(Captain's log): Michael writes:
Europe really does not understand America. I remember a scene from a biography of Theodore Roosevelt (I think it was from that source) where an Englishman was out West and went to a ranch and asked a ranch hand "Where is your master?", to which statement the ranch hand replied "That sumbitch ain't been born yet."
Perhaps a different analogy fits. I am an Episcopalian and my denomination has bishops. The bishops make pronouncements. They actually make a lot of pronouncements. We don't necessarily follow them, although we do let them continue; more for the sake of politeness and ancient forms than any particular use they actually serve (other than confirmation and ordination). Same with the UN. It is the proper club to be a member of and some of the old boys that come around talk the most exasperating and amusing piffle; one does not actually have to do more than smile and nod.
And so the dance of civilization goes on and on.
The Europeans come from a culture which has a long tradition of power and authority flowing from above downward. At different times different groups have been in command, but there is always the feeling that power naturally should concentrate in a few hands, who grant as much or as little downward as they wish.
At different times that power has been concentrated in the hands of monarchs, or church authorities, or military dictators, or revolutionary intellectuals, but it's invariably concentrated and Europeans have never known anything else.
When they argue about these things, it's a priori for them that this is the state of affairs. So they argue about who should be in charge, and the current major political argument in Europe is about the extent to which power should be concentrated in Brussels instead of in Paris and Rome and Berlin and London. When a political movement there tries to change things, they frame their argument in terms of proving that their new proposed elite is a better choice than the elite which currently holds power.
At one time this was called "the divine right of Kings" but though the theological basis for it has largely ceased to carry much credence, and though it is rarely monarchs now who wield it, that idea still holds sway there. Europeans are used to being ruled, and what they argue about is who the rulers should be.
The difficulty is that when they try to peddle those arguments to us, they run into the fact that we in America don't see things that way at all. From our point of view power is vested in the people, who grant it upwards and can take it back if they wish. When Europeans try to tell us that a given elite is the right one to wield power, Americans ask why there should be any elite at all wielding power, and begin to ask questions about accountability.
At which point each group looks at the other with mystification; the Europeans think the Americans stupid for even asking such a question, the Americans think that the Europeans are fascists who don't understand the most important principles of liberty. The Europeans still don't understand that when the US was founded, it began with the basic rejection of that entire principle and designed its governmental system based on power flowing upward, not downward, and on government serving the people rather than ruling them.
And most importantly on the fact that the people can if they wish kick the government out and replace it any time they want if they don't like what it's been doing. The government has no divine right at all. It has a duty to the people and its value is judged solely on how well it carries out that duty.
The Europeans, for instance, simply do not understand why it is that the US government can't ignore the Bill of Rights, and infringe the First or Fourth or Fifth or Sixth amendment any time it wants so as to cooperate with international treaties that the Europeans have proposed. The US government is not capable of doing so (because we haven't given it that power, and will remove it if it tries to infringe those rights) and when it correctly tells the Europeans that it cannot ratify those treaties, they condemn us for being unilateral, for not being a team player.
The major political argument between Europe and the US for the last year has been over who, exactly, would have the right to decide when and where the US would engage in war against its enemies, with the implicit assumption (by them) that it had to be some international group, somewhere. The Europeans have been trying to propose various answers to that. First, it was going to be NATO. Then it was "consultation with allies". Now it's "the UN security council." All through it, what the US has been asking is, "Why do we need permission from anyone?"
Because, just because. Because that's how it's done. Because you Americans are stupid and unsophisticated and aren't the best choice for being the ruling elite. Because you have power by accident and don't deserve it, and that's not the right way to choose who should be in control. Because we're smarter than you are, and if you go off on your own you're going to do something stupid.
But the American principle of liberty is that it's better to be free than to be correct. I would rather have the liberty to make mistakes and to act in ways that others consider damnfoolish than to have others dictate to me the right way to act because they're more wise than I am. The ultimate principle of liberty is that if I am only free to do that which others approve of, then I am not free at all. The measure of my liberty is the extent to which I can say and do things which others despise.
