Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Brexit: Why We're Against It in the Wider English-Speaking World

The Euro-Atlantic union is our own. Our Greatness lies In it, not Out

By Ira Straus

Americans and Britons have a common interest in avoiding a Brexit. I hope it will not be taken amiss if, as an overseas citizen of the Anglo-American world, I discuss why Americans see it that way. I wish to do so from the vantage point of our common history and the vast inheritance we have jointly build over the centuries, not merely from the standpoint of our immediate practical interests.

The Legitimacy, indeed Necessity, of American Comment

It is easy, to be sure, to take offense when a foreigner comments on an upcoming national vote. I sometimes see Americans responding that way, too. People around the world always comment on how we ought to vote. But we mostly take it for granted, much as Britons did in the days of the Empire. The others have fair cause to comment. They have an interest in how we vote -- usually, a constructive interest in our getting things right. It is obvious in retrospect that sometimes we should have listened to them more carefully.

America in turn has a vital interest today in preserving the wider Euro-Atlantic union that has been built around the dual cores of NATO and the EU, and this means we have a strong interest in avoiding a Brexit. Just as we had a deep interest in preserving a united Great Britain during the Scottish referendum, when we spoke up for our mother country.

It is for this reason that I request that the reader take this American comment in good spirit, not as an intrusion but as an overseas extension of the national dialogue.

The Larger Question neglected in the Debate thus far

I do not wish to focus here on the specific dangers that Brexit would pose to American and British interests, serious though those are -- worse instability in trade and finance, in a world economy already on the brink, with “unpredictable” consequences (as they say in diplomatic parlance); a less Atlantic-oriented EU; a renewed threat of Scottish secession; troubles for NATO... The former NATO Secretaries-General were well-founded in their warning about Brexit’s consequences; which is why they all joined in issuing the warning.

Nor do I wish to dwell on the benefits that Brexit proponents hope for, other than to remark on their regrettable lack of plausibility. If only a Brexit would make it easier for Britain to manage an effective policy on non-EU migration!  And if only a Brexit would enable Britain to make more of its special relationship with America! But alas, it wouldn’t happen; Britain has long since taken the special relationship as far as it can go, and there is precious little to be added. We had a century after 1865 to build the special relationship separately; the project reached its main limits already by the early 1900s. Further progress ran into a brick wall: America felt it would traduce its identity, derived from 1776, were it to reunite with Britain alone. The way out, paradoxically, was through Europe. It was by adding in third countries-- the Continental democracies -- that it proved possible to deepen the Anglo-American relation in the decades after 1900. This was done in stages, in Euro-Atlantic alliances after 1914, and in the series of Euro-Atlantic structures built after 1947.The Anglo-American special relation has grown further only by ceasing to be purely Anglo-American, and becoming instead the informal core subsystem of the institutionalized Euro-American special relation. And this is just what Brexit would undermine, sending Anglo-American relations backwards not forward.

These specific costs might, to be sure, be lumped together as “adjustment costs”, which exist with every major change, particularly a break-up. Because of the high adjustment costs of divorce, the starting assumption is always against it, in the absence of compelling cause.

“Adjustment costs” may be too dismissive a categorization for the specific costs in this case -- the costs of divorce would be quite severe in this case -- but plenty has already been said about these specifics on both sides of the debate. A convenient summary is at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-eu-claims-factbox-idUSKCN0Z01GM.

This leaves me free to focus here instead on a larger question: Who are we Anglo­Americans; and what would we turn ourselves into, were the UK to exit the EU?

It is an issue of national sentiment and identity, or “who we are”. It is high time that we have a serious dialogue between the two sides on this issue.

Who are we Anglo­Americans ?

Who are we? And yes, we need to ask this for all of us, not solely for England. What would we turn ourselves into, if we dismantled the Euro-Atlantic system at whose core we stand, or part of it, or withdrew our role in it? It is this question that makes me feel it is not only within my rights to comment on Brexit; it is a kind of duty, as a member of the Anglo-American world.

The English-speaking peoples have had two great international imperatives in the course of their history: first freedom through separation, then leadership of the free through integration.

The older, separatist imperative is emphasized in our popular history books, with great panache; it comes at heroic formative moments of our countries, moments when our identity was sealed with a line of blood. But the integrationist imperative has become the actual one before us in modern times, when we live in a world where we are no longer a beleaguered fringe but are at the very core of the world order. And it too has been sealed in blood, though in ways less popularly remarked; the blood has not been used as effectively for identity-mapping as the earlier battles, but we have all been blood brothers as allies in defending each other in two world wars and a cold war, when rivers of blood have been spilt that made our national separation wars look like mere skirmishes, and when all our liberties have been at risk in a degree never even imagined in our formative years.

