Patriotism and the Mearsheimer/Walt affair

by Chris Bertram on April 12, 2006

I recently wrote a review of a couple of books on global justice, one of which expended a great deal of effort in explaining how a liberal cosmopolitanism could be consistently combined with a reasonable patriotism. For some reason, the concern to combine these positions seems to especially concern liberal Americans who want be good patriots and think of themselves as endorsing universal values at one and the same time. Well I guess I agree about this far: that, within the limits justice allows, one both may feel an affection for one’s country and compatriots and promote the good of that nation and community, just as one can legitimately promote the good of one’s family and friends within the bounds set by justice. (I guess I think that promoting the interests of one’s family and friends is not merely permissible but also required, whereas promoting the interest of one’s country within the bounds allowed by justice is allowed but not obligatory.)

What I don’t agree with is the proposition that the citizens (or the government, for that matter) of a country are under any duty to promote the interests of that country in terms of its relative prosperity or military power, where their doing so is at the expense of the citizens of other countries. I’m mentioning this now partly because of some of the reactions I’ve read to the infamous Mearsheimer and Walt paper. Mearsheimer and Walt are neorealists, and, as such, they believe that governments (and their citizens) do have a duty to promote their country’s interests in the sense I indicated. So insofar as they claim that some group (the Israeli lobby) fails to do so, and promotes some other country’s interests, they are saying something bad about that group from their own perspective. [1]

But, of course, the left is not bound to endorse a neorealist perpective. The left can say, rightly, that justice takes priority over national interest and that where morality demands that some policy or other be promoted contrary to national interest, citizens ought to promote that policy. So if it is true of some policy promoted by AIPAC that it is the morally right policy, then that policy ought to be promoted by Americans even if contrary to the national interests of the United States as conceived of by neorealists. Similarly, if it is right to forgive poor countries their debts or to invade Iraq to overthrow a brutal dictator, or to intervene in Darfur, but contrary to US national interests (understood in terms of the wealth and power of the United States), then US citizens ought to promote debt forgiveness , the invasion of Iraq, or humanitarian intervention in Darfur. [2]

If someone claims that this or that position is contrary to the interests of a country and that it is unpatriotic for citizens of that country to promote such a policy, the right answer from the left is not to say “how dare you impugn our patriotism, we are just as patriotic as you!”. Rather, liberals and leftists should say, that perhaps such a policy is indeed contrary to the country’s interests so conceived, but that (a) no ordinary citizen is under an obligation to be patriotic and (b) a reasonable patriotism neither requires nor permits citizens to promote their country’s interests in that sense.

I think the following is also true: that the same considerations that make it permissible to promote the interests of the nation of which one is a citizen (providing one does so within the bounds of justice) also make it permissible for people to promote the interests of other communities or nations with which one identifies. Jewish Americans, like Irish Americans or Arab Americans may therefore reasonably promote the interests of the Jewish, Irish, or Arab nations more broadly conceived and this may legitimately involve promoting or defending the viability of other nation states that the one of which they happen to be citizens. What it does not permit is the promotion of the power-interests of those states as neorealists conceive of those interests.

fn1. One reading of M&W, call it the Dershowitz/paranoid reading for short, has them alleging this bad-thing-from-their-perspective not only against the Israeli lobby narrowly conceived (AIPAC and similar organizations) but against a very broad swathe of Jewish America. If the Dershowitz/paranoid reading were justified then their paper would be a very reprehensible document indeed.

fn2. Needless to say these examples are merely hypothetical and imply no endorsement by me.

{ 48 comments }

1

soru 04.12.06 at 6:38 am

Good analysis, one of those things I didn’t know I agreed with until I had read it.

2

Tim Hicks 04.12.06 at 6:54 am

I recently wrote a review of a couple of books on global justice, one of which expended a great deal of effort in explaining how a liberal cosmopolitanism could be consistently combined with a reasonable patriotism.

Can you provide the reference for that book?

3

brendan 04.12.06 at 7:19 am

The problem here is that, since we now have a world of nation states (not Empires as we did in the past) we have a problem: each of these will attempt to maximise their own self-interest, and with the ideology of the nation state it’s very difficult to see on what grounds ‘we’ could stop them.

The only possible way round this problem it seems to me, is the way that has actually been chosen: to have a supra-national body (i.e. the United Nations) that can arbitrate when the national interest’s of these various nation states clash.

Equally (to return to the themes of the first paragraph) we ought to have a trans-national system of international law, which applies to all states equally.

The problem of course is that, in order to function, this trans-national body must have some kind of army to enforce these international laws, and the UN doesn’t. So in practice it tends to be skewed in favour of the militarily most powerful powers. Short of a UN army (the chances of which are roughly zero) I have no idea what the solution to this problem should be.

The other problem is that not everyone accepts the criterion of universality without which the system of international justice will collapse. For example, some people think that actions by democracies should always and in all cases be viewed more favourably than actions of dictatorships. That’s a defendable position, but it’s very difficult to see how it might work in practice, especially since the distinction between ‘autocracy’ and ‘democracy’ is not actually as clear in reality as it is in theory.

