Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Monday, July 10, 2017

SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT JERRY FRESIA'S COMMENT

I should like to spend a little time commenting on Jerry Fresia’s response to my North Korea story, and on a quite informative story in Counterpunch.org, the first of two to which he links.  Here is what Jerry says:

“Malcolm X insightfully noted more than half a century ago that if you read the newspaper everyday, you'll end up loving your enemies and hating your friends. A more modern version of that quip might be that if you get your news from the NYTs and MSNBC you'll live within the liberal bubble, not knowing diddly-squat about "our" official enemies.

To wit, check out these pieces on NK found in Counterpunch.org (can you imagine Rachel reporting thusly??) - all of which compels me to add, quoting Naomi Klein, that Trump is more a symptom of our malady and not the cause:  http://bit.ly/2tpEN8O  http://bit.ly/2tyERBi

The article has a great deal of detailed information about long-range missiles in general and North Korea’s missile program in particular, a quick summary of which is that it will take much longer than popularly imagined for North Korea to develop reliable, usable Intermediate Range and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles [IRBMs and ICBMs].  But the ideological thrust of the story is what I wish to address today.  Rather than trying to summarize the article, I am going to assume that those of you who are interested have taken the time to read it.  I shall launch into my discussion with that assumption as a background.

Over the course of the last five thousand years, give or take a millennium, a number of states have sought and achieved imperial status, which we may describe as the successful exercise of significant influence and control beyond their national borders.  Many, but perhaps not all, have claimed the moral, religious, political, or racial high ground, representing themselves as deserving of their imperial sway by virtue of their superiority in one or more of these ways.  The Greeks characterized those speaking other languages as barbarians, initially a mnemonic characterization of the way other languages sounded to them [“bar bar bar”] but later a dismissal of other cultures as inferior.  Chinese rulers claimed the Mandate of Heaven.  The British manfully bore the White Man’s Burden.  The Soviets saw themselves as the avant garde of history.  And so forth.

Americans have long congratulated themselves in a similar fashion, describing their break-away slave state as the first nation in history created as the embodiment of an idea, the Idea of Freedom.  After the end of the Second World War, America appropriated the self-congratulatory title of Leader of the Free World, and went on to issue annual lists of nations that it judged to be failing to make suitable progress toward the successful imitation of The American Experiment.  In an eerie fashion, Donald J. Trump’s compulsive self-aggrandizing braggadocio is a natural extension of America’s claim to moral supremacy in the international arena.  Unreconstructed American patriots take all of this quite literally and either ignore or deny the overwhelming contrary evidence.  Enlightened liberals condemn America’s actions as a fall from grace and demand that the nation live up to its founding principles and ideals, thus granting the premise of the imperial rationalization.

I don’t imagine I have to spend any time explaining why I consider all of this arrant nonsense.  What interests me in the post is the fact that the successful claim of the moral and political high ground [successful in the descriptive sense of getting the claim accepted, grudgingly or not, by those to whom it is made] is a form of power quite as real and often quite as effective as military or economic power.  Insofar as America can present itself to the world as humanity’s moral arbiter, the embodiment of the ideal of democracy, a shining city upon a hill, a beacon held high to inspire those who are downtrodden but aspire to [American-style] democracy, it gains the capacity to shape world affairs in ways favorable to its interests.  This capacity is sometimes referred to as “soft power,” admiringly by those who value its effectiveness, dismissively by those who think to assert their manhood by valorizing weapons and uniformed soldiers.

But the power of successful claims of moral superiority is unlike military or economic power in one striking and significant way:  this power requires, for its effective exercise, that those wielding it actually believe the absurd claims they are making!  A gun, even a quite sophisticated model, does not come outfitted with an ideology.  It makes no claims, it just shoots when the trigger is pulled.   But I cannot think of a single imperial power whose rulers did not actually believe that they had the Mandate of Heaven, or bore the White Man’s Burden, or led a nation embodying The Idea of Freedom.

So, when American State Department officials or Presidents condemn North Korea as a rogue state, a sponsor of terrorism, a violator of UN dictates, a breaker of international agreements, while simultaneously ignoring America’s own sponsorship of terrorists, its repeated overthrow of democratically elected governments, its embrace of nations such as Israel whose nuclear weapons are a violation of the same United Nations regulations, part of their success in getting the world to take their condemnation seriously derives from their own belief in the supposed grounds of that condemnation.