What made separateness a valid imperative for us in early modern times? A long but essentially temporary historical conjuncture: the fact that we developed modern liberty faster than the rest of the European world, apart from minor exceptions such as the Dutch. (To be sure, it was an imperative that many Brits thought we Americans carried too far even in those centuries, when we used it to break apart the British Empire in 1776. They have told us it cost us the Civil War of the 1860s, contrasting with their own peaceful abolition of slavery in their Empire in the 1830s. They have blamed our revolution for inspiring the French Revolution, bringing an end to the era of the liberal reformative enlightenment, leaving in its place a 200-year civil war on the European continent between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. They have credited our isolationism with twice tempting Germany into world war. And those were the arguable costs -- rather plausibly argued costs -- of a break-up for which there was a significant justification, far greater than the justifications for Brexit.)

What gives us today the imperative of integration? A development that we have reason to hope will be enduring, not just another conjuncture: the fact that we have become the leaders of the leading sector of the world. The world has changed profoundly since the early days when we needed to emphasize separation. Liberal democracy has spread across Europe and made major inroads worldwide. By 1830, all of northwestern Europe was under liberal, quasi-democratic regimes, alongside the Anglo-American world; Michael Doyle and other scholars say that a “democratic peace” began at that time in that space. Later, most of the rest of Europe made it there, too. And with America’s population growth, the Anglo-American world itself has changed from a periphery of European power to the center of European and global power.

This is what has reversed the imperative facing our countries: from separation from Europe, to leadership of Europe; from balance of forces, to integration of forces as the main principle of that leadership.

The new imperative was understood slowly. It took a long bitter twentieth century for us to shift our premises from separatism to leadership and integration. It is an achievement to be built on.

Britain, Greater Britain, and the Euro-Atlantic System
“If two small islands are by courtesy styled ‘Great’,” -- so wrote Sir Charles Dilke in 1868 – “America, Australia, India, must form a Greater Britain.” And the Greater Britain, held Dilke, was the seat of England’s future greatness: “Britain in her age will claim the glory of having planted greater Englands across the seas.”

Where is that Greater Britain today? It has morphed, a bit unexpectedly, into an organized Euro-Atlantic world. Despite losing its colonies, it has gained additional major industrial democracies as an organic part of its system. These democracies have been gathered together into a confederacy, one more sustainable than the Empire ever was.

Just as surely as England’s future in 1868 lay in the Greater Britain of Dilke’s time, so today England’s future lies in its role in the updated Greater Britain of the Euro-Atlantic system. England continues to play a pivotal role in maintaining the cohesion of this system, while the organizing core-power role has shifted west to America, already by the late 1800s the geographical center of the population of the old Greater Britain.

The old Greater Britain was the ballast that enabled the Pax Britannica to endure a century. The new Greater Britain -- which is also a Greater America and a Greater Europe -- is the cornerstone of the world order of today.

This is the key consideration for understanding what makes us unique and “great”. It is not that we are the most uniquely perfect liberal democracies in the world; by now that way of government has successfully spread to many other countries, and declamations over which one is most perfect have a petty aspect. Rather, it is that we are the leaders and core powers of this very set of modern liberal democracies.

More: We have organized these democracies into a cohesive grouping. It is by far the largest and strongest cohesive grouping extant in the world; its membership is made manifest in OECD with over 60% of the world economy and an even greater share of global military power. The organized unity of the industrial democracies is what makes them the core power of the world order: the point of reference for its functioning and the anchor of its stability.

This unity was built with tremendous labors, spanning 150 years. Dilke’s Greater Britain began to take clearer shape in the 1890s, when diplomats painstakingly brought a century of Anglo-American hostility to a close; the two powers became friends and de facto allies again. The democratic peace thereby also matured: from a tenuous empirical fact of non-war among countries that often still acted as adversaries who still feared mutual war, it grew into a consciously organized strategic unity among the core democratic powers, US and UK, albeit without formal joint institutions. Henry Adams called this informal union an “Atlantic System”; he projected that it was destined to draw France into the “combine”, and was already doing so, and in the next stage would draw in Germany, then finally Russia, securing world peace. And he hoped this would happen soon, lest instead there be a century of wars.

As we know, the wars came first instead. The lack of institutionalization of the Atlantic grouping made it harder, not easier, to integrate Germany in a solid way: there were no joint structures to fill in for the fact of Germany’s lesser sharing of the historical heritage of the original Western democracies. A world war ensued instead; it brought Communism to Russia whence came further assaults on the world order; the defeat of Germany and arrival of democracy in that country were not enough to integrate it with the West, leaving the chaos of events to push Germany back again into a hostile dictatorship; whence another world war. The lessons of this bitter experience led to the institutionalization of the Atlantic System after 1945, alongside the institutionalization of the global system in the UN. This was a second stage of the maturing of the modified Greater Britain. It succeeded where the earlier informal Atlantic system had failed: it integrated Germany and established a concrete, extendable democratic peace. This concrete space today spans all of Europe save Russia (which however also hoped to join it after 1989 and may yet some day), and crosses the Pacific as well to integrate the modernized countries of Confucian heritage.

