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Responsibility to overturn

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted June 20, 2011

One of the advantages of conservatism is learning about traditions we take for granted, and how these traditions add to human lives. Contrary to stereotypes of conservatives being backward-looking and reactive, understanding of tradition is at heart affirmative. An American who understands tradition can point out why the first amendment is so prized: the Committees of Correspondence and the free pulpits served as a vital communications infrastructure that helped win the American Revolution. A Briton who understands tradition appreciates why the Sovereign is far more than a fifth-wheel tourist attraction: with the exception of two of them, decisions of earlier Sovereigns (including ones that let older privileges lapse) guided British parliamentary democracy to where it is today. A Canadian who understands tradition, and knows why Canada was formed in the first place, can understand latent Canadian anti-Americanism instead of just being embarrassed by it.

As the last one indicates, increasing knowledge does sometimes increase sorrow. There are some tough-guy conservatives who latch onto the sophisticated amoralism of Friedrich Nietzsche, the stark nihilism of Max Stirner, or the psychological egoism of Thomas Hobbes, to embrace the dark side of tradition-knowledge. Folks like that are fond of using phrases like "the brutal truth" or "iron law" when pointing out limits. They're flashy, but like many people who stick out they're unrepresentative. Most enquiries into tradition end with an affirmative explanation of why a certain tradition adds to our lives. Like the literature professor who finds references to the Bible in the classics and concludes that the Bible is still a living force in our culture, traditionalists know how yesterday's customs and mores add to our lives today. Not unlike Darwinists, traditionalists are fond of the didactic just-so story.

Sometimes, increasing knowledge increases anxiety. In the larger historical sense, the United States was lucky time-wise. Had the Revolution been undertaken a century earlier, the result would have been a domestic monarchy with established Puritanism. Had it been undertaken a century later, the United States would have been a democratic answer to Imperial Germany. In the 1670s, the Rights of Man were as yet undiscovered. In the 1870s, they were being pushed aside for the sake of an often bellicose nationalism. Considering the path of the world, it can be affirmed that the Founding was blessed by God. Even fifty years' difference would have changed America profoundly.

One important tradition benefitting the young United States was the Peace of Westphalia. It refers to a whole slew of treaties that ended the Thirty Years' War, one bloodier than World War 1. It established the principle that nations have the sovereign right to be left alone when conducting national policy. No nation had the right to interfere with another nation's policy, either through diplomatic pressure or military action. Have you ever seen foreigners tell you which way to vote and felt it an impertinence? Ever vow to vote the opposite way to put them in their place? The Treaty of Westphalia endorses that vow. On a grander scale, it also endorsed European nations banding together to put down any would-be conqueror of Europe. In a deep sense, the Peace of Westphalia defeated Napoleon and Hitler. It said, clearly, that other nations had the right to put down any warlord that aimed to put Europe (or the world) under his heel.   

Because the Peace of Westphalia prevailed, the United States was not interfered with once its sovereign States were recognized as independent by the Treaty of Paris. Once the Constitution made the U.S. a federation, it benefitted from that leave-alone principle. Had there been no Peace of Westphalia, powerful European states in the 19th century would have been entitled to send troops over to 'civilize' the United States by making it a monarchy. (One of the notions of monarchical thought is that people, if left to govern themselves, will become warlike.) Granted, this tradition protects bad nations as well as good. But, it protects good nations as well as bad – not unlike the tradition of upholding the rights of the accused. Both have the aim of protecting the weak and peaceful, if shady, from the strong and aggressive. As I noted above, the two prime violators of the Westphalian tradition were Napoleon's France and Hitler's Germany. Had it not been around, the young United States would have been dogged by "splendid adventures" from then-dominant Europe. The Treaty of Paris would have turned into a mere codified truce.