4

Dan Kervick 04.12.06 at 7:27 am

Rather, liberals and leftists should say, that perhaps such a policy is indeed contrary to the country’s interests so conceived, but that (a) no ordinary citizen is under an obligation to be patriotic and (b) a reasonable patriotism neither requires nor permits citizens to promote their country’s interests in that sense.

No, liberals and leftists in America most definitely shouldn’t say this, whether or not your speculative theory about the relationships holding among justice, moral obligation and the interests of privileged groups is true.

Presumably these liberals and leftists are under some sort of obligation to work collectively to do good. And doing good requires achieving positions of responsibility and institutionalized power. And outside a tiny handful of very left-liberal districts in the US, it is quite impossible for a candidate to get elected by saying that citizens are under no obligation to be patriotic. Nor is it at all likely that a candidate who says “I will promote policies contrary to the interests of national power, where justice and morality demand it” will be elected.

Nor is it likely that a given candidate will be elected if that candidate is seen by the majority of the electorate as the champion of a group of people who say the things that you hold liberals and leftists “should say”. Even if the members of that group have convinced themselves of the truth of your theory, they should probably keep their views to themselves, or else they will irreperably damage the ability of their champion to achieve office.

This fact of life is not just connected to the pursuit of governmental office. We live in a world in which the capacity to influence events in any significant way, including public affairs and governmental policies, is strongly constrained by a network of pre-existing roles and institutions, all of which have occupancy conditions that include sets of conventional and institutionalized obligations. The public acceptance of these obligations is usually a causally necessary condition for coming to occupy those positions.

5

Matt 04.12.06 at 7:37 am

Chris,
When and where will the review(s) come out? I’ll look forward to reading them. I’m curious that you say this is mostly a position common among “liberal Americans”, since the philosophers, at least, who are the biggest promoters of such positions are Canadian, Canadian via Singapore, Israeli, etc. Maybe you mean the general public and not philosophers, though. If so, I’d be surprised if this sentiment is really more common among American liberals, even if perhaps it’s expressed more explicitly.

6

Chris Bertram 04.12.06 at 7:41 am

Tim, sure. It was Kok-Chor Tan’s _Justice without Borders_ . The review was for Res Publica (also covering Simon Caney’s _Justice beyond Borders_ , but I’ve no idea when it will appear.

7

Chris Bertram 04.12.06 at 7:42 am

You may be right Matt. Just my impression. Is Tan Canadian-via-Singapore?

8

magistra 04.12.06 at 7:52 am

I think there is a basic division in viewpoints between the US and the UK on the legitimacy of citizens promoting the interests of another state. The UK, which demands more assimilation by immigrants than the US (though less than France) has very little tradition of ‘ethnic’ lobbying groups (though it has other kinds of lobbying). And there is some active hostility to the idea of these by the British Old Left. I remember an article by Roy Hattersley, who used to sit for a constituency that had a lot of British Asians in it. Some of his constituents were saying they would vote for him if he supported ‘their side’ on the Kashmiri question. He was insistent that this was not the sort of demand they should be making: they should be making their voting decisions based on domestic politics, while governments should decide foreign policy on principles. (I don’t know whether this socialist opposition to ethnic politics is also driven by the fact that historically, the only lobbying groups that have had any foreign policy influence in the UK are White South Africans/White Rhodesians.)

If you’re going to take the US view that it is legitimate to have ethnic lobby groups, then the normal qualification must be put in place: it is legitimate to promote another country’s interest to the extent that justice allows. A liberal argument against AIPAC and similar lobbying groups (the Irish-American lobby during the IRA bombing campaign springs to my mind), is that they encourage political decisions that are unjust.

9

Chris Bertram 04.12.06 at 7:55 am

Dan, the point you make about the pragmatics of political campaigning is a good one which I take seriously. But I think (or just hope?) that you’re wrong about the extent to which candidates for public office can say “We should do X not out of self-interest but because X is the right thing to do.” It might (arguably) be in the interests of national power to do nothing to restrain carbon emissions or to impose import tarrifs but I think candidates or officeholders who say “we must play our part to combat global warming even if it costs us” or “we must lift protectionist measure to combat global poverty, even it it costs us” are not thereby committing political suicide.

10

Barry 04.12.06 at 8:00 am

“For example, some people think that actions by democracies should always and in all cases be viewed more favourably than actions of dictatorships. That’s a defendable position, but it’s very difficult to see how it might work in practice, especially since the distinction between ‘autocracy’ and ‘democracy’ is not actually as clear in reality as it is in theory.”

Posted by brendan

It’s crystal clear, actually – if the democratic actions are pleasing to right-wingers, they’ll say that. If those actions are displeasing, they’ll go right back to where they were before the Iraq war, sucking up to dictators and talking derisively about ‘the mob’.

Don’t be fooled by the current propaganda line from right-wingers (in the US/UK) about them waging war for ‘democracy’. They’ve usually waged war against democracy, with body counts comparable to Saddam at his worst. This current line about democracy in Iraq was brought up from the fine print only when the ‘vast stockpiles of WMD’s’ and ties to Al Qaida failed to materialize.