The integration succeeded this time around primarily because America pushed idealistically for it. America had the size to be able to afford to take risks for integration, and it found inspiration in the federalist tradition that underlay the formation of its own Union. It in turn owed its size and strength to this tradition of federal unification; a tradition inspired in no small part by the Anglo-Scottish Union and its intellectual progeny, the Scottish Enlightenment. Federalism was the other side of the coin of our tradition of separation, and the greater side: the side in which we built a new expansive union in our freedom. It was our solution to the very real risk that our independence would lead us straight into a tailspin of fragmentation. It laid the grounds for our fitness in the 1900s when the time came for changing tack internationally, from the old spirit of isolationism to the new imperative of integration. But our new orientation ever remained, in America as in England, vulnerable in face of the strength of our other entrenched tradition, separatism.

The integration after 1945 succeeded not only because of institutionalization. It succeeded because American diplomats pushed for a two-tiered union, part European Union part Atlantic Community, not just a pure Atlantic Community. They were realistic about what integration was feasible: with Americans still very much attached to their own independence, and too big to unite as equals with European countries, much of the integration had to be subcontracted to a European subsystem. Thus the “Euro-Atlantic system”, as it came to be called.

America was willing, after the terrible costs and risks of the two world wars, to go as far as becoming deeply embedded in Europe as a military ally, and further, organizing a fair measure of economic and diplomatic cooperation in the Atlantic (and Pacific) space. But, unlike Europeans, it was not willing to become embedded in apolitical-economic union. American officials accepted this reality; on the Atlantic level they build NATO and OECD, while on the European level they empowered the national leaders, through the Marshall Plan, to start acting on their own repeated calls for a deeper union. Britain had an in-between situation: similar to European powers in size and location, but still with a Channel and a history of separate freedom. It developed a limited membership in the European project, replete with opt-outs.

It was by nature a jerry-rigged structure, like a split-level house, but that is no count against it. The inconsistencies of Euro-Atlanticism have been far less than those suffered in its absence.  And Britain, as an intermediary between the Atlantic and European levels, has played a special role in moderating its inconsistencies, keeping them manageable.

It is a special case of a basic point of all international relations theory, brought out well by the English School of Butterfield and Wight and Hinsley, which I should acknowledge having imbibed from my teachers Watson and Bull: Every system of international relations is by nature contradictory, as is national sovereignty itself; every structure for international society and cooperation is meant to reduce these inconsistencies, in part by absorbing them into itself. This raises the inconsistencies to a higher structural plane, making them usually less damaging, but an easy target for nationalist attack, seeking to raze the structure to the ground and restore an imagined simplicity of sovereignty.

The Euro-Atlantic system is just such a structure. It is the one that has done the most to reduce the inconsistencies in international affairs, ending the cycle of European-world wars that plagued not only the early 1900s but all of modern times since the 1500s. It is well worth its troubles.

The system grew deliberately but pragmatically -- and cumulatively. It extended far beyond the English-speaking countries, yet it grandfathered in the old Greater Britain at its core. Its membership kept growing, organically, as modernization and liberal democracy kept spreading; it kept apace in this way with the economic growth of countries not yet in its orbit. It maintained and even extended its global share; it repeatedly confuted the never-ending forecasts of a decline of the West. Its intellectual forebears -- and an impressive lot they were, Hakluyt, Pownall, Franklin, Adams, Dilke, Fiske,  Seeley, Mahan, Stead ,another Adams, Curtis , Lothian, Streit -- forecast the opposite of decline; they projected an ongoing growth, as long as unity would hold, and warned of a decline only if unity were to be sundered. Thus far they have consistently proved right. They put no final limit on this growth; rather, as the years went on, they began to think the Western community might keep expanding indefinitely, until it could someday encompass the global community. This remains a real possibility, distant though it looks from any near vantage point. Were such a day to arrive, Greater Britain would have evolved into the entire world.

Is it worth giving this up, for a moment of feeling proud and putting down the EU?

Britain’s global Greatness today: its strength and fragility

Fortunately, as we have seen, the revamped Greater Britain long ago ceased to be a mere verbal expression. It is a reality concretized in a series of joint institutions. This was what made the difference between success and failure -- catastrophic failures from 1914 to 1945, historically transformative successes (with the usual real-life admixture of blunders and complaints) since 1947.

This was possible in turn because the earlierGreater Britain of the U.K. and U.S. had shared far more than language: they shared an evolved way of government and society. It is a way from which other countries have taken much, to the point of coming also to share in most of it, first in Europe, next in the industrialized Asian democracies, more gradually elsewhere.

