Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 30, November 2002

Is the US the ultimate rogue nation?

As often when I begin a column that I think might be particularly offensive to some readers (apparently, some readers will find a way to be offended by almost anything I say each month, but I can do little about that), I will begin this one with a couple of disclaimers. You are about to read some disturbing things about the United States of America. This does not imply: a) that I don’t appreciate the US as the only experiment in history of a country established on the rational principles of the Enlightenment; nor: b) that I have any sympathy whatsoever for tyrants and dictators, be they Saddam Hussein or Augusto Pinochet.

This said, let me make a case for the idea that the United States is, in fact, the ultimate “rogue” state and that it—therefore—cannot use the label on other nations as an excuse to attack them (at least, not rationally). Let’s start from the basics: the Oxford dictionary defines rogue (first meaning) as: “Dishonest or unprincipled person; mischievous child.” I assume we can transfer this definition to the level of state, though that raises interesting philosophical questions about the “character” of a nation which we will need to set aside for now.

Here, then, is my evidence for the conclusion that the US is the mother of all modern rogue states. First, arguing for a pre-emptive strike against another sovereign nation is in direct violation of the United Nations charter, and therefore puts the US outside of the international community. To vow to abide by a certain code of conduct and then refuse to do so when it is inconvenient for oneself surely qualifies as “mischievous” behavior.

Second, the US has consistently avoided joining the international community in a number of treaties that have—ironically—seen it side with “rogue” states such as Libya, Iran, and Iraq (in other words, seen from outside, we look a lot like part of the “axis of evil”). Examples include: back-pedaling on the Kyoto accord on the environment; refusing to join the anti-land mine treaty; refusing to join and actively sabotaging the international tribunal. It is “dishonest” and “unprincipled” to ask for other people to respect international law and then arrogate for one self the right to violate it.

Third, the US has recently announced that it will allocate funds to train anti-Iraqi militias recruited among the many dissenting minorities harassed by Saddam Hussein. How, exactly, is this not equivalent to setting up a terrorist training camp? Is it just because these people will be doing the dirty work for and not against the US? Because we are right and they are wrong? I am reminded of a Star Trek—Next Generation episode (one of the highest sources of my enlightenment) in which an otherwise seldom judgmental Captain Picard is reproaching a defecting Romulan general for his past military actions against the Federation. The general reminds Picard that one people’s butch is another people’s hero. What should distinguish the US as a democracy are not only its principles, but the way they are defended. If the end justifies the means, then the US is moving perilously close to the sort of behavior that it condemns in others.

Which brings me to the fourth point: surely our impending aggression of Iraq cannot seriously be framed as a defense of democracy. Doing so would be another example of dishonesty and lack of principles. If the US is really interested in democracy, why on earth is it attacking puny Iraq while at the same time give permanent most favorite nation status to China? Have we forgotten Tien An Mein? Do we really think that the Chinese leaders threat their people better than Hussein? And don’t we know for sure (as opposed to speculating) that the Chinese do have plenty of weapons of mass destruction? I am not, of course, suggesting that the US declare war to China, just that it be a bit more consistent (principled, not rogue) in its foreign policy.

Now, being a rogue state in the sense in which the US surely is can, and has been, defended on rational principles. Robert Kaplan, for example, has written a book entitled Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, in which he makes the argument that the US, as the only superpower in the world, should behave outside of international law. Indeed, Kaplan criticizes most American politicians for being held back (ironically, I would add) by their Christian ethos. Instead, he claims, they should embrace Machiavelli’s “pagan” attitude and do what needs to be done.

Kaplan’s dichotomy is, I think, the real conundrum that the US has to resolve during the 21st century. Does the US want to be seen by the rest of the world as a principled nation, fighting fairly for what it sees is right, or as a Machiavellian entity willing to lie and cheat to get whatever it feels is due it? Think about it really hard, because this will determine how history will see the US and, more importantly, is already affecting the lives of millions of people on this planet.

Next month: What do you mean, "rationally" speaking?

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2002