fact, we still refer to them today. In short, I was drawn to the moral issues raised by Hiroshima, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and the human rights debate. The landmarks for me when I was coming of age were the end of Vietnam, Watergate, and the transition to Jimmy Carter, which precipitated a discussion of morality and moral values—very different in context from the discussions we are having today. The other great moral issue, some of you will remember, occurred in the early 1980s: the debates over nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament.
For me, the change from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan ushered in a very different view of morality. While Carter took a human rights approach, Reagan took an anti-communist stance, conjuring up the “city upon the hill” as a quintessential part of the American identity.
After Yale I went to the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs. When I first joined the organization, it had only just changed its name from the Council on Religion and International Affairs. The Council had enjoyed a long reputation for fostering ethics—but from an inter-religious perspective. The name change signaled its intention to shift to a more secular and philosophical approach. Part of my job was to try to develop this approach: what do we mean by “ethics”? I had to articulate an ethics approach that would be more accessible, particularly as we moved to a worldwide, rather than just domestic, discussion of ethics.
That is my perfect segue to Michael Smith, because everything I learned about ethics, I learned from him.
MICHAEL SMITH: Picture, if you would, the moment in 1969 when I arrived at Harvard as a freshman. We were debating the Vietnam War, and one of the first events I attended was a panel discussion featuring Noam Chomsky; Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars; Stanley Hoffman, who was teaching a course on war at the time; Richard Holbrooke, who at that point had just left the State Department to edit Foreign Policy magazine; and Frances Fitzgerald, the extraordinary woman who wrote the finest book on the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake. What I discovered was that each of these people—Chomsky, most extremely—insisted that the United States stood for something in the world, and that its ideals had been besmirched by the way we were fighting in Vietnam, even if our goals there were honorable (actually, Chomsky even disputed that).
So from an early time, I got used to the idea that whenever one talks about foreign policy and foreign affairs, there can be no escaping the question of ethics. That leads me to the “oxymoron problem,” which I’ll illustrate with a story. One year, I think it was 1990, Joel, Bill, and I [inaudible] were in London at the International Studies Association meeting. We[inaudbile] were serving on a panel on ethics and intervention. The three of us were standing at the elevator—I should say, the lift—and someone asked us, “Where are you going?” I said, “We’re part of the ethics and international relations group.” The person responded, “Well, that will be a short panel.”
Remember, I was just out of Harvard. So I said, “Congratulations, you’re number 338 to make that same remark.” Later, after I’d lived in the South for a while (I accepted a post at the University of Virginia), I grew more civilized. Nowadays, when I get that response, I tend to say, very politely: “Do you really think there are no ethical dilemmas in international politics? Isn’t there a moral question about when and where we go to war, and how we wage war? Do you really think there are no ethical implications in the way we respond or don’t respond to the HIV/AIDS crisis or the tsunami disaster? Do you really think these responses are devoid of ethical choices? I’m puzzled. How can you make that claim?”
Once you get people over the notion that there is an arena that is somehow exempt from ethical inquiry—a very strange notion when you think about it, as the international arena is the only one where we ask people to die on behalf of our collective ideals—then the next thing you typically hear is: “Well, we just have to act in the national interest.”
When somebody says, “I’d like to do that, but the national interest requires me to do X, Y, or Z instead,” then it seems to me you have to ask them: “So how do you define the national interest?” The national interest is not an objective value. It’s not a theorem. It’s not something people will discover when we finally get the Hubble telescope working again. The national interest is shorthand for a series of prior moral choices. Therefore, when one person says, “The national interest requires us to invade Iraq,” and another person says, “No, I disagree with you. We shouldn’t invade Iraq,” they are really debating about the values that go into defining the national interest, in terms of both ends and means.
