Wednesday, March 30, 2005

"And that's a good thing!": Habermas, Bobbio and Rawls as apologists for American empire

Perry Anderson makes a case that John Rawls, Noberto Bobbio and Jurgen Habermas--three of the leading intellectual lights of the postwar North Atlantic left-liberal intelligentsia--have at best been played for fools by the course of American foreign policy, and at worst given license to "American empire as a placeholder for human progress." Anderson provides a detailed account of how each of these intellectuals in his own way came to support American military interventions in the post-Cold War period, thus acting as de facto apologists for American imperialism.

Anderson is hardest on Habermas. Until the most recent intervention in Iraq, Habermas chose consistently to side with Washington in its use of force. Although Habermas (and the others) sometimes expressed dismay at the way the U.S. actually executed its military function, Anderson argues that these intellectuals spun the American use of force in Iraq in 1991 and in the Balkans as a positive step forward in the construction of a viable enforcement mechanism for a transnational legal order that Habermas has long advocated.

It was only with the American unilateralist intervention in Iraq in 2003 that Habermas declared that he was shocked, shocked!, to discover that the United States actually had no interest in building a transnational cosmoplitan legal order. For Anderson, Habermas's change of heart represents a sad mix of credulousness and bad faith:

Since, in Habermas's own words, there can be no greater good than liberating a people from a brutal tyranny, why should prevention of ethnic cleansing or provision of aid—presumably lesser objectives—supply General Clark with philosophical credentials denied to General Franks? It is plain that the crucial distinguo lies elsewhere: in European responses to American initiatives. So long as both sides of the Atlantic concur, the 'international community' remains whole, and the UN can be ignored. But if Europe demurs, the UN is sacrosanct. So naively self-serving an assumption invites, in one sense, only a smile.

What it points to, however, is the disintegration of a larger one. The West upheld in Habermas's credo was always an ideological figure, an unexamined topos of the Cold War, whose assumption was that America and Europe could for all practical purposes be treated as a single democratic ecumene, under benevolent US leadership. The unwillingness of Berlin and Paris to rally behind Washington in the attack on Iraq undid that long-held construction, rendering an unconditional orientation to the West meaningless.

In this emergency, Habermas fell back on European values, now distinct from somewhat less commendable American ones, as a substitute lode-star in international affairs. But, setting aside the work of lustration required to yield an uplifting common ethos out of Europe's bloody past, or even its self-satisfied present, the new construct is as incoherent as the old. Not only does Europe, as currently understood by Habermas, have to exclude Britain, for undue similarity of outlook to the United States, but it cannot even encompass the continental states of the EU itself, a majority of whose members supported rather than opposed the liberties taken by the us with the UN Charter. So in a further geopolitical contraction, Habermas has been driven to advocate a Franco-German 'core' as the final refuge out of which a future and better EU, more conscious of its social and international responsibilities, may one day emerge, harbinger of a wider cosmopolitan order.

As a supporter of the project of building a transnational cosmopolitan legal order, I sympathize with Anderson's evisceration of Habermas. I too felt that Habermas betrayed his own ideals in supporting the U.S. intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s. More recently, I also regarded Habermas's expressed feelings of betrayal in the pages of The Nation as an unforgiveably belated realization that the United States is an imperial power.

But if it is fair to blame Habermas for excessive optimism regarding the U.S. military excursions of the 1990s, Anderson goes too far in suggesting that there exists an unbroken, homogenous continuity of American imperial ambition. The neocons who ran the Bush regime's foreign policy between 9-11 and the 2004 elections (and are possibly still doing so now) represent something radically new.

One way to understand the significance of the neocons is to consider at how they have vindicated the (generally leftist) "revisionist" school of diplomatic history, which since the 1950s has been claiming that American foreign policy is best understood as a long story of imperial expansionism. For a long time people on the right and in the center regarded the revisionist take on American diplomatic history as a calumny and a slander on our great nation. But the neocons now admit forthrightly what formerly only leftists dared to say: that America is an empire without apology.

Indeed, it sometimes seems that the only thing that distinguishes the work of neocon historians like Niall Ferguson or Max Boot from that of the revisionists is that the latter append the phrase "And that's a good thing!" to the end of each of paragraph. In terms of how they consturct their narratives about of American foreign policy, the neocons and the revisionists have almost nothing to argue about. It is only in their moral judgments that the two schools part ways.

It goes without saying, however, that this moral judgment is of no small moment. The neocons' unvarnished embrace of imperialism is something sinisterly new under the American diplomatic sun. There are some on the left--and I suspect Anderson may be one of them--who may regard the neocons' candor regarding their imperial ambitions as a breath of fresh air after two centuries of American diplomatic and historical mendacity. But to me, this is a blood-thirstily naive position. Diplomatic niceties make a difference, and in this respect the neocons's imperial candor represents something radical and unprecedented. Lowering the bar of imperialist shame makes a big difference for the kind of outrage Washington can contemplate.

1 comment:

Sam said...

1) Would the Marxism that Anderson professes not count as a doctrine that resulted from "the work of lustration required to yield an uplifting common ethos out of Europe's bloody past". I find it amazing that Anderson would not see that he is judging his enemies against an equally European doctrine -- but of course, for Anderson, as a true believer, Marxism's origins are irrelevant to its universalist foundations.

2) I agree with Nils that though well-meaning liberals and humanitarians have turned out in retrospect to have been complicit with American imperialism, we must still differentiate them. A Michael Ignatieff or Samantha Power wanting to erect the US as a humanitarian power is crucially different from a neocon who instrumentalize their views (and naive support) to quite other ends.