You would think that such a mighty tradition would be left alone by wise statesmen. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that those seats won't be filled by meddlers. Successful meddlers have one trick that always seems to work: they occupy the moral high ground. They have the knack of making their critics look, and feel, guilty. Some meddlers nurse a hidden grudge, or a carefully concealed authoritarian streak. ("Science must," indeed.)  Others are more innocent. The latter tend to do less damage than the former, because they're easier to bring to sense. The former are like the punk kid who thinks that he can monkey around with the job, or order around his seniors, because his teachers didn't tell him he what can't do. The latter are like the naïve kid who can be grounded by taking him aside and explaining what's what. Meddlers of the second sort tend to slip by because they look like they'll learn in time. What binds them to the first sort is conceit. Headstrong people sometimes achieve marvels in the voluntary sector, but inevitably turn meddler when they cross over into government. Sad to say, the epithet "mere businessman" had the salutary effect of barring meddlers from government. It's an old tradition that was junked because it maligned people who did benefit society in their place, and missed the meddlers who hailed from elsewhere. Because understanding of what it really meant faded, it appeared merely bigoted. Ofttimes, it was used as little more than a cover for bigotry. Unfortunately, traditions that lose their wisdom often turn into mere prejudice. A desiccated tradition gives grist to those articulate bigots who insist that all traditions are mere codifications of authoritarianism.

Because the Peace of Westphalia has lost the wisdom behind it, because it seems little more than a shield for bad nations to wreak ill upon their subjects, it has been thrown by the board. The 2005 doctrine that put a formal end to the Westphalian tradition, and will eventually put an end to the de facto observance of it, is the "Responsibility to Protect." Ostensibly, it looks like a major advance over a dark past. Who would defend the right of a nation to commit genocide? Who would say that free nations had no responsibility to put an end to the Holocaust had Hitler not been a warlord? Who would defend the right of the Soviet Union to set up gulags and kill many millions of its own citizens? Who would defend the right of non-interference without feeling that they're constructively doing both? What could be wrong with backing a doctrine that puts an end to all horrors of that sort? Imagine what could have been done had the "Responsibility to Protect" been around in 1946! Imagine how many gulags could have been ended, how many peoples liberated, how many lives could have been saved! Doesn't the awful twentieth century show its need plainly? Why would a seventeenth-century doctrine, used by a cunning Stalin to protect mass murder, be needed anymore?

Here's why:

Mission Creeps And Exciting Tales

By launching military action against Libya without securing Congressional approval beforehand, President Obama violated the Constitution. Libya was no direct imminent threat to United States territory. Congress, not the President, has the power to declare war. Before switching the story to "it really wasn't a real war," Obamanauts defended the Libyan war using the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. The circumstances of the war show how the Responsibility to Protect doctrine can be, and is being, misused. We're already slipping down the slope.

Central to the use of the doctrine was the claim that Libya was about to launch a genocide in Benghazi. (Note the slippery slide from "is" to "about to be," a stronger form of "could be.") The mere accusation was held to be sufficient to demonstrate it. Later reports showed that accusation to be false. What kind of person takes a mere accusation to be the same as proof? Someone who, in a headstrong moment, treads on the Constitution?

What about other accusations, like those the Palestinians and their sympathizers make about Israel? What about the usual dissembles, not all of which come from obviously guilty parties, like "economic genocide" or "cultural genocide?"  

A practical American could whisk these questions away by saying that they're of no concern because the United States is too strong to be dogged by them. Leaving aside the fact that this claim is silent about damage to the United States Constitution, it says that the Americans need not worry because the United States is strong. The American military is the most powerful military in the planet. The United States is the sole superpower. Its forces can clobber anyone. The U.S. is the biggest boy on the world block. There's no need to ever worry about the U.S. being dogged by the Responsibility To Protect.

What that pragmatism omits is the fact that the United States can't be everywhere. It also omits the fact that the Responsibility to Protect gives an aggressive nation a new free pass to invade another country. Just claim, credibly, that the other country is a practitioner of some form of "genocide." What a fine cloak to hide one's aggression behind! ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is an occasional contributor to The Gold Standard Now and has penned fourteen works of goldbug fiction. He can be reached at danielmryan@primus.ca.


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