11

Steve LaBonne 04.12.06 at 8:06 am

But I think (or just hope?) that you’re wrong about the extent to which candidates for public office can say “We should do X not out of self-interest but because X is the right thing to do.”

Amen. It’s not as though our politicians have actually tried this experiment much lately, so who knows what would happen if said by a candidate with the right sort of sincere / appealing personality? Even my Limbaugh-listening coworkers have a better nature which I believe could be reached if addressed in the right way.

12

paul 04.12.06 at 8:10 am

Here’s a place where the liberal/left should take the right’s favorite piles of moralizing crap and dump them right back. What profiteth it a nation if it gain the whole world but lose its soul? There will be a few neo-realists laughing somewhere, but who among the players on the right hasn’t claimed moral authority (rather than practical gain) for muscular patriotism?

And no, I don’t think those piles of moralizing are always crap — otherwise patriotism would alway consist simply in following the commander in chief.

13

abb1 04.12.06 at 8:14 am

Liberals can say whatever they want; nothing they might say, however, will negate the simple fact that a national government is elected first and foremost to advance and promote pragmatic, realist interests of its own state, its constituency. That’s what elected governments do and that’s the only thing they can do.

If you want altruistic humanitarian intervention in Darfur, you can lobby your national government or your local Dunkin’ Donuts with exactly the same chance of success.

14

Matt 04.12.06 at 8:23 am

Hi Chris,

KC Tan is indeed Candian via Singapore. I think he’s even met w/ John Holbo a few times in Singapore, though I might not be remembering correctly. We’re all very happy to have him here in Philadelphia now, though.

15

Uncle Kvetch 04.12.06 at 8:27 am

It might (arguably) be in the interests of national power to do nothing to restrain carbon emissions or to impose import tarrifs but I think candidates or officeholders who say “we must play our part to combat global warming even if it costs us” or “we must lift protectionist measure to combat global poverty, even it it costs us” are not thereby committing political suicide.

Maybe it depends on the country. I’m trying to remember the last time a US President asked Americans to do the right thing, “even if it costs us.” And I keep running smack into the fact that people all across the “mainstream” of US political opinion still smirk about Jimmy Carter’s calls for energy conservation in the late 70s (remember the cardigan sweater?).

Where the US is concerned, I’m afraid I have to agree with Dan. Ever since Reagan, “politics” in this country, at the national level at least, has essentially consisted of telling the American people how infinitely wonderful they are, and how their God-given right to Have It All Right Now is being usurped by Those People Over There. And “sacrifice” has never consisted of anything more than shelling out a few bucks for a “Support the Troops” magnet for the car.

Put another way: When a huge chunk of the population has internalized the message that government is always the problem, never the solution, how the hell could the government possiby mobilize people for collective sacrifice?

16

Steve LaBonne 04.12.06 at 8:40 am

I’m not willing to descend that far into cynicism, not yet anyway. Any line of propaganda reaches a point of diminishing returns eventually, and I think the right-wing BS of the post-Reagan era may finally be approaching its sell-by date (with assistance from Bush’s staggering incompetence and bad faith which are becoming visbible even to a lot of the fools who voted for him twice.) At least, I try to think that in order to remain somewhat sane…

17

abb1 04.12.06 at 8:53 am

This has nothing to do with cynicism, it’s just that a national government is not the right kind of institution to take care of international justice and that sort of things. National government is on the other side of the barricade.

There are institutions designed to serve this purpose: the NGOs, the socialist international, international trade unions – plenty of institutions. Why would you want to pick the one whose purpose is exactly the opposite and try to use it for promotion of international justice? It will never work.

18

john c. halasz 04.12.06 at 8:58 am

“…promoting the interests of one’s country within the bounds allowed by justice is allowed but not obligatory.”

Whaaa? You might want to go back and consider Spinoza’s dictum that right extents only so far as power. One promotes the good (and not just the narrowly defined “interests”) of one’s own country and fellow citizens, because, assuming it is a duly constituted, reasonably democratic republic,- (a big if),- that is where one can effectively promote the good, and that is obligatory, not merely optional, because of the mutual pledge that constitutes the commonweal. The “universalist” aspect comes out in that other countries should, for their own sake, be duly constituted, reasonably democratic republics, within an international order of mutual agreements between such republics that maintains the peace and resolves or tempers the conflicts of interests between them. (An even bigger if, but then it’s a merely normative question. See Spinoza’s dictum.)

19

DC 04.12.06 at 9:13 am

Two comments on this thread:

“[states] will attempt to maximise their own self-interest”

“a national government is elected first and foremost to advance and promote pragmatic, realist interests of its own state, its constituency.”

Both are wrong, or at least not necessarily right. This is because all voters get one vote each, and some might be motivated by concerns other than their self-interest. They may well also be wealthier than average – e.g. the ‘pro-Israel’ lobby or the’post-materialist’ liberal middle classes.

“The UK…has very little tradition of ‘ethnic’ lobbying groups”

True, but I still want to throw in a little bit of esoteric history: Irish immigrants played a very significant role in late 19th century British elections (quite apart from Irish voters in Ireland, then part of the UK). Indeed the Irish Home Rule Party actually won a seat in Liverpool in 1885.