Our free society developed through a dual lineage, both national and European: common law and Magna Carta and Parliament, and also Greece and Rome, Christendom and Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. These pan-European developments played a central part in Britain’s evolution as a modern society. They also gave the Continental countries a base for catching up with Anglo-American democracy more readily and thoroughly than other regions of the world.

It used to make for a proud Imperial fantasy to say that the countries of the Empire could be “regenerated” more easily than the countries of the Continent, but history proved otherwise. It still makes for nationalist reveries to speak of an Anglo-sphere instead of a Euro-sphere, but the reality of the British Empire is that it was always one of the European global empires. The rest of Europe was always closer in nature to Britain than was the Empire. The Greater Britain was always a part of a Greater Europe.

For centuries, however, this Greater Europe was rendered contradictory by the division of its core, with mutual conflicts and wars among its national powers inside Europe. It was rendered potentially consistent only late in the day, by the integration of its core after 1945 -- just when most of its periphery was falling away from it. The congealing of the core of the Greater Europe into a joint enterprise, designed as Euro-Atlanticism, was a tremendous development, of as great a historical import as the loss of its periphery.

This joint enterprise is the true bearer of the heritage of Greater Britain. It is the living continuation of the national project of Great Britain; the mighty river into whose waters the streams of Great Britain have flowed. Through it, the deepest hopes of Britain live on.

The deepest hopes of any society are its original hopes and its ultimate hopes: its original hopes for indefinite continuation of its people and their evolving achievements, its ultimate hopes for someday securely embedding its achievements in humanity at large. Britain’s deepest hopes do live on today. They live on in the Euro-Atlantic union and in all its future prospects. They could not live on outside of this.

All of the joint institutions of this Euro-Atlantic system -- the OEEC of the Marshall Plan, its children NATO and the ECSC, their heirs and supplements OECD, EU, NPA, and G7, and a host of lesser ones -- have been important for the success of the system: for realizing the hopes of their member countries, after traditional national power politics had failed those hopes and brought them to the edge of ruin. Two of the institutions, NATO and the EU, are indispensable.

At the same time, the institutions are all fragile. None of them can draw on the deep resources of national patriotism. Therein lies the balance of hope and fear.

Britain lies still today near the core of this system, not just as the birthing country of America, but as the bridge between the European and Atlantic levels of the system. Its inherent special relation with America, keeping America together with Europe; its membership in the EU, keeping Europe together with America and the Atlantic: it is a linchpin of the system on both fronts. De Gaulle said Britain would be a Trojan Horse for the Americans in the EU. Putting to the side the paranoid imagery, the fact is that Britain plays an indispensable role as a mediator of the system on multiple levels. The cohesion of the system would slacken without it, and would risk collapsing altogether.

That is the context within which we need to see the meaning of a potential British withdrawal from the EU. It would leave a gaping hole in the Western edifice.

From Greatness to Tailspin?

No island is just an island. Britain is part of a vast Euro-Atlantic Main. Its greatness is bound up in the main to which it has done so much to birth.

A Brexit would no doubt be accompanied by enthusiastic nationalistic declamations, but it would leave the actual Britain diminished globally. Even the local Union of Britain and Scotland would be at risk. The issue of Scottish independence would come up again, sooner or later making it to another referendum. The processes in Northern Ireland would be negatively impacted, no one knows how much. The “great” could go out of Great Britain itself, leaving only an inner Britain of England and Wales. And even that inner core could unexpectedly come into question, in such a fundamentally deteriorated situation.

That is how tailspins proceed. Brexit would begin a potentially fatal cycle of narrowing of perspectives.

The narrowing of perspectives would be contagious. The EU would be the first place of contagion, likely sending the Union into a further tailspin. EU exit is already becoming fashionable in several countries. Brexit would legitimize it. The ghosts of the old nationalist Europe could return sooner than people have imagined.

No one knows how far this tailspin would go, either. Contagion is itself contagious, in a chaos event. The reason quarantines are used for diseases is because diseases are a form of chaos, and chaos metastasizes at a geometrical pace, feeding upon itself and leapfrogging over boundaries. Chaos easily becomes a fashion, and it is the easiest of fashions to spread; there are messy conditions everywhere, and disaffected people ever ready to take up the torch. The synergies of chaos work effortlessly; its elements always fit together for making more chaos, with no need for a neat fit among them. Vast, venerable realities can be dissolved overnight when chaos gathers momentum. One has to expect the unexpected in a chaos event. Thus, again, the “unpredictability” of the consequences.

America would be an early place for the mood of chaos to spread. In this presidential election year, it would be greatly influenced by the nationalistic trend of a Brexit.

A nationalist America in turn could send NATO into a tailspin. Writers have noticed some local problems for NATO from a Brexit: an independent Scotland could deny NATO nuclear visiting rights; Orthodox Greece could leave the EU and NATO and align with Orthodox Russia; other countries could join suit. But there is yet to be considered the impact on American thinking: the potentiality for fostering an American mood of junking its own alliance system, an American equivalent for Britain junking Europe. Hints of this are already being given, as yet only as a bargaining threat. In an actual bargaining process, when dis-unification is the trend outside the room, the threat of separation easily turns into the reality.