There is nothing in the least unusual either in America’s claims or in the self-delusions of its leaders.  If America can get the world to take seriously its moral pretensions, that is a form of power quite as effective as [and rather more flexible in its deployment than] a carrier group sailing in the North China Sea.

I strongly recommend that we avoid the error of imagining that if we [I.e. America] have dirty hands then those whom the American government condemns must have clean hands.  I suggest that when it comes to nation states, we should forsake moral judgments and simply strive to understand as best we can what is happening or is likely to happen.  This is not to say that we should cease judging the world morally.  Not at all!  Each of us must choose what he or she believes right, which men and women are our comrades, as I have put it elsewhere.  We must be unrelenting in our efforts to advance what is good and combat what is evil. 

With regard to North Korea, which was the subject that provoked this post, it seems to me clear that it would be better if North Korea did not have nuclear weapons, just as it would be better if Israel did not have nuclear weapons, if India and Pakistan did not have nuclear weapons, if the United States and Russia and China and Great Britain and France did not have nuclear weapons.  It would be better if Iran were not to develop nuclear weapons.  There is simply no good argument for the existence of nuclear weapons.  But it does not surprise me in the slightest that the United States should portray North Korea’s development of missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons as a world-historical threat, nor does it surprise me that the American officials claiming that believe it themselves.  Insofar as they can get the rest of the world to believe that, they will have successfully deployed a certain measure of soft power in pursuit of America’s regional geopolitical aims.  Our time would be better spent debating whether we support or oppose America’s pursuit of those regional aims

15 comments:

s. wallerstein said...

While I agree with you that the fact that America has dirty hands does not indicate that those condemned by the U.S. government have clean hands, since World War 2 and certainly since the end of the Soviet Union almost 30 years ago, the U.S. has been the most aggressive power on this planet, has invaded more countries than anyone else, has overthrown more governments that were not of its approval, has imposed its military power
farther from its borders. That may just be because the U.S. has more economic and military power than anyone else, but the fact is that the U.S. is the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world", a quote, as you well know, not from Che Guevara, but from Martin Luther King.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

You have missed my point completely! That is the wrong way to think about international relations.

s. wallerstein said...

I believe that I get your point, but I don't agree with it entirely.

Anon said...

Prof. Wolff, you write: "With regard to North Korea, which was the subject that provoked this post, it seems to me clear that it would be better if North Korea did not have nuclear weapons"

Now, generally I agree with the idea that nuclear proliferation should be curbed as much as possible and current nuclear stock should be reduced. However, it seems that NK is in a little different situation. Nuclear weapons are the only the thing preventing the US from carrying out regime change in Korea. The NK government has watched the US destroy the governments of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and attempt to remover Assad in Syria in the last 15 years alone. Regime change is constantly pushed in the op-ed columns and cable news networks of the major American media. Every year, hundreds of thousands of troops simulate destroying the government of NK just miles from the NK border in SK. The NK government fears that it will be next. Even if one believes that the Taliban, Sadam, Gadaffi, Assad, and Kim should not be in power in their respective countries, regime change creates much more chaos, devastation and death than the deposed governments ever had. Moreover, the create long term instability. Nukes are the one thing distinguishing NK from other countries that have undergone regime change. They function as a real deterrent against invasion. In this world, little else would stop the US from engaging in regime change (even the threat of China). I do not mean that NK is "morally" justified in having nukes. I mean it is game-theoretically justified.

NK is a small country with a bad economy. Part of the reason the economy is so bad is because the fertile parts of Korea are located in the South. Other reasons include, the lack of an economic power willing to feed aid to help develop it, unlike SK which had the US. NK never got along well with the USSR, even during its heyday and NK does not have as close a relationship to China as many Americans assume (see here: www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/07/06/china-cant-tame-north-korea-the-u-s-has-to/). Moreover, every year during the planting season (early spring), NK has to call every able-bodied citizen to be on high military alert, lest the war games change into a legitimate invasion. This has caused major food shortages in NK year after year. Having functioning nukes and other missiles will allow NK more flexibility in developing its economy because they are cheaper than the massive conventional army is currently has to maintain to defend itself.