20

otto 04.12.06 at 9:30 am

The problem with the Israeli lobby is not that they are unpatriotic because its an ethnic lobby, but that they are mobilising in support of bigoted policies (Israel’s permant policies of colonising and ethnic cleansing the Palestinian Arabs, especially in and around Jerusalem) which tend to impose negative externalities in terms of Arab and Islamic hostility towards America. Its a small organised group with intense preferences distortion of policy-making which is the objection, just like steel, farm, Cuban etc lobbies.

In fact there are lots of ethnic groups in the UK who want the UK to take up their foreign policy issues. But UK politics is not so amenable to small group shakedowns.

21

Dan Kervick 04.12.06 at 9:47 am

I am neither a historian, political scientist nor sociologist. So my impressions of the forces driving US foreign policy are not based on any professional expertise, but just those of a person who lives here. But here they are:

The United States is still in some sense a revolutionary society, with a civic religion and patriotic cult of national power, autonomy and independence formed and confirmed during its key wars: the War of Independence, the Civil War and the Second World War.

The civic religion is more universal even than Christianity as a touchstone of political and moral legitimacy in national debate. It provides the basic rhetorical framework within which political discussion and campaigning are constrained to take place.

While candidates and other public figures and opinion leaders certainly do defend their agendas and proposals with lofty moral appeals to what is the “right thing to do”, it is almost always the case that they also seek to portray their aims as enhancing the national interest. In fact, I can’t think of a single case of a candidate arguing that we should do something because it is the right thing to do even though it may damage our own national self-interest.

All this said, it is important to recognize that the civic religion is a religion, and its formulaic pieties serve as ritual utterances. As with all religions, it is very hard to tell which tokens of these utterances are sincere professions of faith, and which are insincere yieldings to social requirements. The notion of the “national interest” is itself an abstract and somewhat unreal construct that plays a magical and devotional role similar to the “will of God” in traditional theism. And working beneath the surface conformities to the official religion, US foreign policy is in large part the result of an ongoing battle for control of the state by coalitions whose international goals are peculiar to a minority, and conflict with the goals of competing coalitions. Indeed, most Americans, I suspect, are devoted to some cause that is dearer to them than the supposed national interest they profess to serve. The cause may be Christianity, or liberal internationalism, or Cuba, or the Categorical Imperative, or world peace, or scientific enlightenment, or the growth of a particular corporate enterprise. They seek to gain control of the US state to advance the interests of some particular group, movement, or ideological or moral cause which is central to their lives – or perhaps even to advance their own self-interest. But in doing so, they usually try to convince the rest of us that advancing those peculiar interests is consistent with – or better, necessary to – advancing the national interest. Often the reasoning is quite strained and convoluted and deceptive. But it is always there. Often the argument is sincerely believed by its presenters; at other times it known by its presenters to be fraudulent.

The very diversity of moral, religious and ideological conceptions of the good in the United States means that it is impossible for any of those causes to thrive politically without attaching themselves in some way to the consensus view of the national interest. This is the case even where the cause is something as general and obscure as “the moral good” or “the right thing to do”. But the rhetorical task is easier to in the latter case, because the chief article of faith in the American religion is the Mystical Union between the national interest and the moral good. All right-thinking Americans have learned to accept that these are identical.

22

abb1 04.12.06 at 10:09 am

…all voters get one vote each, and some might be motivated by concerns other than their self-interest…

That is correct, but I just can’t imagine any significant number of voters being consistently motivated by nothing but altruistic desire for international justice. If something like that were possible, then the world would’ve been very different; people probably wouldn’t need any government in the first place. Even if we do want to be idealistic, we still need to be realisic. And that means promoting international justice by creating strong international institutions.

23

Chris Bertram 04.12.06 at 10:25 am

abb1, nobody is (I hope) suggesting that voters be “consistently motivated by nothing but altruistic desire for international justice”. What is being suggested it is that voters (and people generally) have the capacity to recognize (and be guided by) restraints of justice on the pursuit of their view of the good.

Example: I want the best for my kids, but if they are in a running race with others, I recognize that drugging their competitors to enhance my offspring’s chances is impermissible.

And yes we do need strong(er) international institutions, but the discussion about what institutions we need is somewhat orthogonal to that about what justice requires.

24

Tom Hurka 04.12.06 at 10:31 am

Chris’s principle — that one may promote the good of one’s nation/family and friends only within the bounds set by justice — sounds uncontentious, but it all depends on what “justice” demands, doesn’t it?

Everyone will accept the principle if justice means only not killing, not maiming, etc. innocent people. But the debt-forgiveness, Iraq, and Darfur examples suggest much, much more. They suggest that you’re not permitted to promote your nation’s or family’s good if there are any injustices being committed by others that you could instead prevent.

Surely no one believes that about the family, and surely no one believes the similar claim about distributive justice, i.e. that I’m not permitted to give my children more than barely enough food to avoid starvation if there are any children in the world who unjustly have less.

The same, I would argue, holds for states. Their pursuit of their citizens’ good is absolutely constrained by the duty to avoid positive unjust acts like killing, aggression, etc. But it’s not ABSOLUTELY constrained by the duty to prevent any unjust acts by anyone else in the world, or to prevent any distributive injustice. That demand is way too strong to be plausible.