What are the principles you are acting on? What are your goals in trying to do this? How do you prioritize those goals? Why are you choosing this goal over that goal? Why do human rights violations seem to matter more in Iraq than in Darfur? Why does the prospect of nuclear weapons seem to matter more in Iran than in North Korea? Why do we spend, as a nation, 15/100 of 1 percent of our gross national product on aid and development, the lowest of all the G8 nations? What choices have we made? What are the justifications for those choices? Or, going back to one of Joel’s historical examples: Why did we choose to drop a bomb on Hiroshima? Was it a justifiable choice?
So, you see, values are what defines the national interest. George McGovern’s definition is going to differ from Richard Nixon’s, which is going to differ from George Bush’s and Condoleezza Rice’s.
Still, some will argue that, look, there comes a time when the nation’s very survival is at stake. When that happens, the national interest has to, in a sense, trump everything else. You have to do what you have to do to survive as a nation. A case in point is our post-9/11 world. Surely, now that terrorists are targeting us on our own soil, we have no choice but to embrace the kinds of policies that will safeguard our citizens.
Before examining this claim, let’s look at another historical example. Put your minds back—or at least your historical minds back—to June of 1940, after the fall of France. At that time, the threat to national survival was not a theoretical one; it was real. One group of the French, led by Marshal Pétain, the hero of the battle of Verdun, says, “France’s national survival requires that we surrender to the Nazis, so why don’t we create a protected zone at Vichy. Essentially, we will cooperate with the Nazis—even to the extent that we will turn over our Jews in the Vichy area to the Nazi regime to be killed.” Indeed, P?tain and his followers believed that France’s national survival required the surrender so that they could rebuild France along organic—anti-Semitic—lines. Those were their values.
On the other side was a young colonel, Charles de Gaulle. He said: “France’s national survival requires that we organize resistance, that we hurt the Nazis wherever we can, that we refuse to surrender, and that we make their occupation as difficult as possible.” De Gaulle’s definition of national survival reflected very different values from those of P?tain: values of patriotism, of resistance, of, indeed, decency to one’s fellow human beings. De Gaulle was not in favor of turning over citizens to the Germans to be killed. He was in favor of organizing a resistance.
France in 1940 presents a clear case where national survival was hanging in the balance. The Nazis were in France, so the issue was: how do we as a nation deal with this? The answers different people provided reflected the values they brought to the question itself. There was no objective answer about the most effective policy to ensure France’s survival.
Similarly, there is no objective answer about how best to handle America’s problems with terrorism—objective in the sense that everyone can agree to it. Rather, the situation we find ourselves in will necessarily foster debate about the values we bring to the table when reaching decisions on the tasks before us, as well as the sacrifices and trade-offs those tasks will entail.
What is more, it’s important that we debate these issues openly, without questioning one another’s patriotism. It is not unpatriotic to think, for example, that the USA Patriot Act might have been passed in haste, and that much of its content really has very little to do with the terrorist fight. You and I might disagree about that, but it doesn’t mean that one of us is patriotic while the other is unpatriotic. We are two types of citizens debating the values that should be used to define America’s national interests in an increasingly dangerous world.
So to reiterate: Whenever you hear people say, “It’s all very well for you academics or you citizens who have the luxury of choice, but I’m in power, I have to do what the national interest requires,” you should insist that they define what they mean by the national interest and that they explain the values that went into crafting that definition. You don’t just roll over because someone has invoked the national interest.
WILLIAM FELICE: Thank you for setting the stage on the big issues surrounding an ethical approach to international relations.
Now I would like to sharpen the discussion. In thinking about issues of global justice, we can see that certain international principles have been enshrined in the charter of the United Nations and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both of which arose out of the Great Depression and World War II. Franklin Delano Roosevelt expressed the commitment found in both documents when delivering his address about the four freedoms: freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of worship, and freedom of expression.
These four areas—security, economy, religion, and democracy—likewise seem to dominate the foreign policy discourse of the Bush administration, and of international relations overall. So what I propose to do tonight is to take each of FDR’s four freedoms in turn, and discuss where we are with them today.
