The Need for Empathy and Generosity in Foreign Policy

April 15, 2007

Generosity Sunday
A Program of the Network of Spiritual Progressives
De Vargas Park
Santa Fe, NM

It might be instructive, today, to look at some of the major wars of the 20th century, to see which have succeeded and then to ask the question whether war as a tool of policy is still useful, and if it is not useful then to ask what have we learned about what works better.

All the major western powers were complicit in the build-up to the First World War in 1914, but more than any other Kaiser Wilhelm launched his attacks on the French and the English because he sought to achieve a kind of respect and military equivalency. His empire had been slow to enter into the world colonial business and Germany had been one of the last in Europe to unify as a consolidated state. In the first decade of the 20th century, to give himself and his empire place, Wilhelm engaged in an arms race, primarily against the English, and then used the excuse of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo as the opportunity to test those arms. His intention to establish Germany as the leader of western powers ultimately failed and in fact had the opposite result, reducing Germany to poverty, industrial ruin, spelled the end of its empire and, as well, the end of the dynasty. All these were consequences the exact opposite of those Kaiser Wilhelm had intended. War did not work for him.

American efforts, in the 1920s, to colonize Central America for the United Fruit Company, to send the marines dozens of times attempting to make the region safe for banana profits, ultimately also failed. Nor did later efforts by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, to support military governments in Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador solidify American empire in those countries.

During this same period World War II began when the Japanese attempted to create a Greater Southeast Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, a military empire stretching from Tokyo through Southeast Asia to India and down to the borders of Australia. Just as it had for Kaiser Wilhelm, war failed as a tool of Japanese policy and the country was reduced to ruin.

Hitler, in the same delusion, imagined war as an instrument of National Socialism and attempted to re-establish German superiority in Europe through aggressive war. He meant to establish a German Reich to endure for 1,000 years. He invaded France to the west and Russia to the east and ruthlessly bombed civilians in London. He intended to establish Aryan supremacy from Stalingrad to Ireland. In the end, another simple, old-style aggressive war failed in the same way as had the others with similar disastrous consequences for Germany�s economy and Hitler�s people.

In the modern world, something about the use of military power seems to spawn an equal and opposite military response. Whereas empires of Ghengis Khan and Caesar might last for centuries, modern military empires are unstable from the moment they are founded. Whereas once war might have worked for medieval kings, for St. Louis of France and Edward III of England, in today’s world wars are simply losing propositions.

That is what we mean when we now say that war, once perhaps actually useful, is today outmoded, counterproductive, desperately wasteful, horrendously expensive and unbelievably cruel to those it is supposed to protect. In sum, in a word, war is obsolete.

In 1950, the North Koreans tried to take South Korea and failed. The Chinese joined them, and they failed, too.

The French tried to hold their empire in Vietnam militarily and learned at Biendienphu, in 1954, that they could not. The Americans came to their aid in the late 50s, at first with indirect support and then bringing in masses of troops, starting in 1964, once again attempting through the use of force to hold in place an empire established by force, and once again, without success.

Just as the American Revolutionary War had succeeded in throwing out the British in 1776, so too did the Vietnamese succeed in throwing out the Western occupying powers. Those Americans, like Lyndon Johnson, who thought that old-style war would be effective to re-impose a western empire, and who invested something over 54,000 American lives in the catastrophic effort, were wrong. In the modern world, war does not work to subordinate or kill whole peoples.

When Americans tried, through a CIA sponsored coup, to impose a western government on Iran, beginning with the ouster of Mossedeq in 1953, we failed again, and the consequences of that violent attempt are being suffered by us all even today, more than 50 years later. When the Soviets tried to secure their southern flank in Afghanistan in the 1980s they had the same experience.

Ronald Reagan, who seems not to have learned from the Soviets, had the same failure experience trying to overthrow the legitimate Nicaraguan government, also in the 1980s.

There is, therefore, an on-going and abiding truth to the saying coined by the radicals of England and America in the 18th century that all legitimate power derives from the consent of the governed. Today we forget that truth at our peril.

War may have worked for Caesar or the princes of medieval Europe, but today it does not achieve its intended ends when those ends are the imposition of a foreign philosophy, or a foreign system of government, or a foreign economic system, upon an unwilling people. Aggressive war may still be tried by those who are slow learners, but they will eventually learn with the rest of us that war is ineffective, and as the record of the last century shows, it fails.

That is the long and short of the times in which we live. The unfortunate fact that certain political philosophers like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle and power mongers like Dick Cheney took their advice about war from ancient medieval teachers like Machiavelli, should be a clue. They are looking backward to medieval realities, not forward to the world of global economies and global, instant communication, two realities which make modern war destructive of the very gains it attempts to achieve.

It is consistent with this historical evaluation that the Cold War, a contest that lasted for over 70 years, was not ended by conquest. It is now abundantly clear, too, that the battles in Iraq and for control of Middle Eastern oil will not be ended by conquest. The record of the last 100 years is overwhelming that, in the age of mass information, of cell phones and computers, of the internet and radio, of massive self consciousness of peoples in their own identity, their own religions, and their own pride, conquest no longer works. The consent of the governed is still the basis of true power and without consent of the governed, power is an illusion.