I’m not defending a neo-realist view. These more expansive demands of justice (if they’re properly called that) do have independent weight and can outweigh the demands of partiality towards one’s nation or even family, so one must sometimes sacrifice their interests. And debt-forgiveness and Darfur may be examples where that happens. It’s just that the more expansive demands don’t have ABSOLUTE weight, as Chris’s principle suggests. Again, given his implicit understanding of what justice involves, his principle is way too strong.

BTW, re #5, I attended a conference on the ethics of nationalism back when that topic was new (how many eons ago was that?). And it was exactly as Matt says: the defenders of (moderate) nationalism were the Canadians (including me) and Israelis, whereas the Americans were mostly hostile. The obvious explanation is that it all depends on whether your own nation has used nationalism to defend itself or to attack others.

25

abb1 04.12.06 at 10:44 am

Distributive justice is one thing, but what about hiring a tutor for your child to raise her SAT scores, for example? A lot of people can’t afford to do it; would you do it? I’m sure you would. I would.

26

Chris Bertram 04.12.06 at 10:50 am

Thanks Tom. The examples I used weren’t meant to support a particular principle but to allow the reader to fill in the blanks. In all the cases I deliberately wrote “If justice demands X …” I was merely wanting to suggest that some arguments were ok in form and others were not.

Nevertheless, you are quite right to make the point that you do that there is a difference between observing the demands of justice oneself and having a positive duty to correct the injustices of others.

You write:

Their pursuit of their citizens’ good is absolutely constrained by the duty to avoid positive unjust acts like killing, aggression, etc. But it’s not ABSOLUTELY constrained by the duty to prevent any unjust acts by anyone else in the world, or to prevent any distributive injustice. That demand is way too strong to be plausible.

It may be. But given the institutional context it may be difficult to stop a slide from an obligation not to harm to a duty to prevent. I’m thinking, for example, about trade negotiations, TRIPS etc. Is the unfairness we acquiesce in when we uphold an unjust trading framework an injustice we perpetrate or one we fail to prevent?

27

Tim W 04.12.06 at 10:51 am

Tom Hurka said: “Surely no one believes that about the family, and surely no one believes the similar claim about distributive justice, i.e. that I’m not permitted to give my children more than barely enough food to avoid starvation if there are any children in the world who unjustly have less.”

I’m not so sure no one believes this.
If there are starving children elsewhere in the world, and you have already given your children enough to survive, I can easily see someone arguing that it is unjust for you to give your children more at the expense of other children who are unjustly starving. Now, people might be selfish, and not do the just thing. We might even understand why they didn’t. But it would still be wrong to not do it, on this line of thought.

Anyway, it seems close to what Peter Singer might say, or what G.A. Cohen might say (if we say the analysis of his ‘If you’re an Egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?’ applies on a global scale)

28

Chris Bertram 04.12.06 at 10:51 am

abb1 (#25) Harry B and Adam Swift have a book coming out on just this kind of thing!

29

harry b 04.12.06 at 10:58 am

abb1, you’d probably be wasting your money (the tutor services make rather grand and hard-to-sustain claims about their effectiveness, and trade ona lot of middle class angst about children’s prospects).

But, that aside, I’m not so sure I would. It all depends; if my child has reasonably good prospects of a fulfilling life (which I certainly have a duty to provide if I can), there’s a point at which it does seem wrong to me to spend further money on her advancement when I could be giving to Oxfam, etc. Especially if I know (as I do in our world) that her advancement is at the expense of others.

If your interest is piqued by abb1′s comment, you’ll like Adam Swift’s book How Not to Be a Hypocrite
link here (if it works): How Not to Be a Hypocrite

30

harry b 04.12.06 at 11:03 am

It’s still being written, Chris, so won’t be coming otu for a while. But Adam’s own book is a good start.

Tim W: as Chris says I’m thinking about this a lot at the moment. I think you are right about Singer thinking (something like) what tom says no-one thinks. But not (or not obviously) G.A. Cohen; his analysis is carefully hedged by acknowledgement of various unspecified agent-centered prerogatives which must surely include various prerogatives to act on obligations, and even on simple non-obligatory beneficent feelings, to one’s own family members. Singer (whose work I know less well) doesn’t seem to hedge in the same way.

31

Jacob T. Levy 04.12.06 at 11:14 am

I attended a conference on the ethics of nationalism back when that topic was new (how many eons ago was that?)

The conference was in 1994!

the defenders of (moderate) nationalism were the Canadians (including me) and Israelis, whereas the Americans were mostly hostile. The obvious explanation is that it all depends on whether your own nation has used nationalism to defend itself or to attack others.

I think the difference Tom notes between American academics and Canadian and Israeli ones (at least c. 1994) has a very different source. American academics, especially liberals (political theory sense, not American politics sense) have a funny ability to slip between “American” and “universal.” They’re (we’re) sometimes able to take their nation-state utterly for granted. Never having to worry about whether it will persist as a distinctive and independent entity, they (we) can indulge the illusion of nationlessness, of an equation between the national and the universal. Canadians and Israelis– and Americans deeply concerned with Israel’s well-being, like Michael Walzer, who was probably the American at that conference most openly sympathetic to nationalism– don’t and can’t.