This is the other reason why I feel it is a kind of duty of mine to comment on Britain’s referendum options. A vote for Brexit would affect American thinking and policy in ways that Britain would surely not like.

Our Historic Prospects in the Balance

If Brexit is rejected and the Euro-Atlantic system avoids major visible decline in the coming year, the system is likely to continue to hold America’s support, no matter who is elected President here. The wave of nationalistic sentiment that is sweeping my country would pass.

But if the Euro-Atlantic system begins cracking, in this moment of its historical vulnerability -- and Brexit would be a major structural crack -- this would lend an aura of realism to the go-it-alone tide in America. It would favor the candidate who speaks in the strongest nationalistic language; and it would bend the policies of the country away from Europe, no matter which candidate ultimately wins.

The belief in the obsolescence of the Western system is widespread in America. It is fed constantly from both ends: by Right isolationists and unilateralists, and by Left journalists and academics. Both sets, Left and Right, use the language of 1776, playing powerfully on America’s separatist impulses. NATO has been called obsolete every year since 1989 by major media commentators; more often called obsolete, in fact, than its relevance has been pointed out. It is said repeatedly that America could save money, and lots of it at that, by jettisoning its allies. The reality is quite opposite; NATO is a net boon for U.S. finances, without even speaking of how Europe had cost us far more without NATO, prior to 1949, than it has since. But few indeed are those who know this. The myth that American finances are drained by NATO is one that goes uncontroverted, to be taken up by a Trump, and equally by his opposite numbers on the Left. Among elites, this myth is sometimes found useful, as a means of delivering a threat to exert pressure on Europe to spend more on defense. It risks becoming a game of chicken when conditions are unstable.

There is a real chance, 50-50, that America will elect Trump. This need not be a problem in itself for Europeans; the election of Reagan was met with similarly derision and prophecies of doom, but turned out well. Nevertheless, there are risks; and there would be much indeed to fear from it, if Brexit were to set a disintegrative international stage as context for his election.

Brexit would, first, further increase the likelihood of Trump getting elected: it would discredit the foreign policy of his opponent, make her establishment credentials look useless or worse, and lend credibility to his nationalistic lines, making them sound very much in tune with reality. It would then proceed to increase the likelihood of a Trump presidency turning out harmful internationally.

The effects of a Trump presidency would depend heavily on whether the Euro-Atlantic system is holding or disintegrating. If the system were holding when he came into office, Trump would presumably work to make his mark within the system, as he has indicated, not against it. He talks of being a rebuilder, and of wanting to build it bigger and better, like the buildings that bear his name. But if the Euro-Atlantic system were collapsing, Trump could easily slip into the simple nationalistic, pull-out-of-NATO posture that journalists have attributed to him -- not entirely accurately, but it is a fair enough representation of the emotive trend in his rhetoric. He has said that he would threaten withdrawal, as part of the bargaining process; in a post-Brexit mood of spreading nationalism, the instinct of the public would shift toward demanding too much and proceeding with withdrawal. And American withdrawal would -- unlike a Scottish withdrawal -- spell the end of NATO.

The end of NATO would in turn undermine what would be left of the EU. It would pull out the main cornerstone that has underpinned the EC/EU since its beginning: the cornerstone of NATO’s strategic unity, achieved by unifying its nations’ military plans and integrating their forces and training. NATO is what ended the long history of separate national military plans and conflicting national global strategies. The EU would never have been possible without this underpinning. Were NATO to disappear, some Europeans would no doubt rush to push for filling in this gap with a military union on the EU level, but all the trends would be in the opposite direction. And European military union never succeeded in the past, when circumstances were much more propitious -- not even when America was demanding it of Europe.

That is what a tailspin looks like. It is no fanciful nightmare. It is a realistic nightmare.

America and Britain would both be diminished by Brexit. We would be diminished in our very essence: in the sum total of what we have made of ourselves over the course of our history. We would be diminished in the leadership role the Euro-Atlantic construct has given us in the world. We would be diminished in our prospects in the world. We would be diminished in our national futures.

This overall damage must be counted on top of the specific damages Brexit would do us. America’s professional diplomats would no doubt work hard -- Trump himself has hinted at this -- to limit some of the specific damages, but they could not stop the overall damage from being considerable.

We should not underestimate the risk that the damage would prove catastrophic, despite all efforts to contain it. Western unity is unusually fragile today: fragile popularly in face of resurgent nationalism, fragile on the ideological level in media and academia, fragile financially in face of the economic downturn and weak recovery, fragile strategically in face of fifteen years of failures to deal effectively with Islamist terrorism. This fragility spells multiple susceptibilities to being sent into a tailspin. It is another part of what is meant when people speak of “unpredictable consequences” from Brexit.

