« Common Threads: Of Torture and Security | Main | BLACK SITES, ITALIAN SOLDIERS INVOLVED IN BOSNIA »

December 23, 2005

Common Threads - 2005: End of the Enlightenment Consensus

2005 has been a big year for news. Apart from the ongoing misery of the Iraq occupation and the broader War on Terror, big events took place. The Pope died. New Orleans was destroyed. Angelina Jolie stole Brad Pitt from Jennifer Anniston.

Big events like this stand out in the collective memory, but will these be the things for which 2005 will be remembered? Often history is driven less by discrete events, no matter how momentous, and more by processes, often of obscure origins, that tip the world between one period and another. This year one such process has matured, and may have crossed the point of no return. I'm speaking of the breakdown of the Western alliance and, on an even more fundamental level, the idea of the West itself.

During the Cold War, the Western institutions - NATO, certainly, but also the EU - represented not just a security alliance, but also a community of nations sharing a common set of values. These values were based on an Enlightenment consensus around rationalism, individualism and democracy. Although sometimes human rights and democracy could be compromised for tactical reasons, there was no question that the ultimate goal was the universal realization of these values. To this end the United States led in the formation of the UN, the Europeans enshrined rights and freedoms in EU accords, and Jimmy Carter pioneered human rights as an international relations issue. These shared, trans-Atlantic values were real, and gave the Western model its appeal against a utopian Marxism. But the battering of the transatlanticism and the recent behavior of the US administration is calling into question the strength, even the existence, of these shared values.

Although the Ashahi Shimbun makes a good point that the Europeans are not blameless when it comes to human rights abuses, the greatest shift in attitude and behavior has taken place in America. The UN was the creation of one US president, FDR, reviving the great idea of another, Woodrow Wilson. George Bush has treated the legacy of his predacessors as an annoyance, a triviality, and, in what can only be understood as a measured display of contempt, appointment a public and committed enemy of the UN as his ambassador there. Trashing the human rights foreign politics of Jimmy Carter, his administration has defended the use of torture by US security personnel, attempting any number of legalistic evasions to maintain the practice in the face of Congressional and international outrage. Returning to the days of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, the NSA is tapping American phones without court order, and planting bogus news stories in American and Iraqi press. This is not a regime that compromises its democatic principles tactically, but one which is willing to suspend the very essence of democracy for the sake of national security. We are very far from the Enlightenment Consensus here.

The US has transformed, and in doing so it has transformed the international system of the world. On this blog, Chiara Brusa Gallina has called into question the European willingness to follow the American war on terror. Gone are the days when the Western alliance was a given - instead, on purely strategic grounds, the US is pulling closer to India, to Japan, and even to Pakistan. And other countries are picking up the cues - in India, Sam Schramski reported that cooperation with the US, at least by some, is treated instrumentally. As Nagomi Onda points out, the Japanese begin to take a more aggressive security stand, reminding China of the Cold War. Russia returns to the Great Game. 2005 has seen a lot of disasters, but the most long lasting may be the burial of the Liberal International ideals of Woodrow Wilson, architect of peace and self-determination, and a global return to the Realpolitik of Bismark, whose friends called him "Blood and Iron."

Posted December 23, 2005 02:01 AM


Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember me?