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June 25, 2006

Foreign Policy and the Common Good
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Progressive circles are abuzz with debate over the "common good" a frame for the progressive agenda that Barack Obama, Michael Tomasky, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin have been developing through recent articles and conferences.   Reading their stuff will give you a good handle on what a "common good"-based politics would mean domestically.  The ideas have resonance, and have been picked up by the mainstream media as a potentially powerful core for progressive messaging.

As applied to foreign policy, an area that the leading articles on the "common good" tend to touch only lightly, the concept has both potential and some ostensible limitations that I will lay out in this piece.  My hope is to start a discussion on whether we can somehow build on the concept of the "common good" to help sharpen a progressive foreign policy message.

The notion of the common good works well for foreign policy in the following ways:

1.  It signals a rejection of insular policy-making, cronyism and corruption - The secrecy and dishonesty that led us to war in Iraq, the unchecked profiteering that wasted billions in reconstruction monies, the manifest lack of accountability and the stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes all run counter to a foreign policy aimed to serve the common good.  Greater openness, beefed up Congressional oversight, more thorough review of intelligence matters and heightened transparency in contracting are all important goals that could be advanced in the name of the common good.

2.  It supports spreading the burdens of military intervention and other national imperatives more widely - A common good-based foreign policy suggests that the burdens of promoting America's interests abroad need to be shouldered by society as a whole, rather than an unlucky few.  This could start with improved health care, education and economic opportunity for veterans.  It could encompass a broadened vision of national service, and potentially a stabilization corps that would draw a larger swath of Americans into the responsibilities being shouldered today by the military.  The same case could be made for broader distribution of the costs of free trade, for example through greatly enhanced assistance to vulnerable American workers.

3.  It suggests a long-term perspective on issues like proliferation and global warming - The common good, at least implicitly, encompasses the good of future generations.  Adopting policies in areas like nuclear proliferation, the environment, alliance and institution building, and engagement with the Muslim world that reflect a long-term view and aim to ensure American security for decades to come would represent a huge step forward.  This would force the hard work of forging new security agreements and bodies, restraining the worst of our environmental excesses, investing heavily in international relationships, etc.

4.  Recognizing the link between global and American interests - Many progressive arguments are based on the premise that what is good for others will ultimately benefit the US.  The case for a stronger UN, third world development, lower trade barriers, better AIDS prevention and countless other goals all fit this pattern.  The common good is a way to draw the link between American interests and those of foreign nations and peoples.

Now for the ways in which the "common good" works less well as a framing device for foreign policy:

s -1.  It says nothing about security - Americans' foremost foreign policy concern is rightly their own and their country's security.  While its true that the security and stability of the United States advances the common good of the world, that's not why it matters to us.  We have an inherent interest in American security that overrides concerns with the common good, and that won't change.   Progressives need language that acknowledges this.

2.  It ignores American exceptionalism - As a superpower America faces unique threats and imperatives that, in certain cases, set its interests apart from the common good.  As the leading target for terrorist attacks, we want terrorism at the head of the global agenda when most other countries prefer that the top priority be global development.  Americans cannot be expected to ignore or subordinate concerns that are uniquely American rather than held in common globally.

3.  The common good is premised on a notion of social reciprocity that is at best unreliable globally - In his seminal article on the common good, Michael Tomasky characterizes the New Deal era as a period when citizens "reciprocally understood themselves to have a stake in this larger project."  The element of reciprocity was key, in that if people did not trust the majority of their neighbors to make sacrifices commensurate to their own, they might have felt cheated.  Internationally, the social bonds that can enforce such reciprocity within a community (or maybe even a nation) are largely absent.  Rogue nations, power changes, and simple national self-interest means that contributions, compromises, and concessions made for the common good are not reliably rewarded.   Many Americans will fear that the world may spit in the face of a US foreign policy premised on the global common good.  At least in the short-term, given the hangover of Bush's reviled policies, they may be right.

4.  The common good must not replace the advancement of rights globally - Another participant in a recent CAP conference made the point that policies premised on the "common good" could be a frightening notion in countries where individual rights are not protected.  Patriarchies, Islamic societies, and racially fragmented polities could use the "common good," as defined by unchallengeable religious or political leaders, as a basis to deny minority rights and restrict individual freedoms.  In short, the "common good" may not - as David Brooks has argued - spell the death of multiculturalism (or individual rights) here, but could it do so if the concept was extended overseas.