I, myself, do not act in strange ways simply to scandalize my neighbors, but ultimately I want the ability to make choices for myself without having to take their opinions into account. Then I can satisfy them if I choose to, or ignore them if I must. There are consequences to all actions, but ultimately my only responsibility is to myself. I owe no allegiance to others simply because they say I do. My master has not yet been born, either.
Yes, it's true that to some extent what I decide to do will affect them, just as what they do will affect me. But if everyone who is affected by a decision is granted power over it, then no one will ever have anything remotely resembling liberty. Part of the price of liberty, of the ability to make decisions for myself about my actions, is that I must put up with the effects of what others decide for themselves. I accept this.
And the same thing goes for international politics. On a deep level, there comes a point where a nation must decide that its own interests are paramount, and that it cannot trust its own fate to the decisions of others who claim to be smarter and to have a higher wisdom. In acting this way, it will suffer consequences but sometimes the issues are worth it. It is true that what it does will affect others, but that is not an important consideration even if those others think it is.
Europeans think that international power, just as national power, must be concentrated in the hands of a wise ruling elite, and thus the argument is only about who that elite will be. The American point of view is that international power, just as national power, is granted from below (by the nations) for a specific purpose to agencies which must be accountable, and that such power can be withdrawn when the international organization shows itself to be unworthy of wielding it, which is what we're about to do with the UN.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that with the effective demise of the UN that we automatically accept some other authority to replace it. It is not automatic that there should be any such authority; its creation would be based on its utilitarian value, just as is all government.
In one sense we're provably right. No amount of rhetoric about "international law" can actually make us comply with it if we're determined to ignore it. Ultimately the only way that international power can rule us is if we let it, which means that ultimately its power over us is granted by us by consent or complacency, unless it is imposed on us militarily.
"The whole debate is about two issues," said an envoy whose country is one of the five permanent Security Council members [i.e. France – SCDB]. "One is Iraq. The other is U.S. power in the world. The second issue is the bigger part of the debate."
Any concept of international power is a joke if it does not have the ability to control the United States. So it's easy to see why it is that European demands for American acquiescence to international control have become so shrill and deafening over the last year (and to hell with the Bill of Rights). We are apostates to the divine right of kings, and we steadfastly refuse to even to acknowledge our sin, let alone to confess it and return to the path of righteousness by giving up our liberty and letting Europe rule us – as is their divine right because of their clear cultural, intellectual and moral superiority.
Fuck 'em. Vox populi, Vox Dei.
Update: Pejman Yousefzadeh comments. Despite what he says, I know for a fact that a hell of a lot of Europeans actually understand and agree with our principles and deeply hate what's happening there now, because I get mail from them all the time. But they are not yet a politically significant force, and likely won't be any time soon. On the other hand, as the European Experiment continues, and they move further and further towards Socialism with the concomitant economic malaise invariably associated with central planning and excessive taxation and government regulation, they may gain a stronger voice in affairs there as it becomes increasingly difficult for the powers-that-be to explain just why it is that the US keeps outperforming obviously-superior Europe.
Update: Just to review a few of those treaties: In negotiations for a treaty to govern the Internet, the Europeans insisted on a clause which would permit European courts to order American web sites to be shut down if they were found to violate European laws about hate speech. That would violate the First Amendment. A treaty about chemical weapons was rejected by the US because it would permit international inspectors to go anywhere in the US and look at anything without warrant or probable cause, violating the Fourth Amendment. The Kyoto accord has a lot of things going against it, but one of the things is that it's not clear that the US government has the power to actually fully regulate the use of fossil fuels. If coal is mined in a state and also burned there, then it's not "Interstate Commerce", or anything else described in Article I, Section 8, and thus under the 10th Amendment it would be under State control. This can't be overruled by use of the Treaty Clause. (By definition, any amendment automatically takes precedence over any provision of the original Constitution, which is where the Treaty Clause can be found.) The ICC treaty, meanwhile, pretty thoroughly trashes the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments. And there's been at least one international arms control treaty which would have violated the Second Amendment.
At least the Third Amendment is still secure. (For the moment.)