Let’s begin with security, freedom from fear. How do you think the United States is doing on the goal of seeking security, and hence freeing its citizens from fear, post-9/11?
JOEL ROSENTHAL: First, I should point out that the idea of organizing this discussion around the four freedoms actually comes from Professor Felice’s book, The Global New Deal, where he develops the idea of extending the principles that were a part of FDR’s vision domestically to a global vision of world politics.
Why is that important? In part, it has to do with something Michael just mentioned, the oxymoron problem. You’ve all heard the aphorism that comes from Thucydides’ Athenian general: “The strong do what they will; the weak do what they must.” Some people will tell you that this is all you really need to know about international politics. Maximizing power is the variable that matters most, end of story. Within the discipline of international relations, the realist model is now the standard method—and has been taken to absurd extremes.
As Bill just said, there are countervailing norms that states themselves have declared and agreed to—some of these agreements are binding, some not. But the point is, if you want to talk about international morality, it is not as though you’d be without a compass or any points of reference. There are some basic points of reference that Bill just mentioned. They don’t come from God. They come from states, and they grew out of historical experience.
The genius of FDR—and Eleanor Roosevelt as well—was in recognizing and expressing basic human rights in a secular, universalist language, which allows for a certain plurality. People from different traditions can find meaning in these international moral norms, and the norms themselves furnish a global reference point.
Bill asked about freedom from fear—well, there’s a lot of fear nowadays. I work in New York. I was in the city on 9/11. There was a great deal of fear then, and there is still fear. Every day I go through Grand Central terminal, I see policemen and National Guard in combat fatigues. Fighting the “war on terrorism” is now a part of our everyday life.
After 9/11, choices were made by the current administration, and traditional norms came under stress. Let me flag just a couple of examples. One is the norm of justified preemption: when is it moral, legal, and ethical to use force? Since 9/11, our government’s ideas about this have been shifting, and new criteria are emerging. We should face squarely the fact that the administration’s criteria for intervention do not appear to be widely shared among America’s traditional allies.
I will state just one more example: the pictures from Abu Ghraib, which as you probably noticed, appeared on the ad for this session. These photos provide evidence that the United States has been violating the norms of the Geneva Conventions that set the standards for the proper treatment of prisoners. You all have read about the debates within the administration over the relevance (or irrelevance) of the Conventions as they apply to “unlawful combatants.” Yet here was a norm that was supposed to have been settled years ago. I have had discussions with professional military officers, and if there was ever a norm I’d bet had been settled, that was it.
MICHAEL SMITH: One way to think about these issues is to decide whether you want to be the heirs of Thomas Hobbes, who believed that the state of nature is one where all of us live in constant fear, and where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, or the heirs of Immanuel Kant. Contrary to common belief, Kant did not think we were all just dying to be good to one another. He actually shared much of Hobbes’s gloomy view of human nature. That is, he talked about our “asocial sociability”: the fact that human beings are recalcitrant creatures who like to have things both ways.
Kant’s solution to the problem of humanity’s “asocial sociability” was radically different from that of Hobbes. For Hobbes, the ideal polity was one in which laws would pass from the lips of the sovereign to the ears of the governed—not a very happy image. Whereas Kant said that the only laws we will actually obey are the ones we make for ourselves. We need to structure our lives so that the restraints we have placed on ourselves permit us to coexist with the maximum amount of individual freedom.
On the question on security: I would say that the current administration has been schizophrenic about the way it handles security issues. On the one hand, we see the president and people in his administration talking about the importance of freedom and democracy, saying it is important to spread these ideals. On the other hand, we have a sort of underside to that policy, resting on what appears to be a Hobbesian philosophy. In particular, this administration appears to be in favor of jettisoning international norms, many of which the United States helped to write and put into law—norms governing the treatment of prisoners being a prime example.