Part of the challenge of applying the concept of the common good to US foreign policy derives from a question of definition:  is the common good the good of all Americans (or all those living in America) or the good of the whole world?  The former seems overly narrow, the latter unmanageably broad.  Our first task may lie in figuring out whether there's a logical middle ground in-between.


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Am I wrong in thinking that arguing against this "common good" idea is going to be like trying to nail jello to the wall? The common good could mean anything; when obstacles arise, will not its advocates simply say it means something else? The common good is against corruption, also disease, war, famine and sour milk. This does not strike me as an intellectual innovation likely to be recorded in our future history books.

It's hard to speak about specific problems with a progressive agenda that is for good things and against bad things, but let's note just one in the field of foreign policy. "The common good is premised on a notion of social reciprocity that is at best unreliable globally" -- there's an artful phrase. Let's apply it to, say, Darfur. Here we have an Arab government into its fourth year of a genocidal war against a civilian population. Its fellow Arab governments support it; Arab media, heavily influenced by Arab governments, are silent; Europe and assorted other countries are appalled and revolted but will not do anything unless the United States takes the leading role; and the former Communist powers, traditionally somewhat worse than indifferent to human rights, back up the Khartoum regime against any attempts to interfere with its program.

What do advocates of "common good" prescribe in this situation? Ineffectual posturing designed to make themselves feel better (the traditional liberal response to human rights abuses in distant countries)? Earnest negotiations aimed at persuading the Khartoum government that its interests can be served just as well if it doesn't decimate the African population of its western provinces (the Bush administration's policy)? Ignoring the problem (as was done with Rwanda during Bill Clinton's Presidency)? A coalition of the willing tagging along with American military intervention in a place where we have almost no direct interests at all (the option most often discussed by newspaper columnists and hardly ever chosen in the past)? Public diplomacy directed at shaming the Arab governments that have made genocide possible?

This last option might actually have worked had it been tried a couple of years ago. I add it to the list because it seems logical to me, not because I expect many people espousing the common good to suggest it. To do so would be to imply that we think our moral values are superior than those of the Arab countries in some way, an implication not likely to be more popular in the Arab world if we point out that it is not our moral purity but their depravity that creates the distinction. Well, here's a thought -- the implication would be not only resented, but would be perfectly accurate as well.

I hope the folks looking hopefully at "the common good" as the basis for a progressive agenda in the field of foreign policy are mindful that all values -- and all cultures -- are not created equal. Some are right and some are wrong, and unfortunately "wrong" is not the same thing as "unpopular."

[The common good] says nothing about security - Americans' foremost foreign policy concern is rightly their own and their country's security.

The world was with us on Afghanistan. If the neocons had been able to demonstrate a link between Saddam and bin Laden, much of the world would have been with us on Iraq as well. If we're going it alone, it probably means the threat isn't real.

OTOH, if you continue to favor a policy of humanitarian invasions of other countries, this is not a matter of American security (at least in the short term), and will almost certainly have to be done unilaterally.

It ignores American exceptionalism - As a superpower America faces unique threats and imperatives that, in certain cases, set its interests apart from the common good. As the leading target for terrorist attacks, we want terrorism at the head of the global agenda...

The threat of terrorist attack is not unique to us. If we're the "leading" target, Europe is unquestionably the easiest target in the developed world (e.g. London, Madrid bombings). It should not be too difficult to come up with a foreign policy that serves both our interests.

The tension between our short-term needs and our long-term ideals is just as important as the difference between our interests and the interests of other countries. If you take Zathras' example on Darfur, should the US continue to cooperate with the Sudanese gov't to get valuable intelligence on terrorism suspects, or should we try and aid the Darfur rebel groups (one of which is led by the radical Islamist Hassan al-Turabi)?

I don't see and way that these problems can be categorized and answered abstractly. Much of our foreign policy is unfortunately going to have to be ad hoc.

The 'common good' notion may ignore "American exceptionalism," and while Americans won't ignore their own unique interests, this thought does counter the idea of the "manifest destiny" type of exceptionalism, where people believe America is best simply because of the conditions under which it was founded.

