Liberalism Faced with the Imperial Temptation
Liberalism Faced with the Imperial Temptation
By Philippe Raynaud and Stephane Rials
Friday 23 May 2003
Does the diplomacy of the American Administration exclude even the idea of the existence of a counterweight to United States supremacy?
All those who appreciate the virtues of a liberal regime know the United States' contribution to its development and, notably during the two great wars of the twentieth century, to its defense and extension. Those people felt the atrocities of September 11 2001in their own flesh. They saw in those events a disturbing challenge not only to the United States, but to the entire liberal world.
The last few months the same people could regret that French diplomacy should expose a long friendship by interventions of uneven appropriateness. Was it necessary to prematurely evoke the veto? Was there a need to appear in different ways to want to make France the soul of the international community's resistance to American plans? Was it appropriate to glorify our unity of outlook with very dark regimes (China) or those perhaps in the process of becoming so again (Russia)? One could doubt it, even if the echo of the French position encountered in so many countries and by such large public opinion gave hope of some benefit from the choices that were effected. French policy could have chosen to align itself in a manner less flamboyant, and, in consequence, less hurtful.
There was, above all, an element of weakness-even of hypocrisy-in the arguments of those who criticized the United States. They extolled "another way" than that of armed mobilization, while only the latter had achieved the resumption of inspections.
Those who would have hoped that one had not exaggeratedly provoked transatlantic misunderstandings could also be convinced by the solemn assurances of the American and English governments. On the point of facts, these latter guaranteed that they held irrefutable proof, but that they had to keep it secret, of a threatening rearmament initiative by Iraq. On the point of law, the "allies" argument in favor of the legality of their possible intervention in Iraq could, of course, seem fragile, especially on the basis of UN resolution 1441. Nevertheless, even if no precedent could be invoked and under the condition of not juggling too much with the concept of preventative war, a large understanding of "legitimate self-defense", the meaning of which seemed to change in the face of the most disturbing contemporary weapons, made the Anglo-American point of view, not indisputable, but precisely, and that was already a lot, disputable.
Liberals, finally, had to appreciate an intervention tending toward the prostration of a monstrous regime- the recent discovery of charnel houses attests to it-, even if the wiser among them might fear in the first place that no liberal democracy can be established by decree, in the second place that the presence of majority Shi'ism and complex ethnic situations heavily mortgaged a return to civil peace, and in the third place that a dangerous shock wave might not topple several regimes in the region, some of which are possibly the lesser of evils.
In short, the French friends of free regimes saw the war begin without joy, of course, but with a certain confidence. If they were sorry for the impetuous character of certain French interventions, they must have been delighted by the extreme moderation-that could in no case be assimilated to a retreat- demonstrated ever since by the government of their country.
It's in the disturbing follow-up to a rapid victory that one finds reasons to doubt American policy. The "coalition's" difficulty in taking on the situation created by its own victory has too often appeared-durably-as the fruit of indifference to the fate of the people "liberated": television has shown innumerable and unpleasant scenes of looting and men of culture will never forget the barbarous negligence with which the occupiers lost all interest in safeguarding the Iraqi patrimony, at least for some parts. How could a government which had so much- and with such justice- exploited the cultural and artistic ravages of the Taliban allow to happen what did happen?
The second preoccupation came even earlier, but has not stopped growing. It derives from some anxious interrogations: have the United States not gently mutated from the very attenuated empire that they were before, seeming to radiate at first from the effectiveness of their own example, into a far more brutal empire with pretensions to arrange the planet? Will they remain the shield of a liberal world liberally understood and called to spread out by the arms of peace, or are they becoming a dominating power, unconcerned in the international order, to encumber themselves with those breaks and counterweights which remain in principle, in the internal order, the essence of liberalism?
Two series of events lead to these questions. It is worrying today to ascertain that the allies appear unable to discover that arsenal the proof of which existence they swore to hold, while they continue to refuse to have the UN inspectors, whose guarantee in these circumstances seems indispensable, return. The suspicion was born, which has since become overwhelming, that America and England lied: there, moreover, is the source of the tensions the British cabinet is suffering.
One cannot fail to be shaken by the manner in which the American administration, numerous American political and economic actors, and a notable portion of the American population appear tempted to treat France. We acknowledged in the beginning everything that inclined us to understand, at least in part, American irritation in opposition to the position of our government. We are all the more comfortable expressing our irritation today. There would be the question of "punishing" us. And the "punishment" has already begun on the economic and commercial levels. Threats fuse. It's a question of promoting "sanctions" against France. Sanctions against a state and a country because their government has not even used, but simply threatened to use, an internationally legal technique-the veto- in the service of what the vast majority of countries held to be politically appropriate and which 99% of the professors of international law considered as respect for international law.
An iron unilateralism asserts itself in an indecent way through the economic order- whether it's a question of the solutions retained for Iraqi reconstruction and the exploitation of its oil or in the policy of a weak dollar, ruinous for the Euro zone and perilous for everyone.
Liberalism, contrary to what one may think today, does not reside only in the submission of power to law: who ultimately determines the law? It is only possible through a physical balance of powers guaranteeing a relative distinction of orders. It appears that the United States, which is not ignorant of the value of the separation of powers in the internal order, considers henceforth that anything which evokes the simple possibility of a balance of powers in the international order is at the same time dangerous and a priori hostile. As Richard Perle said: a counterweight could never be an ally, but will sooner or later become an adversary.
It's for this reason also that, beyond the Iraqi crisis, the present debates which put the future of Europe in play, Europe, which, whatever our British friends may say, can and must be independent, while remaining a partner of the United States. Today, on the contrary, the American superpower seems to exclude the least counterweight- should it reside even in the simple dissident opinion of an old ally: do we believe in liberalism without pluralism? Today the American superpower seems to contemplate without exaggerated anxiety the parasitism of liberal play of the economy, already mismanaged for a long time by the Americans, through perspectives strictly dependent on an imperial policy of power: does anyone believe it possible to promote liberalism by undermining the base which gives it not only its meaning, but also its chance? Does anyone really believe it's possible to uphold liberalism without liberalism?
Philippe Raynaud and Stephane Rials are Professors at the Universit Paris-II (Panth on-Assas) and directors of the Dictionnaire de philosophie politique (PUF) (Dictionary of Political Philosophy).
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