Elsewhere in the world, the response to terrorism has been rather different. The Europeans have had thirty years of experience with terrorist attacks. In general, they have not reacted quite as extremely as we Americans have. Bush administration officials essentially did a quick read of the Geneva Conventions and figured out a clever way to circumvent international norms governing the treatment of enemy combatants—so that the president could, essentially by fiat, declare any of us in this room to be an enemy combatant and lock us away without giving us access to a lawyer or indeed without charging us with anything.
The norm that says you can’t be imprisoned without being charged actually goes back to the Magna Carta. No wonder the Supreme Court—not a liberal Supreme Court, either—reversed the administration’s position.
Why is the administration doing this? What appears to be driving their policy is a Hobbesian fear—the notion that we have to behave even more badly than our enemies, because that is the only way to get their attention. The only way to deal with bad guys is to be even worse than they are.
In my view, that kind of thinking is what led to putting people away in Guantánamo—to the policy of extraordinary rendition. The New York Times recently carried a story about a Syrian-born Canadian who was apprehended when changing planes in New York and deported to Syria. It was a case of a man being arrested without being charged and then being turned over to another government for questioning. At that point, American officials said very solemnly, “We hope you don’t torture this person, but we do need to know the answers to the following questions. And if you engage in rigorous interrogation, well, we can’t be there 24/7.”
In my view, this policy of fear is counterproductive in very deep ways. The way I see it, the most effective way to penetrate terrorist networks is by getting to the places where terrorists receive support, and getting the people who live there to trust us.
A lot of anti-terrorist activity is not spectacular. It’s not about smart bombs. Rather, it consists of old-fashioned, hard-slogging police work—the kind that requires cooperation with one’s allies, not lectures to them about how soft they are; the kind that requires sharing data, being open with it, and learning from the experience of other countries that have dealt with terrorist threats within their borders.
Americans were so shocked by the 9/11 attacks that we appear to have lost our ballast, our moral compass. I find it incredible, for instance, that we are now debating the ethics of torture. As Joel pointed out, we have actually signed and ratified a treaty on the treatment of prisoners. The principles in that treaty are written into American law. It is literally painful to me to see our society revisiting the issue of torture, trotting out those hoary old philosophy examples, which in fact, never occur in real life—about torturing somebody to avoid having people killed[inaudible]. (By the way, has anyone ever explained why information that is elicited from torture is considered to be more accurate than other information?)
As an American citizen, I feel debased by the pictures from Abu Ghraib. In my view, all American citizens have been debased because these soldiers were acting in our name. I remind you that for all the reports—there have been many, many investigations—the only people to have been punished thus far are a handful of military personnel at the bottom of the command chain. Our society has reached a point, it seems, where disclosure and an expression of horror are considered to be an adequate substitute for genuine accountability—accountability being a key norm for a democratic society.
WILLIAM FELICE: Michael mentioned the current administration’s schizophrenia. One side is the treatment of suspects and prisoners, which he said has gone to extremes. The other side is the promotion of democracy. Let’s move to this issue of democracy and the second freedom, the freedom of expression. As we all know, President Bush has made democracy promotion central to his foreign policy. How would each of you rate his progress?
JOEL ROSENTHAL: President Bush actually reminds me of Woodrow Wilson when he talks about his goal of making the world safe for democracy. But the difference is that President Wilson worked multilaterally. He didn’t try to go it alone, without friends or without burden sharing. Also in Wilson’s day, America agreed with its allies on basic values, such as self-determination of peoples.
When it comes to democracy promotion, the key to success in my view is solvency, which I mean in two ways. One is, how can you embark on this global enterprise of promoting democracy if you’re going to do it alone? Can you—literally—afford it? Does it make sense? Or have you overextended your capacity?
But I also mean solvency on a moral level. If the majority of the world believes that what you’re doing is immoral or illegitimate in some way, and you haven’t done the hard work to persuade them otherwise, then you have a moral solvency problem.