I was struck early on by observations my Canadian academic friends made about how distinctively American the desire to deny that there was anything distinctively national in one’s culture/ temperament/ beliefs was. It’s less a knee-jerk hostility to their own nation than it is the equivalent of whites thinking they don’t have race and not understanding the impulse to racial solidarism, or men insisting on the principle of gender-blindness.

(To say nothing of the curious generalization about how Canadian, Israeli, and American academics view their respective states’ military histories.)

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otto 04.12.06 at 11:44 am

“It all depends; if my child has reasonably good prospects of a fulfilling life (which I certainly have a duty to provide if I can), there’s a point at which it does seem wrong to me to spend further money on her advancement when I could be giving to Oxfam, etc.”

Okay in terms of buying your children a seat in Parliament etc. But would this really apply in practice in the case that ABB1 refers to, i.e. in relationship to an effective tutoring service? For example, the prospects of a life in academia (yes yes, not nec fulfilling etc) really rely on getting the sharpest possible education when young? If you are willing to withhold that, even though it does cost resources one way or another, there are all sorts of limits on children’s possibilities. I suppose the same might apply to becoming a musician.

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abb1 04.12.06 at 11:46 am

I don’t know about you, guys, but I have no doubt that 99.9% of people I know would do things for their children that any independent observer will classify as ‘unfair to others’. They will use their connections in academia, they will hire their children to work for their businesses rejecting more qualified applicants, they will use their connections to find the best doctor, the best dentist, to get into best school – IOW, they will compete for limited resources using whatever advantage they have; certainly by the means that are legal and ethical, but in most cases by the means that are unethical (although often socially acceptable). I don’t need to read books to know that.

And people need external laws and law-enforcement to stop them from going off the cliff with this; otherwise favoritism and nepotism will prevail 99% of the time. People are no angels. And it’s the same thing with the national governments, only much worse.

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Tim W 04.12.06 at 11:55 am

Harry b:

The view mentioned by Hurka (and attributed to Chris Bertram) mentions starving children, so it seems to even rule out, as too strong to be plausible, views of justice requiring the sufficient meeting of people’s needs. Cohen’s view of justice is even more egalitarian than anything brought up so far. I bet that any hedges Cohen puts around his view would qualify his extensive egalitarianism; they would not, in effect, bring him below a sufficiency floor. I think Cohen (if he is a cosmopolitan) would not say that the personal space is so large that we can refuse to feed starving kids. The end result, I would think, is that his demands would be more stringent than the view Hurksa says no one believes. In sum, Cohen’s qualification of his egalitarianism still makes him more demanding than a suffiency view.

Suppose everyone’s basic needs were met and/or their human rights were protected adequately.*
Someone could claim that, beyond that floor, we are permitted to keep an unequal amount of stuff. But Hurka seemed to go farther than that.

* This need not mean that no violations occur. See, for example, Thomas Pogge on one take on what ‘adequately’ means.

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DC 04.12.06 at 11:59 am

Exackerly.

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Tim W 04.12.06 at 11:59 am

By the way, let me just add that I really liked Hurka’s peice on national partiality in a volume edited by McKim.

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DC 04.12.06 at 12:00 pm

Woops, that was supposed to refer to Chris Bertram’s #23.

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paul 04.12.06 at 12:14 pm

In line with 24, there’s also the enormous question of what these realistic practical interests of a country are, that it is supposed to promote them within the bounds of justice. Even people of intelligence, knowledge and goodwill can differ strongly one where the interests of the country (as distinguished from those of some subset of its citizens, or the corporations headquartered there, or of corporations whose main shareholders or operations are or have historically been located there) actually lie, and even more on how those interests should be promoted. And of course once you leave off the requirement for intelligence, knowledge or goodwill all hell’s out for noon.

Certainly the last half century was littered with the bloody mistakes of governments that thought they were pragmatically forwarding their country’s interests and turned out to be doing things quite different.

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harry b 04.12.06 at 12:49 pm

abb1; as chris says in a different context, of course institutions matter, and they should be designed the right way. But in order to decide what the right way is we need to know what principles should govern them. Swift’s book makes the case for getting the institutions right, but then asks what it is morally permissible to do given that the institutions are wrong. He and I believe that just because the world is organised in the wrong way that does not give the advantaged moral permission to do whatever the (wrongly formulated) institutions allow them to do.

tim — yes, I liked hurka’s piece too. As to Cohen; part of me just thinks it is obvious that what you say must be right…but, I suspect (and that’s all I can do without looking back pretty carefully, which I haven’t time to do) that he can evade your attribution! Still, I see the point.

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Dan Kervick 04.12.06 at 2:51 pm

Political positions such as “ordinary citizens are under no obligation to be patriotic” and “ordinary citizens are not required to promote the power interests of one’s own country” are simply non-starters as far as the demands of practical politics is concerned. So these ivory tower speculations offer no guidance at all as to what liberals engaged in practical politics should say.