If you can explain to me a scenario in which the NK government is deposed that ends well for the majority of Koreans (meaning they don't all die), then maybe they don't need nukes. But otherwise, I think it is a not quite so bad thing that is actually creating stability, by preventing regime change.

Jerry Fresia said...

When you say that your blog is intended to address the "ideological thrust of the story," I take that to mean that you believe that the interest of the author of the piece, or author of the second piece, or someone else (ahem!) has allowed their interest to sway their conclusion, hence the dirty hands/clean hands metaphor.

I have gone back over the articles and my own characterization about living in a bubble and I can't seem to glean the ideology in question or the clean-hand knee jerk reaction to same. With some trepidation, I must ask, who is the guilty party - or is there something that you can point to that reveals the "ideological thrust"?


Jerry Fresia said...

This isn't a challenge by the way; I'm simply troubled by the fact that I can miss such things.

Anonymous said...

I think it's clear that Bob recognizes the failings of the U.S. over the last 50 yrs and with that in mind he is suggesting that the U.S. act morally by using "soft power" to discourage the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I believe Bob thinks it's more important for the U.S. to utilize it's power morally than to remove itself from the world stage as punishment for it's policies of the past. This is what is meant by the following passage.

"I suggest that when it comes to nation states, we should forsake moral judgments and simply strive to understand as best we can what is happening or is likely to happen. This is not to say that we should cease judging the world morally. Not at all! Each of us must choose what he or she believes right, which men and women are our comrades, as I have put it elsewhere. We must be unrelenting in our efforts to advance what is good and combat what is evil."

Paul Kern

s. wallerstein said...

" I suggest that when it comes to nation states, we should forsake moral judgments and simply strive to understand as best we can what is happening or is likely to happen.  This is not to say that we should cease judging the world morally.  Not at all!  Each of us must choose what he or she believes right, which men and women are our comrades, as I have put it elsewhere.  We must be unrelenting in our efforts to advance what is good and combat what is evil."

I'm still puzzled by this paragraph.

In general, most of us do judge the actions of nation-states in moral terms. The U.S. aggression in Viet Nam was bad; the U.S. funding of the contras to overthrow the Sandinistas was bad; the U.S. plotting with the Chilean army to overthrow Allende was bad;
the Soviet Union invading Czechoslovakia and Hungary was bad, etc.

Then you go to say that we should not cease to judge the world morally (I agree with that). But aren't nation-states part of the world? And if we judge the world morally, why not judge nation-states morally?

I realize that nation-states are run by people, and that not every resident of or citizen of the United States is morally responsible for Viet Nam. If what you mean is that when we condemn the aggression against Viet Nam, we should not condemn all the citizens and residents of the United States, fine. We need to condemn Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, McNamara, etc., those who planned and ordered the aggression, those who supported that aggression and who voted for politicians who backed and ordered that aggression.  There is no eternal taint on all Americans for Viet Nam just as there is no eternal taint on all Germans for Hitler.

LFC said...

@Anon
... Moreover, every year during the planting season (early spring), NK has to call every able-bodied citizen to be on high military alert, lest the war games change into a legitimate invasion. This has caused major food shortages in NK year after year. Having functioning nukes and other missiles will allow NK more flexibility in developing its economy because they are cheaper than the massive conventional army is currently has to maintain to defend itself.


This is pretty much nonsense, it sees to me. NK already has quite effective deterrence vs. an invasion b.c it has a nuclear arsenal, however rudimentary. Therefore it doesn't need every able-bodied male person under arms to deter an invasion. It puts every able-bodied male person under arms partly, no doubt, b.c universal service in the army of a totalitarian state is an effective supplement to the indoctrination that occurs earlier (e.g., in the education system). And I would bet that NK will not reduce the size of its army as its nuclear arsenal and capabilities increase. Second, while there are no doubt several reasons for the poor condition of the NK economy and its food shortages, to blame it all on its external environment and absolve the regime of *any* responsibility for that seems, to put it mildly, unjustified.

LFC said...