The West has faced still worse dangers in the past, to be sure. It faced German nationalism and American isolationism in the 1930s, when the Atlantic alliance was subterranean; it only barely got back up to its feet to meet the challenge before it was too late, and at a terrible price. It would be foolhardy to feel confident and underestimate the risks before us today.

In today’s conditions, it is all too easy for disintegration to feed on itself. The ripple waves of a Brexit could unravel piece by piece the entire edifice of Western unity that our countries have built over the course of the last 150 years, at cost of much blood and treasure.

An unraveling of the West would in turn take down the entire global order with it. The unified Western world is still the only cohesive core of the world order, despite the much discussed rise of the rest.  Ideologues on the Left might welcome its collapse, and so might some on the Right; but in the actual non-Western world, there would be no gain from Western disintegration, only a spread of chaos. We have seen this movie play out before: Germans a century ago prophesied a “decline of the West” and imagined in it the warrant for their own national glory, but only got from it a path to their final destruction as a separate sovereign nation.

Our true greatness is embedded in the structures for unity we have built up with our neighbors -- the countries that have become most like us. Reversion to geopolitical competition among these countries would be suicidal, but it is not impossible. It happened with Germany in the interwar years. The tit-for-tat of national self-assertion against each other, and next the nationalist ideological argumentation against each other, usually develops in gradual stages, but it feeds quite naturally on itself once it gets going. It was in fact the normal fate of our countries for many centuries, in the absence of serious joint international structures. It is our modern joint structures -- the serious one like the EU and NATO -- that stand between us and that fate.

It is much hoped over here in America that these dangers will fade into the mist after June 23, and the Euro-Atlantic world will breathe a sigh of relief with the EU reaffirmed. We breathed such a sigh of relief the morning after the Scottish referendum, like a nightmare had lifted. We mean too much to each other, to be able to pretend not to care about these matters. And we have built too much that is worth preserving over the long course of our history, to watch much of it get thrown out overnight in a fit of irritation.

Ira Straus, PhD, is U.S. Coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO (1992 to present), and Chair of the Center for War/Peace Studies. Both are independent policy analysis organizations. In the 1980s he was Executive Director of the Association to Unite the Democracies. He has taught international relations at universities in the US and (as a Fulbright professor) in Moscow, Russia. He studied under and worked with the late Adam Watson CMG, formerly of the Foreign Office, later secretary of the English Committee on International Relations Theory; and studied a term at Oxford under the late Professor Hedley Bull. The opinions expressed here are solely his responsibility. 

Friday, March 21, 2014



1:    a verse in a poem containing a rhyme for the word orange
He tried quite hard to write a corange,
But all he could think of was orange.

2:    a difficult rhyme
       <no coranges in English were once harder than rhymes with orange>
       <rhyming with hippopotamus can be a corange >

3:    to find oneself in an extremely difficult position
       <it's not a Catch 22 but certainly a corange>


1:    writing verses where there is a rhyme for the word orange
       <to corange was once the modest difficult form of rhyming>

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Legality vs. Morality

Even amongst my fellow world federalists, who fully agree on the necessity for the global Rule of Law,  I've been noticing a lot of equivocation about what is morally versus legally right in international affairs. Laws (and their related social norms) should not be equated with what is ethically right. A law can be immoral. However, always following our moral convictions can be socially unsound. So what role does each play in creating a good global society, one that is conducive to the wellbeing of our species as a whole?

In simple terms, a law is a rule recorded and enforced by a government. In more general terms, it is is an agreed upon norm. When viewed in this general sense, the distinction between laws and moral precepts begins to fade. But importantly, to avoid continuous bickering about what we agree on, we record our norms in contracts that ethically bind us to abide by them in our future actions. A clearer distinction reemerges between norms that are based on instinct or personal contemplation — morals — and those which are clearly laws, objectively verifiable agreements.

If you and I sign a contract, and neither of us are under duress, the distinction between morality and law is less clear. It can be objectively determined that I personally consented in writing to the contract and, however egregious the conditions were, it was by my choice. If you agree for me to euthanize you, it becomes much harder to claim that I committed an unethical act. It's still possible within a well formed ethical framework, albeit such arguments have far less emotional force than claims about a moral obligation to act in any given way when no clear consent was given.

When laws are nationalized, the norms are made to be binding to the whole nation regardless of any single person's direct consent. Problematically lacking the element of our direct consent, our obligation to abide by them enters into a much more difficult scenario.

International treaties are (inter)nationalized contracts. Just like a contract between you and me, its a legally binding agreement. But because it is (inter)nationalized, and that it was made without the direct consent of all affected, we can easily begin to equivocate about the morality of a state's actions in the international arena. We muddy the distinction between what is morally and legally right by equating the two. Russia's actions vis-à-vis Ukraine are suddenly in the right/wrong simply because there is (or isn't) a treaty or legal precedence. Legal (in)correctness is sloppily transferred into the moral domain. 