War worked for Ghengis Khan because he was willing to kill and frighten all the leaders in a village and corral them and burn them. No government on earth can now do that because cell phones and radios and rifles and explosives are everywhere; knowledge to use them is everywhere, escape for some part of the population is always possible. Look at Fallujah or Najaf or the West Bank. No one and no nation today possesses the overwhelming power to eliminate all these means of self defense and self discovery which dissolve and dilute and undermine empire. Worse, no one can threaten the use of overwhelming power without expecting to receive equal blows in return.

So if we cannot kill all the people who do not look like us, or think like us, we shall have to persuade them, talk with them, learn to think like them, which leads to the question of the role in foreign policy of generosity and empathy.

Foreign policy that is aimed to give people dignity and strength is different than foreign policy that is aimed to seek dominion over them, or make certain American industries rich, which is a kind of economic colonialism. Our efforts to stabilize Iraqi oil and pledge its oil profits to Chevron and Exxon and its supporting industry revenues to Haliburton could not have been attempted without force, and the lesson of the century is that they cannot succeed precisely because they have been attempted through the use of force.

The only thing that will bring stability is dignity, and the only thing that will produce dignity is compassion and generosity and sharing of what we have. Empire is by definition unstable because it is based on the idea that one power is supreme but empire is like a chair resting on one leg; it is inherently not stable and cannot help but wobble.

We did well with the Marshall Plan in Europe after the Second War. We did well in Japan with assistance after that war. We became world wide leaders because of our reputation for fair play and honor for the rule of law. When that reputation is destroyed, as it has recently been destroyed, we have turned from being the most generous nation on the planet to become generally known as the most dangerous and threatening power on the planet. As the most feared power, we are become the most likely target for violence, war, opposition and terror. We have ignored the immutable truth that only honorable action will produce honorable relationships. Only peaceful actions will produce peaceful relationships. Only generosity will produce trust. Ghandi was right; the ends and the means must be consistent and we cannot build a generous or a peaceful world by means of torture and intimidation, shock and awe, and unrestrained self interest.

If we seek to regain a foothold in the world of ideals, the world that yearns for and seeks progress for the working classes and for the poor, if we seek to pioneer, not just profits, but also health benefits for the old and the young, schools for the impoverished as well as the rich, then we shall have to have a foreign policy that sees these advances as a part of a whole philosophy of pride—that’s right, pride—in human beings. Our generous story is that we care about human beings as human beings, because we are glad to be human and rejoice in the human possibility. We are not just consumers of the corporate product or warriors for corporate markets; we care about all of those intangible, not-necessarily material things that breed a quality in life, for healing and compassion, for the power of relationship. That, in turn, means that we do not care just for those who run the banks and oil cartels, or have the multi-billion dollar markets to open up and to defend.

We shall have to have a philosophy that sings the possibilities of equal opportunity, mediation and collaboration, of law and justice, of process and procedure, rather than a philosophy that preaches, relies upon, and is founded upon the central principle that human nature is evil and dangerous and to be contained. We shall have to have a foreign policy that reaches out to all of those who are not like us rather than one that attempts to overcome diversity with something like genocide.

We have no choice, really. All those efforts to impose our own form of society, through the use of military power, from Kaiser Wilhelm to George Bush, all these efforts to establish dominion through the agency of war, have failed.

On the other hand, we can, if we are open to the idea of human progress, notice this:

War is now unthinkable between France and Germany who considered constant war more or less inevitable from at least Napoleon in 1812 to 1945, but probably going all the way back to Fredrick Barbarossa in the 12th century.

Or notice this: War between France and England is also unthinkable, although war was a staple between these two peoples from at least the Battle of Hastings in 1066 until 1914, for nearly 1,000 years.

Or this: War between the capitalist West and the Russians was considered a commandment of history by Karl Marx, and Marx’ followers in Russia maintained the inevitability of war between communist and capitalist powers for 70 years. That whole episode now is simply a bad dream and the story of inevitability is the idea that is in the dustbin of history. It was not inevitable; not at all.

War between the US and the Russians is gone from our daily planning because the use of military power to establish stability and economic gain is obsolete, because war to gain territory for corporations is most likely to destroy the very territory and the infrastructure upon which those corporations would depend were they to invade and conquer. Today, American business would find it useless to attack so-called communist China because we need China’s economy intact and China needs our economy intact, and the corporate world has no use for a country that has been leveled, like Iraq, by war. Similarly, although we fought against the Japanese only 60 years ago, today we need Japan and Japan needs us. The idea of war between us is absurd.

The human species is coming hard up against the idea, or the old story, nurtured since Herakles and Achilles and Agamemnon of the Trojan War era, 3,000 years ago, that war is the way to riches and empire. We are coming hard up against a story that has outlived its time and turned out to be an illusion, a fraud, a temptation to the weak minded and uneducated, but still only a deadly delusion.

We shall have to believe in human beings, believe in our capacity to love and to share and to progress to higher levels of consciousness, and at the same time maintain a smart awareness of our defects and shadows; we shall have to hold this double mind with benign detachment, but if we do so, we can move the human experience to a new adventure, the broad up-lit plain of tolerance and diversity and decency and law and compassion. It is never too late. It is never too late. We shall always keep trying.

Thank you.