Prof Wolff's view of international relations, as expressed over a number of blog posts, is quite consistent (which is not to say it's valid). It's an archetypal Realist view that holds that we should refrain from making moral judgments about the behavior of governments (i.e., states) on the world stage b.c all states are driven by a similar set of imperatives and morality has nothing to do with those driving forces. Therefore, according to this view, injecting moral judgments into the discussion of states' behavior in the int'l arena, or at least into the discussion of states' behavior in the arena of geopolitics, hinders understanding of what is actually going on and is otherwise inappropriate.

I don't share that view, and it's worth pointing out that it's a view that not even the most canonical postwar American Realists -- Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and George Kennan -- were able to adhere to with anything approaching consistency. They all had values that influenced some of their statements about int'l affairs (as all of them acknowledged in some contexts); even Morgenthau's well-known 'six principles of political realism' contain (often unstated) normative premises. Indeed, moral judgments in this area are close to being inescapable, and if one pretends to or claims to avoid making them explicitly, they will just come in unacknowledged and unexamined through the back door. It's better to let them in the front door, as long as one doesn't fall into excessive moralism.

Which leads to my last point, which is that there is a difference between moralism on the one hand, and on the other the recognition that ethical issues are germane to int'l politics. The former involves constantly sorting every country and/or leader and govt into the camps of good guys and bad guys, constantly making high-flown pronouncements about one's benevolent intentions and actions and the evil designs of one's adversary, etc. One can (and usually should) try to avoid moralism while recognizing that morality is relevant to int'l relations. In other words, there is a difference between one or another country's (say the U.S.'s) self-serving or self-aggrandizing claim of consistent moral superiority in international affairs, and the recognition that particular actions of particular countries (governments) in the int'l arena are often properly amenable to moral evaluation.

Jerry Brown said...

LFC, I never got the impression that Professor Wolff recommends that citizens abstain from evaluating foreign policy based on moral or ethical reasons. The impression I have taken is that we should not just idealize the 'other side' when we find OUR government lacking on those grounds.

LFC said...

@Jerry Brown,
In response I'll quote the passage from Prof Wolff's post that S. Wallerstein has already quoted:

I suggest that when it comes to nation states, we should forsake moral judgments and simply strive to understand as best we can what is happening or is likely to happen. This is not to say that we should cease judging the world morally. Not at all! Each of us must choose what he or she believes right, which men and women are our comrades, as I have put it elsewhere. We must be unrelenting in our efforts to advance what is good and combat what is evil.


You are of course free, Jerry Brown, to interpret that passage however you want.

For the present at any rate, I stand by what I wrote above.

p.s. Blogging is blogging, not writing a polished essay, so I think all bloggers, esp. ones who are not getting paid to do it, should be read charitably. That said, I think anyone who has read Prof Wolff here for a while shd have a pretty good idea of what his general perspective is on the question of morality and state behavior. It's a respectable view w long intellectual pedigrees; I just don't happen to agree w it.

LFC said...

p.s. There are a few diff. ways one cd get to the conclusion, or suggestion, that ordinary moral judgments are out of place w/r/t to nation-states and their behavior.

(1) Maintain that nation-states, or more spec. govts and individual decision-makers, are not moral agents.

(2) Acknowledge they are or may be moral agents, but argue that they face severe "limits on moral choice" in intl affairs given the nature of power politics, absence of world govt, etc.

(3) Argue that statesmen have their own special "morality of statecraft" separate from ordinary morality.


Numbers (2) and (3) at any rate are standard arguments in the Realist tradition. The 'literature' is v. extensive, but for one readable gloss/intro, see S. Hoffmann, Duties Beyond Borders: On the Limits and Possibilities of Ethical International Politics (Syracuse Univ Press, 1981), chap. 1.

Jerry Brown said...

LFC, I would have to say that the professor's latest post shows you are correct in your assessment and that I was wrong. And now I don't agree with his perspective either.

LFC said...

@J. Brown

Thanks for the note.

In one corner of the academic literature on Int'l Relations (and I'm sure in other fields as well), there has been considerable debate on whether states should be treated as "corporate agents." The discussion can get fairly philosophical and abstract.

I tend to think that it is sometimes legitimate to treat entities with certain kinds of decision structures as corporate agents and thus there are times when one can make moral judgments about collectives such as nation-states (or their governments, more properly) and organizations. But there are probably strong arguments on both sides of this issue. I've read Prof Wolff's most recent post, but I think I've gone down this particular rabbit hole as much as I want to, for right now anyway.