Thu, 06 Mar 2003

Moral claims in international politics

J. Soedjati Djiwandono, Political Analyst, Jakarta

The issue of an imminent attack on Iraq in the agenda of U.S. foreign and defense policy, which often overlap given that U.S. is a world power with its worldwide role and interests, clearly reveal the delicate problem of morality in world politics.

A trend towards globalization has led to the growth of "non- state" actors in world politics. The trend has come about first because of the development of atomic weapons, which led John Hertz, a writer in international politics, to believe that national borders were no longer of significance (International Politics in the Atomic Age, 1958); then because of the rapid advancement in communication technology, which led Kenichi Ohmae to write The End of the Nation State (1996); and also the increasing growth of international and trans-national organizations, multinational companies and prominent individuals in the international scene.

World politics, however, seem likely to continue to be dominated by nation states as its main actors. But the nation- state being an abstraction, a unit consisting of a territory, its population and a government, can hardly be said to have any morality. Hence the problematic issue of moral claims in world politics.

World politics is "amoral", if by no means "immoral". The increasing demands worldwide, including in the U.S. itself, to avert war against Iraq in the name of humanity, are moral claims. Will such demands have any effect on U.S. determination to attack Iraq, even if necessary irrespective of the next stand of the UN -- as may be adopted through UN Security Council resolution following Resolution 1441 -- and irrespective of a possible veto by any of the other permanent member states of the Council?

Indeed, while world politics is amoral, morality or lack of it lies in individual human beings acting on behalf of the state. Here lies some hope that moral claims in world politics may have a positive effect or find positive response. Otherwise, an increasing number of people voicing moral claims including religious leaders like the Pope and political leaders such as President George W. Bush, simply do not speak the same language.

A brief exchange between Julius Cardinal Darmaadmadja SJ, the Jakarta Archbishop, and the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, during the latter's visit to Jakarta last December, was a good case in point. Said the Cardinal, in essence, "If you sincerely seek peace, why do you resort to violence (war with Iraq)? Isn't this a contradiction?" Right away, the foreign secretary took out of a pocket of his jacket a copy of the UN Charter, showing it to the Cardinal, saying, "If you have your holy scripture, I also have mine," before he went on with his answer based on that UN Charter.

At some point, however, a political leader often finds himself in a dilemmatic moral position. A moral problem is not always black and white. And there may be different possible risks to take, different prices to pay, and different forms of sacrifice, each of which has a moral value of its own. If the leader cannot make up his mind for reason of conscience, and thus for personal moral consideration, he should resign from his public office.

That is certainly true in the case of a top leader like Bush. Most difficult of all is that in most cases, any alternative has its own price. The U.S. has sent five of its aircraft carriers, surely hundreds of all sorts of the most modern aircraft and more than a 100,000 soldiers to the Gulf. It has taken months and cost billions of dollars to prepare the dispatch of such forces, certainly with arms and other military equipment, and more to maintain them, battle-ready any time around Iraq.

In the face of spreading anti-war protests, Bush has to continue trying to convince the world, even millions of his own people, of the rightfulness of his actions towards a war with Iraq; to persuade U.S. allies to ensure their support to add to that of UK, Spain and Belgium within NATO and Australia, which have pledged their staunch support from the outset; and to ensure the continuation of Turkey's readiness to allow the use of its strategically located territory as a stepping stone for U.S. forces in their action against Iraq.

Bush must also ensure the world, especially its own disobedient allies within NATO, in which France has a right to a veto in the UN Security Council, and the rest of the Council's permanent members, each of which also with a veto right, namely China and Russia, of U.S. determination by use of pressure if need be in the form of a threat to ignore possible further UN Security Council resolutions.

For the U.S. or Bush in particular, to heed the worldwide call for non-violence, for diplomatic means or anything but war against Iraq, would mean the cancellation of war and thus to summon all those formidable forces back home to the U.S. This alone would certainly have its prices to pay also. And these prices may have moral aspects as well.

How would President Bush account to American taxpayers, at least to Congress, for the huge amount of expenditures for the abortive plan of attack against Iraq? After all, despite the growing opposition among Americans to the plan of war, Bush seems to continue to enjoy the support of most people through Congress. Why did he, they may ask, fail to foresee the possible repercussions on the international community? His leadership and integrity would be questioned.

That kind of question would have moral value. And his chances of re-election, a valid ambition whatever his personal motives are, may well be in jeopardy. The experience of Bush Senior may be a valuable lesson. He lost his re-election despite his previous victory in the Gulf war of 1991, if only a partial victory, i.e. in having helped liberate Kuwait from occupation by Iraq, but without being able to topple Saddam Husein, an extension of the war aim.

Most problematic, however, is that once President Bush opts for either war or no war, later on in hindsight, he can never be proven morally right or wrong.

Take president Harry S. Truman, who had to consider dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. If he did, he knew that not only Japanese soldiers, but hundreds of thousands more of innocent civilians would be killed right away, and thousands of others might die over time. But he decided to drop the bomb anyway, calculating that if he did not, the Pacific war would continue, which would kill more people, both Americans and Japanese, especially Japanese soldiers, who mostly believed suicide to be more honorable than surrender.

Indeed, Truman could never be judged if he was morally right or wrong. Once he opted for dropping the bomb, he could never have had the chance to opt for the alternative. This would apply to Bush when he has to make his final decision on Iraq.

The U.S. may have learned the right lesson from the experience of the Vietnam War. It had to abandon the war, the price it had to pay for ignoring domestic public support. But the U.S., particularly President Bush, has little, if any, of the degree of pressure that can be brought to bear by the international community.

Thus the international commnity must continue to drive home its moral claims to the personal conscience of U.S. leaders, particularly President Bush and his staunch supporters.