So what role does morality legitimately play in (inter)national law? In modern times, this question harkens back to Jeremy Bentham and the philosophical school that he founded: utilitarianism. Bentham did no concern himself specifically with international affairs. His attention was directed at the very idea of human laws and actions regardless of context.

The more fundamental question is: how do we determine if any given law or action is right or wrong? If we just use our "hearts", given that desires diverge, we will end up with bellum omnium contra omnes, a war of each against all. Perhaps we should outlaw marriages between persons of type X and Y because, well it's just preposterous and against the natural order. Or their love demonstrates that it is in fact part of the natural order. Its one against the other. And the issue can ultimately only be resolved with sticks and stones. Or nuclear devices. Or, like between many of us in the blogosphere, bad or outright mischievous rhetoric.

To resolve this conundrum, Bentham famously invented modern utilitarianism by postulating that laws should abide by the following moral precept:

Act such as to maximize happiness and reduce suffering. 

Bentham alternatively called this the utility or greatest happiness principle. It was a clever idea but has been shown to be fraught with problems. A variety of so called thought experiments have indicated that it leaves something to be desired. Outcomes of these experiments frequently contradict our basic moral intuition.

A possible resolution to the legality versus morality dilemma is the relativist position which disregards that any legitimate distinction should be made: what is legal is, by definition,  morally acceptable. But now, suddenly, female circumcisions become an acceptable procedure simply because it is a culturally conditioned norm. Slavery is also acceptable. And only illegal in the U.S. because the Union had more guns, more people and a higher frequency of clever engineers to invent effective ways of killing lots of people. This flies in the face of most modern mindsets. And yet, frequently, we use this form of relativism in an attempt to be culturally and internationally sophisticated.

Yes, we should be nuanced. But we should not let relativism cloud our moral being, just as we should not mistake our immediate emotions for morality and paint the world in terms of a battle between good and evil.  But if we abandon ethical legalism — the relativist idea that laws determine morality and that morals are just culturally conditioned norms  — and, on the other hand, morality is not just a matter of the "heart", then what are we left with? This is the dilemma that Bentham, and later John Stuart Mill, tried to grapple with.

To be happy is certainly in most cases a good thing. But happiness is easily confused with our desires. And there are sociopaths who find happiness in the most monstrous conditions. The utilitarian hope is that by trying to maximize everyone's wellbeing, the voice of the sociopath will be drained out. The problem is that we easily end up with an overly and leisurely unproductive society. And at worst a decadent one. So what is wrong with a leisurely, happy-go-lucky society where we philosophize all day about the meaning of cheesecake and Kim Kardashian's latest sartorial endeavors? The problem is that such a society is unsustainable.

And it is here, in sustainability, that I think we can find the basis of a good moral precept. The triumph of science and engineering lead us to believe (for a while) that humanity stood at the center of creation. Then, through our great ingenuity, we discovered how to initiate nuclear reactions. Our ingeniousness was not only capable of saving ourselves from becoming extinct by the forces of nature; we were capable of initiating our very own "unnatural" destruction. Simultaneously, we peered deeper and deeper into the Universe and discovered that we really were truly insignificant in the great scheme of things. Our scientific and technological triumph was short-lived. No Better Living Through Chemistry necessarily. We realized we could unintentionally and possibly irreversibly poison the well of life that sustained us.

Survival remains our most prescient objective, not our own wellbeing by attaining some higher rung in Maslow's infamous pyramid. Our life is not about personal self-actualization. Yes, indeed, I firmly claim that it all boils down to survival. Not of ourselves, since death of the individual is an integral part of the cycle of life as such. Our goal is and must be, by natural inclination, the survival of our evolving species. Based on this recognition, we can formulate what I have called the Basic Imperative:

Act such as to maximize the survival chance of our distant descendants.

This imperative does not disregard the necessity for our general wellbeing. Without consideration for individual wellbeing, life can become such a drudgery that it no longer seems worth living. We will feel no compulsion to meet the Basic Imperative. And eventually, as a species, we will become extinct. But, importantly, the Basic Imperative subordinates our immediate wellbeing to a greater common goal: the potential existence of distant descendants with a higher consciousness and who can truly call themselves masters of their destiny. What the purpose of making sure such beings will one day exist I don't portend to know. All I know is that the desire to have descendants, descendants who are as (or even more) capable than myself, is deeply engrained into the fabric of my being. And by consequence of the very nature of life, it's easy to conjecture that it has been part of almost every organism since the dawn of life itself.