I applaud the basic idea that Americans are willing to plant their flag and say: “This is what we stand for as a nation; these are our values.” But as we move out into the world and try to promote democracy, I worry about the means chosen and their sustainability.
MICHAEL SMITH: I am pleased to see that the Bush administration is promoting democracy. But you can’t do it hypocritically and you can’t do it halfway. I fear that we are in danger of being charged with both counts.
Why are we seen as hypocritical? If you’re going to promote democracy elsewhere in the world, it is important that you demonstrate a consistent commitment to this policy, one that doesn’t, in a sense, get trimmed down the moment other concerns arise. It is also important that you behave consistently at home. I would be very much happier about the administration’s policy of democracy promotion if American citizens were able to get into a town meeting with the president without having to be prescreened for their views. I would be happier about democracy promotion if we took it seriously in countries where we get along, more or less, with the government, like Saudi Arabia. I would be happier if the administration were a little more thoughtful about the means they use for achieving democracy.
These days, there is a certain amount of crowing in the Bush administration about what is going on in the Middle East. We have had an election in Iraq, and there been expressions of people power in Beirut, which could result in the withdrawal of Syrian troops. I am reminded of the early days of Mr. Wolfowitz, when he was saying the invasion of Iraq would unleash a wave of democracy in the Middle East.
Let’s recall the reason the Iraqi election occurred in January of 2005. It was because of the direct intervention of the Ayatollah Sistani and his group. Initially, the United States opposed direct elections. Paul Bremer said on numerous occasions that the country wasn’t ready. It was only after sustained opposition from many groups, including the Kurds and various Shia factions, that the occupation officials changed their minds. I’m not criticizing that decision; I’m simply pointing out that they changed their minds after listening and responding to Iraqi people’s concerns.
In other words, you can’t create democracy by providing somebody with a suit off the rack. The people of the country have to be involved in building a democratic government. They need to feel a stake in it. They need to feel that an election matters, that it’s going to make a difference in their lives. None of that can occur solely as a result of outside pressure. It may take a push from the outside, of course, to get things started. But ultimately it is the people themselves who make or break democracy in a country.
The most instructive example in recent history is the transition in South Africa. That was a case where thoughtful international pressure—that is, international sanctions over many years—got the white people in power to realize that they had little choice but to end apartheid. Otherwise, the Springbok rugby team would never be invited to play in New Zealand and Australia. Otherwise, South Africa would never have full access to Western investment, because those pesky liberals in Western countries were going to make life difficult for IBM and all the big companies who were interested in investing.
Sanctions were a part of it. But another huge part was the presence of a powerful indigenous movement within South Africa led by an extraordinary man, Nelson Mandela—a man who actually stayed in prison an extra two years until he felt that conditions were favorable for the right kind of democratic transition.
To sum up, in the South African case you had international cooperation. The international community was putting pressure on an unjust regime. You also had enough people in that regime with a sense of enlightened self-interest, believing they could change their ways, and also perceiving that Nelson Mandela was, in effect, a gift, one that may not be replicable. All of these factors created conditions for a viable transition to democracy.
Building a democracy is a long-term political process. It requires encouragement from the outside—sometimes sanctions from the outside, sometimes a refusal to comply with unfair practices. But that’s not how things happen after an invasion. Nor is it the way they happen after an election, however compelling that election may be and however powerful the result.
For the United States to succeed in promoting democracy throughout the world, we are going to need partners. We will also need to win the trust of opposition movements. Of course, another part of the South Africa story is the change from the so-called realist position of Kissinger and others to Carter’s humarn rights position. Under Carter, we actually started meeting with the leaders of South Africa’s opposition movements. To an extent, we gave these opposition leaders legitmacy simply through the act of meeting with them.
These are the kinds of long-term policies that the United States will have to engage in if we are serious about democracy promotion—if we don’t just want to claim a temporary victory after one election. An election can be likened to a snapshot—and Americans know better than many that it isn’t always a perfect snapshot. What also needs to take place is grassroots institution-building.