Similarly, any members of the Israel lobby in the United States who might be tempted to defend themselves against the Mearsheimer and Walt paper by saying “we are under no duty to promote the interests of the United States in terms of its relative prosperity and military power” would be guilty of an extraordinary political ineptitude. For all the good it would do them, they might as well say “we are traitors who wrote the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Consider any work in the business world. One might sympathize with the moral notion that the employees of a company are required above all to promote justice, and that they are not required to promote the competitive interests of their own company. But the fact is that it is part of their jobs to promote those competitive interests, and they will be fired for failing to to their jobs.

Some companies attempt to implement social responsibility agendas, or green agendas. But if they are publicly owned, then their directors are legally bound by the terms of their obligations to their stockholders to promote their own companies’ competitive interests. They must constantly justify their claim that the “progressive” agenda enhances the bottom line. If they can’t justify it, they are removed.

Government is also a business – it is the business of administering a state, and those who assume places in the government are typically charged with advancing the interests of that state in fairly conventional economic and security terms. Their scope for action is strongly constrained by the legal and institutional responsibilities of the positions they hold. If they pursue progressive global agendas, they are required to defend those agendas as enlightened pursuit of national self-interest. If their pursuit of these agendas noticeably damages the country’s bottom line, they are usually removed.

In a democracy, in principle, the government can do whatever the people who elected them want them to do, subject to Constitutional restraints that cannot be overridden. So in principle they can even follow moral policies which damage the country’s interests in terms of prosperity and power. In principle. But in practice, the moral aspirations of the public are so diverse, and so tenuous, and so variable, that the interests of power and prosperity continually assert themselves as the chief governing principle and least common denominator for practice. The rulers serve at the pleasure of those who have secured for them their positions – that is, coalitions of voters and powerful economic interests. And these very large groups tend to act as a group, whatever the moral preferences of their individual members, as self-regarding leviathans seeking their own interests.

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Chris Bertram 04.12.06 at 3:05 pm

I’m bound to point out to you, Dan, that citizens of a state are not, in many relevant respects, like employees of a company and that corporations are expected to respect many constraints of justice in the way they conduct their affairs. Of course some dispute this openly and others treat prohibitions on fraud and theft as irritating encumbrances to be evaded where possible. But I understand that Mr Lay is looking at a lengthy period of incarceration.

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Dan Kervick 04.12.06 at 4:51 pm

Chris, I agree that citizens of a state are not at all like the employees of a company. But the employees of the state’s government surely are like the employees of a company. The citizens are more like the stockholders, and the government employees are constrained by what the stockholders demand of them.

Of course, in actual practice, some citizens have much more influence on these government employees than other citizens. And government officials are able to create some additional freedom of action for themselves by dissembling, or lying or otherwise shielding their actions or the motives for their actions from public scrutiny. The Bush administration’s employment of secrecy and deception is particularly egregious, but it is a major factor in all US administrations.

In the case of corporations, the prohibitions you mention mainly exist in the form of law. Law is a mechanism by which rules of action seen as publicly beneficial are given force by attaching sanctions to them, and turning them into requirements of prudence. The chief executive of a company then justifies his obedience to these rules not on altruistic moral grounds, but on the ground of legal requirement. Because disobedience carries penalties, the company’s self-interest aligns with the law.

The other force that can move a company in the direction of acting in accordance with justice is, as you mention, non-legally binding public expectations. If a company acts in a way that brings widespread discredit and disapproval, the negative views may hurt its business. And then once again, the chief executive can justify acting in accordance with certain publicly esteemed rules or principles, because failure to do so will harm the compnay’s own interests. However, whether the incentive of public expectations really is a force for justice depends on whether the public is just.

What do the “stockholders” demand of their government? I can’t speak about other countries, but only about what seems to me to be the case here in the US. There are lots of different kinds of Americans, driven by lots of different kinds of enthusiams, and they would all severally like to government to pursue various moral and ideological causes around the world: Christianity, liberalism, free trade, etc. But the diversity of these causes means that they tend to cancel each other out, and resolve themselves into a wary and practical resultant consensus based on prudential principles. And where they do have an effect, the effect is a temporary one that does not extend beyond a transient burst of partisan ideological enthusiasm. The more persistant, enduring public expectation in the realm of foreign policy is that the government will work to (i) make them richer, (ii) uphold the laws that protect their interests and liberties and (iii) keep them safe from foreign threats. In general, US citizens want the government to maintain the country’s military power because that power is seen as the chief guarantee of security. In contrast to many elite opinion leaders of the right and left, most citizens tend to have a live and let live attitude toward the affairs of other countries, but can be persuaded to act aggressively when they see the aggressive action as a pro-active security measure. Once they believe the threat is no longer there, the support for force disappears.

There is some disposition to support pro bono military action, where the action is seen as relatively pain free. But as the example of Somalia shows, the support for pure altruism tends to dissipate suddenly in the face of even modest losses.

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Jean Lepley 04.12.06 at 10:25 pm

Two points.
First, on the superioity of “democratic” decisions — wasn’t it Andrew Jackson, the “people’s president,” who against more conservative voices (including the Supreme Court) forced the Cherokees out of their ancestral lands? I for one would never take for granted the ethical superiority of the “popular” voice.