The Basic Imperative does not and cannot dictate how we act. At best it can guide us well. The future gets inherently murkier the further out we try to see. We are not privy to some causal certainty about the future of our planet. The best we can do is make educated guesses based on instinct, reason and past evidence. What it clearly indicates is that we must maintain some form of stasis, or (as it is called in international politics) stability. War is a clear sign of instability and should be avoided to the utmost extent we can, especially given the fact that we now possess nuclear weaponry capable of sending us back to the far harsher environment of the iron age if not further. We will devolve rather than evolve, undoing centuries if not millennia of human history. Assuming that we could even survive such a self-inflicted apocalyptic event.

So let us consider what conditions might establish sufficient stability for the conditions of our survival. (Inter)nationalized laws are such a stabilizing measure. Just like a contract between individuals, it holds a nation to be accountable to its past promises. It makes it possible for us all to expect certain behaviors from the other parties, a necessary condition to maintain the cohesion of any social organism. And legal precedence — customary international law — serves the same stabilizing objective. Based on how other nations have behaved in the past, expectations (i.e. norms) have been created about their future behavior. But that should not be taken to imply that stability seen in the narrow perspective of some given sliver of time is paramount. Ultimately, all our actions must be measured against the most basic moral imperative of the species as a whole.

Stasis and the unwillingness to take risks — that is the unwillingness to act even when there is insufficient information to make determinative statements about potential outcomes — can spell the death of an organism. Ultimately, the Basic Imperative should take precedence over all other considerations. And sometimes we have to risk our very existence in order to maximize the probability that there will ever be a being that can trace its ancestors back to us through the immense tracks of time that separate here from eternity. Synthetic chemicals may not always be good for the environment and lead to better living, but they are nonetheless one of the foundations for the Miracles of Science.

But how do we know when to live or not live by the prescribed laws of society? How do we know when or when not to obey the directives of our commanding officer? Is it when we are told to shoot? When our opponent is unarmed? If only there where such clearcut prescriptions. Despite the immense difficulty in balancing stability with risk, I think there are some methodologies we can adopt to help us make well informed educated guesses.

First, we need to distinctly recognize the difference between when something is morally versus ethically right/wrong. Determining the legality is the easier step. Despite the complexities of law, we can by research and historical studies determine with sufficient certainty if there's an explicitly stated law or if it's legally justified by overwhelming precedence.  Having determined with sufficient confidence that an act is legal, we can assume that there are deeper reasons for having turned what was originally a subjective norm into an explicit law or, by repeated action, an implicit (customary) law. The probability that it is immoral thereby decreases significantly. But we cannot, however, equate this with the law being morally justifiable. And we must, when looking at precedence (and even explicit treaties), be careful not to compare apples to oranges. Incursion into sovereign territory is not, full stop, an invasion for distinctly selfish reasons. And just like in judging homicide, intent matters.

I'm not claiming that it's easy to determine intent. This is why we have the concept of a jury of peers, or alternatively a panel of legal experts. And then subject them to extensive legal procedures so that they can determine (1) was the act committed by said entity; (2) what was their intent in so doing? In international affairs most of the time it's pretty easy to determine by whom an act was committed. Large troop movements can't be hidden from the world just by stripping one's military of their official insignias. There may be official denial, but none but the most willingly blind are usually in any doubt about the culprits. Intent, however, is often no easier to determine than when only a few individuals are involved.

Yet it is surprising how often the intent is stated and clearly contradicts the Basic Imperative. For example, claiming that an act is justified because you are defending, say, ethnic (or more euphemistically "linguistic") Russians is clearly immoral because it presumes an inaccurate biological or strict cultural division in the world. It presumes, if we consider the Basic Imperative as valid,  that the only legitimate distant descendants would be those who originated from Mother Russia. And, thereby, it denies the clearly and scientifically provable statement that genetic (and even cultural) diversity is beneficial to the survival of our species.

This is not to say that sometimes intent is cloaked in dubious statements about defending human rights when, in truth, there are clear motives of national self-interest. But by basing one's justifications on human rights, it becomes far more difficult to coherently persist on a purely self-interested course. We are formed by our own words because, as we are held to account, we seek to prove the truth of our claims until we either admit to lying or succumb to our own lies. Just the claim of being humane renders us more likely to be humane in the future (even if we were initially inhumane).

Morality does not trump the immediate necessity of considering the legality of an act. Legality is based on the complex moral interactions of many. Personal moral determinations, given the uncertainties about the consequences of any action on the future are at best tentative and at worst dubious. But the law should nor be confused with ethics. Properly formed ethics provide a universal and basic framework for making intelligent judgments about what is good or bad for the survival of our species and, in a wider context, our biosphere as a whole.

Good law is a reification of ethics, a process of making something theoretical into a practical solution. We should not willfully disregard laws based on our momentary moral hunches. But when our laws clearly fall short of the higher ideals as set by our moral framework, we should vigorously question and seek to change them. And never should we equate the two.