It's when we start forcibly exporting our form of "democracy" that others get offended.

Before we promote “Commom Good’ or work to refine the wording, we must back “Commom Cause”

According to Robert Kennedy Jr,  we already have a person who is not the legitimate president of the US. (see Kennedy's 11,000 word, 200 footnote report)

Touch screen electronic voting machines and optical scanners are both corruptible. Insist on paper ballots and hand counting. Electronic voting machines can be programmed to record a vote for one candidate and give a paper receipt or print out showing a vote for the other candidate.

During a telephone news conference in Washington, Chellie Pingree, the president of the voter activist group Common Cause, said electronic voting machines are the greatest risk to democracy and elections.

The common good and American exemplarism go hand in hand. As the greatest power, we have the obligation to act on behalf of the common good. It may sound wishy-washy but there is a way to reduce that effect.

Internationally, the common good may be best advanced by international institutions that apply a common set of rules to all. Obviously, the United States will have the power to break those rules with near impunity for the foreseeable future and that will also present us with the greatest temptation to break those rules.

This is why a truly patriotic view of American foreign policy would focus on providing an example to the rest of the world. We would need to clean up our institutions and follow our own laws. This would leave us with a strong right to defend ourselves against attack or even pre-empt an imminent attack.

Patriotism as a concept needs to be taken away from the flag amendment loving right and defined properly. As I wrote some time ago on TPM Cafe, one might be very proud of one's car. In that case, one will spend a lot of time doing car related chores ranging from oil changes to washing and waxing.

A truly patriotic American needs to recognize that there is work to be done. Our civil liberties are threatened from within and we are protected poorly against the most likely threats from without. Our reputation is tarnished to the point where others view us as the junker up on blocks on the corner instead of that convertible everyone aspires to drive at least once.

A hyperpower needs to be a shining example to the world. We have filled that role in the past and we can do so again.

I totally agree, John. We are, for better or worse, the world's agenda setter. Whatever the "common good" is going to look like internationally, the US is going to play a large role in shaping it. Part of being an example to the world should include a renewed committment to the feasible projects that the UN has agreed to, such as the Millennium Development Goals. We're not giving anywhere near the money we promised to help cut extreme poverty in half by 2015.

The United States also has to play ball with the UN, as you mentioned. To advance any kind of "common good" framework on an international scale, we need to project an image of America as a country that plays by the rules. And we don't, in a lot of ways.

After having taught philosophy for 18 years, one might think I would have developed a taste for some of these grand themes. But instead I'm afraid the main result is a skeptical suspicion of rhetorical vapidity and grandiosity - the prime ingredient of political speech it appears.

"The common good" strikes me as just another empty buzz phrase for professional message massagers, and listening to speeches on the topic hardly worth the cost of a subway ticket.

Yet there seems to be no end to the whirl of workshops, conferences and "retreats" held for the benefit of the communications pros. Who pays for these things?

There really isn't much of "common good". Some things are good for many people, while others are good for just a few. But there is hardly anything that is good for everybody - certainly not much that can be achieved in the realm of politics. Once we leave the realm of slogans, and come down to the level of practical projects, initiatives and hard choices, we find that every chosen directions produces both winners and losers. Politics is about building majority colitions held tenuously together by a cooperative effort to achieve results that will benefit most of the people in the coalition most of the time. It is hard enough to find policies that will appeal to a mere majority. Why beguile ourselves with unachievable fantasies of the bonum commune?

That Suzanne chose to present the objections along with the desired aims is a good sign. Of course, the desiderata need to be given concrete form and that will be constrained by how much the American people are willing to risk to establish a more inclusive system in the world.

The key here is time. There is a world of difference between (for example) a more inclusive alliance system to be achieved in a few years, a more inclusive system to be achieved in stages over several decades, and a policy of drift.

The level of risk to Americans is a function not just of any particular plan or proposal for a more inclusive world but also of the time interval in which it is proposed to be achieved. Unless we can move beyond the presumed constraint of a synchronic world, we will default to a policy of drift if it is not realistic to achieve what we want right away.

My post above wasn't meant to be in italics. Not sure how that happened.

My fault David. I forgot to close the italics in the last line of my previous post.

Back to normal.

Hmm...didn't work.

Did this do it?

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