As for people not being “angels” (or “saints,” as George Orwell puts it in his essay on Gandhi), I agree with Orwell that there is something more than a little offputting in the very idea of “sainthood” — the idea, that is, of not doing more for our own children and indeed for anyone we profess to love that we would do for a global “humanity.”

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Chris Bertram 04.13.06 at 1:46 am

Dan, I was careful to say that _citizens_ have no _obligation_ to be patriots. You are probably right to say that candidates for public office need to be patriots if they are to succeed. But, as I tried to make clear in the original post, a reasonable patriotism doesn’t pursue the power interests of a state but rather promotes the good of a nation only within the bounds set by justice. I don’t see that the contingent fact that many nation states and their citizens are actually unreasonable in this respect constitutes an objection to that claim, any more than my own failures to act justly on occasion would count as a reason to doubt what justice requires.

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Felix Grant 04.13.06 at 2:59 am

Fully agree with Bertram’s main post.

Ref Brendan, comment 3:

B> we now have a world of nation states (not
B> Empires as we did in the past)

I’d dispute that.

We certainly have a world of nation states, but they agglomerate into superstructures. What the US runs is an empire in all but name; the same was true of the USSR, and is true of China.

Also, the age of the nation state is reaching the end of its sell by date. Nation states will no longer continue to exist, but as globalisation proceeds their key importance in geopolitics is eroding by the day.

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abb1 04.13.06 at 4:23 am

Economic globalisation, of course, might easily help fuel nationalism everywhere and sharpen conflict between the nation-states. Isn’t this what the WWI was pretty much all about?

Wouldn’t the Boeing like Airbus factories bombed and destroyed? Doesn’t the GMC CEO hate Honda?

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Dan Kervick 04.13.06 at 7:12 am

But, as I tried to make clear in the original post, a reasonable patriotism doesn’t pursue the power interests of a state but rather promotes the good of a nation only within the bounds set by justice. I don’t see that the contingent fact that many nation states and their citizens are actually unreasonable in this respect constitutes an objection to that claim, any more than my own failures to act justly on occasion would count as a reason to doubt what justice requires.

Yes I agree. My major concern was with the suggestion that the views you endorse are what liberals “should say”. (I realize that that was just a casual suggestion and not central to your main point.) If the point of our saying anything at all is to nudge the world in a positive direction, then it’s not clear to me in what contexts endorsing these views of patriotism within the bounds of justice alone would be beneficial. In the US, these views simply find little traction in the public sphere, and are widely disparaged. Articulating them can possibly do more harm than good.

As for the actual truth of the views, I have no strong opinion. I do have some concern, though, that theories in moral philosophy that are so much in conflict with actual practice may be “too high for humanity”. Perhaps they fail to take sufficient account of certain features of human nature that are responsible for the practices. On the other hand, maybe the current practices are not due to human nature, but only reflect a depraved understanding resulting from inadequate socialization and education. This seems to be a perennial question in moral philosophy.

Just a word about the distinction you draw between interests generally and power interests as conceived by realists: The international sphere, while certainly not a Hobbesian “state of nature”, is still a much more perilous, competitive and combative arena for action than exists for individuals living inside a secure, peaceful and well-governed state. In such a fraught situation, it is not clear to me that one really can promote a nation’s interests without promoting its power interests.

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Damian Lataan 04.17.06 at 4:02 am

Ever since the Mearsheimer and Walt paper on the ‘Israeli Lobby’ hit the streets there has been a discernable decrease in the fear of being called anti-Semite by those that criticise right-wing Israeli politics and right-wing Zionism. The initial reaction from the pro-Zionists and the Israeli-supporting neoconservatives in America was highly predictable – they, of course, called Mearsheimer and Walt ‘anti-Semites’. They did it so loudly and so often that it became clear that it was the Israeli Lobby itself that was doing the name calling. Problem is they went overboard with it. They did it to such an extent that it doesn’t mean anything anymore.

It’s got to a point now where people no longer care about being called an anti-Semite because they know that is just a bit of name calling that no longer has any relevance or meaning. People are now very much aware that those that criticise right-wing Israeli politics and right-wing Zionism are going to be labelled by those that are being criticised as anti-Semites, just as a matter of course. It has become expected. But now everyone knows that really they are not anti-Semites but just critics of right-wing Israeli politics and right-wing Zionism. The right-wing Zionists have clearly failed in their attempt to introduce criticism of right-wing Israeli politics and right-wing Zionism as the ‘New anti-Semitism’.

The real anti-Semites are those that have been around for centuries. These are the racists and white supremacists that have always been there. They are the ones that were totally discredited at the end of World War Two as the world realised that their blind hatred had resulted in the systematic deaths of millions of those that they hated. There are a few still around but, thankfully, not in any significant numbers. These people don’t hate because they dislike right-wing Israelis or right-wing Zionists. They just hate Jews because, well, just because they are Jews. The hatred that real anti-Semites have has nothing to do with politics. And the politics of anti-right-wing Israeli Zionism has absolutely nothing to do with race.

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