Michael Walzer interview in Imprints

by Chris Bertram on August 4, 2003

A puff for one of my other collaborative projects: Imprints. The latest issue is now out and contains much of interest. The online content this time is an interview with Michael Walzer which ranges over many issues: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the morality of humanitarian intervention, Israel and Palestine, anti-Semitism, memories of Rawls and Nozick, the permissibility of torture, blocked exchanges and commodification, the narcissism of Ralph Nader, and much more. Read the whole thing – it is both enlightening and provocative.



dsquared 08.04.03 at 1:55 pm

It looks fantastic but the usual bold-italic formatting on the questions has fallen off?


Chris Bertram 08.04.03 at 2:06 pm

Questions are italicized with my browser…. It was a nightmare htmling it from Word, as Word leaves so much crap in the html and introduces gratuitous errors. But unless you’re using an early Netscape it should be ok.


dsquared 08.04.03 at 3:07 pm

It’s working now, sorry.


Chun the Unavoidable 08.04.03 at 4:41 pm

I read an interview with Chomsky in which he said that the only two humaniatarian interventions of the last fifty years were in East Pakistan and Cambodia, just like Walzer (I suppose they’ll have to agree to disagree on Israel and Kosovo).

Nixon’s The Real War presents an argument that the bombing of Cambodia was liberating for the Cambodians, but he doesn’t mention anything about the Vietnamese intervention. My theory is that this is due to the late-breaking events, not some isolated incident of mendacity on the author’s part.


Chun the Unavoidable 08.04.03 at 5:01 pm

Also, on the torture comment, suppose that the hypothetical terrorist in custody was impervious to torture. The authorities did have his infant child in custody, however, and torturing the baby would force him to reveal the school with the bomb. What then?

There’s a lot to the “ideology of the hypothetical” argument that points out these examples are purposefully absurd and their point is either to a) justify existing torture by the state and/or b) to normalize torture by creeping permissivism.


Maria 08.04.03 at 5:07 pm

Fascinating interview. I think Walzer hits the nail on the head when he says that those defending civil liberties post 9/11 need to do more than howl outrage, and make more effort to explain how and why civil liberties are still important. However, while governments have succeeded in convincing the public that a painful but necessary trade off between civil liberties and national security is required, many of the putatively anti-terrorism measures I’ve seen have little direct bearing on national security. So the ‘trade off’ is often a red herring and makes it difficult for the left (and indeed the libertarian right) to make a hard case on civil liberties.

Walzer’s argument about the necessity of torture seems a bit, well, tortured. It’s not clear to me when he talks about wanting political leaders having the courage to ‘break the rules’ whether Walzer means violating ethical norms or possibly enacted legislation. Hoping leaders’ guilt at breaking these rules will be a sufficient disincentive to do so ‘too often’ sounds extremely weak. It seems to be the outsider’s corollary of that favoured and implicit argument of the Labour Party when enacting draconian legislation pre-9/11; ‘but you must trust us, we’re Labour for goodness sake!’ I don’t think the right has any monopoly on the opportunistic introduction of overbearing state powers.

By the way, why do we call them ‘civil liberties’ in developed countries and ‘human rights’ in developing ones?


dsquared 08.04.03 at 8:56 pm

I think his analysis of what France and Germany actually wanted to do is either too compressed, or is informed by his wanting to reach a conclusion, because it doesn’t really fit in with what I remember from Villepin’s public statements. As far as I can remember, DDV actually suggested coercive inspections as an alternative, with the proviso that they had to be under the control of the UN rather than the USA. The French and Germans simply didn’t trust the US (with, it turns out, good reason not to), and you don’t need anything beyond that to explain their behaviour.

I also don’t agree that the EU would have to spend materially more than it currently does in order to support a “new balance of power”, as opposed to “a new Empire run my well-meaning humanitarian liberal hawks”, but I suspect that’s another point. I also don’t agree with him on Kosovo or Afghanistan, and I think he’s being a bit disingenuous when he ignores the fact that the victory in Afghanistan made Iraq much more likely, and that this has to be counted as part of the cost of Afghanistan.

The sentence:

>>Had there been a UN intervention in Rwanda, as there should have been, it would surely have resulted in the overthrow of Hutu Power.

is just frightening, given the record of the UN in Kosovo in supervising and assisting the revenge of the Kosovars.


Scott Martens 08.04.03 at 10:11 pm

Yeah, I have to admit to being less than totally impressed with Walzer’s arguments about humanitarian intervention too. It was Europe that pushed for intervention in Kosovo, or at least it was routinely protrayed that way in the American press. European governments supported the war in Kosovo pretty thoroughly. Furthermore, I note that France and Germany have started building a stand-alone European military alliance in the face of British resistance. I should think this is exactly the kind of “taking responsibility” Walzer is advocating.

Canada, with French support, pressed for exactly the kind of coercive inspection regime designed to cover Iraq in inspectors and UN aid agents accompanied by UN troops. The Canadian proposal was pronounced DOA because of American resistance.

He also makes a weak case in favour of the war in Afghanistan. It certainly was not clear that Afghanistan’s attachment to terrorist networks was meaningfully stronger than Pakistan’s or Saudi Arabia’s. To say that it’s legitimate to go to war in Afghanistan, but that other countries can be addressed through sanctions and diplomacy is a mite suspicious.

And, there is a difference between a war conducted within a framework of international law and order, even a tentative one, and war conducted not only outside of it but in direct contradiction to the meagre rules that exist. It is the difference between the police breaking up a crack house in your neighbourhood, and you and your buddies busting in with shotguns and killing everyone there. It is quite possible for one to be juster than the other.

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