Max Weber said, “Politics is slow boring through hard wood,” and he said that before the invention of power drills. You can’t do it on the cheap, you can’t do it quickly, and you can’t do it alone. You have to build a network of allies, of people who trust you and people who realize you are in it for the long haul. There are, unfortunately, legitimate reasons to question whether this has been the case with the current administration.
WILLIAM FELICE: The third freedom of Franklin Roosevelt is freedom from want. I would like each of you to comment on how you think the United States is responding to the moral challenges of global capitalism. Are we advancing the goal of freedom from want?
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I’d like to propose a framework for thinking about this question. It actually harks back to something that Michael said earlier about the national interest. Do Americans, and does the American government, believe it is in their national interest to take on the moral challenges of global capitalism? Those challenges are, of course, well documented. You have only to study the UN Human Development Report (2003) to see that the benefits of the global marketplace have been extremely unequal. That inequality has given rise to enormous problems: poverty, inequality, lack of access to basic health, water, sanitation, and so on.
The philosopher Peter Singer in his book One World: The Ethics of Globalization argues that the time has arrived for affluent nations to shift their politics from the national to the global. In a recent Carnegie Council program, Shashi Tharoor of the United Nations spoke about the law of “democratic narcissism.” What does that mean? It means that every leader will aim to please his constituents. That is his or her number-one concern. The president of the United States is going to put American interests first. The question then becomes: how far away are we from taking a planetary perspective—so that we are able to address the consequences of the global markets for people who don’t have access? It’s obvious that we’re a long way away from that kind of focus.
MICHAEL SMITH: One way to think about freedom from want is in terms of basic moral principles. None of us has done anything to deserve all the goodies we possess simply by having been born in the United States. It is an accident of birth that we were born here as opposed to Sri Lanka or Africa. There isn’t any moral value in the fact that we happened to have been born here—and therefore have much more life expectancy and education than if we’d been born somewhere else.
Some philosopher tried to make a case that you have a stronger obligation to the poor in your own country. I don’t really buy that argument. Still, we’re not doing such a hot job on that one either. The current administration is moving to dismantle the relatively porous social safety net that has existed since FDR—to the extent that we’re now talking about dismantling the capstone of the New Deal, Social Security.
Another way to approach this issue is to think of the people who live in developed, rich countries as being akin to British factory owners in the nineteenth century. They had a choice, and we have a choice, of giving more people a stake in the survival of the system. So the British factory owners, the rich people, basically agreed to an extension of the suffrage, which meant recognizing the legitimacy of unions, which meant, in turn, granting some protections for workers. It was not that long ago that people in countries like ours risked dying of starvation because they couldn’t get a job or they lacked access to health care. Most developed countries have chosen to take steps to minimize the likelihood of this kind of calamity occurring.
Today the world is facing an HIV/AIDS epidemic. We are facing rising levels of inequality. We need to decide what kind of world we want to leave for our children and grandchildren. Do we want to live in the international equivalent of a gated community, or do we want a world in which everybody feels they have a stake in its success? If we answer, as I hope we will, by affirming our common humanity, then it will mean some important changes in our lifestyle, some of which may even entail pain or sacrifice.
It wasn’t until recently that the United States became a net importer of capital. Think about that. Here’s the world’s richest country having money flow into it instead of investing in infrastructure elsewhere in the world. Why? Because we don’t tax ourselves at a rate to pay for our own government. Thus we are importing capital that could otherwise be used to build infrastructure and create health care in other, less fortunate parts of the world. Why? Because we have this mantra of low taxes. Actually, foreigners have been subsidizing the U.S. government.
Nobel prize-winning economist James Tobin has proposed a fairly painless method for addressing world poverty. Every time there is a capital transfer—every time one of us buys a stock or a bond—Tobin says there should be a tiny, tiny tax on it, less than a penny, that gets transferred into a global development fund. The so-called Tobin Tax initiative has been on the table for a while; it is hard to get any traction on it.
Similarly, even if we don’t want to raise the level of development aid, let’s at least make it possible for people to sell their goods in this country. If you ask a cotton farmer in Africa whether he has access to the American market, he’ll tell you he doesn’t.
Finally, I would add that if we don’t face these questions now, one day we will find ourselves facing the moral consequences of living on what is essentially borrowed time. The current situation, where a tiny minority holds all the wealth and a huge majority owns nothing, can’t be sustained indefinitely. Eventually, there will be a crisis.
WILLIAM FELICE: My final question concerns freedom of worship, the fourth freedom. We seem to be living in a world of increasing religiosity and faith-based politics. I wonder what you think this portends for our future.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: We are indeed living in a time of heightened moral rhetoric and religious extremism. We see this at home. We see this abroad. So the challenge here, the concept that I would just like to put before you, is that of maintaining a pluralistic vocabulary and approach.
Can faith communities communicate in a way that is pluralistic? Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a trustee of the Carnegie Council, gave me an interesting way to think about this. He said there are two types of religious language: the “primary faith language” and the “secondary faith language.” The primary faith language is the language used within a community of believers, whereas the secondary faith language entails taking that language and making it relevant and accessible to communities outside of your own. We have reached a moment when we need to reflect on that basic idea and keep it in mind as we evaluate the various arguments and the kinds of rhetoric we hear, both from our own leaders and from those abroad.
MICHAEL SMITH: One of the people I studied in my book Realist Thought was theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. One of the things he always liked to say—and I think it bears repetition—was that conflicts in this world are not conflicts between the righteous and the sinful, but conflicts among sinners. Too often, I think, we forget that. We assume that we have a monopoly on truth or virtue or knowledge.
One of the things history has taught us is that pluralism of religious beliefs is really the only way people of various backgrounds can live together in relative peace. To insist on a theocracy of any sort is a recipe for conflict and the worst excesses we have seen documented over the past century. Indeed, in 1947 when the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights canvassed the major leaders of the world’s religions, those religious leaders came to the conclusion that Joel just so nicely encapsulated. They said, look, nothing in our faith prevents us from recognizing the right of other people to hold their own opinions. (Naturally, there are differences among the major religions in terms of the level of proselytization and so on.)
Clearly, the recent resurgence in religious belief provides a huge challenge to all of us who believe in (some degree of) pluralism. The challenges are coming not only from Islamic radicals, so-called, but also from people in our own country.
Article 18 of the UDHR declares that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. That right includes the right to change his religion or belief as well as the freedom, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.
Today, of course, there are many, many violators of this article—including the Chinese, who don’t let Christians work because they’re not an officially registered church; including parts of the Middle East and, I must say, parts of the United States. Ask yourself whether a self-proclaimed atheist would ever have a chance of getting elected in this country. Suppose a political candidate said, “I respect people’s religious beliefs, but I don’t hold them myself because I’m a secular humanist.” That person would not have a big chance of getting elected in the United States. That is a kind of bellwether, it seems to me, for the level of commitment in our society to the principle of separating religious beliefs from public life. Now, we may have reasons to prefer a candidate who is a believer to one who is a non-believer; but on the face of it, being a non-believer should not disqualify a person’s candidacy. Yet I would submit to you that it does.
A book I often recommend—I use it in class—is Terror in the Mind of God, by Mark Juergensmeyer. It has the great virtue of having been written prior to 9/11—it’s not one of those instant books. Juergensmeyer traces terrorism and extreme behavior in all the world’s religions. He has sections on Christianity, on Judaism (the followers of Rabbi Kahane), Islamic fundamentalists, and Aum Shin Rikyo (the religious cult that perpetrated the sarin gas attack in Japan). It turns out there are common elements within all of these groups. And for those of us who worry about the rise in religious extremism, he suggests that first, we start taking religious beliefs seriously; and second, we uphold the ideal of pluralistic coexistence.