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June 28, 2007

Overvaluing American Values

The editors of the Prospect nixed "screw American values" as the title for my latest column, but it would fit just as well. A preview:

I have a confession to make: I am not a values voter. I do not want a foreign policy based upon "the idea that is America." I do not think we should be guided in all things by such glittering concepts as liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith.

In fact, I'm fed up with values. Entirely. They've failed this country. As a lodestar, there is none worse. And so I must take issue with Anne-Marie Slaughter's new book, The Idea That is America. Slaughter is the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and an oft-mentioned name whenever Washingtonians gather in groups of three or more and their talk inevitably turns to an idle fantasy draft for the next Democratic administration. She is very much the sort who will be involved in creating the Democrats' post-Bush foreign policy, and so her book, which offers an accessible, readable, and even inspiring framework to guide America's global behavior, is an important one. But it is hobbled by one essential weakness: It is based on American "values."

Read on...

June 28, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Very good column, Ezra.

Posted by: Christmas | Jun 28, 2007 10:30:35 AM

Excellent.

There's a need for less idealism, and more pragmatism, just about everywhere in foreign policy circles. I don't care that Paul Wolfowitz has good intentions, I care what the effects of his actions are. This is well done.

Posted by: DivGuy | Jun 28, 2007 10:57:38 AM

I don't quite understand this column. Near as I can tell you want the Democrats to replace the language of freedom, liberty, and equality with... specific, explicit, foreign policies?

This is nonsensical. Where are these foreign policies coming from? If you believe in national interest, then you're a realist with a realist foreign policy, if you believe in spreading democracy everywhere by force, then you're a neoconservative, etc. All policies have two components: a goal for the action, and effectiveness at carrying out that goal. The latter thing could, concievably, be objectively determined. But the goal derives directly from first principles, which are just values.

Everyone is a values voter. I am a values voter. And you are a values voter, despite your claim that you are not. I think what you really mean is that you don't want politicians to use the language of values to explicate their policies, even if, in fact, those are really the values animating those policies. This, to me, seems extremely misguided.

From a political viewpoint, it's directly cedeing the language of values to the other side--an approach made of utter failure. We're not going to rid of values in public discourse, that's a naive dream. Take the leadup to the Iraq War. The Bush Administration was able to appropriate the language of values to make the case. The Democrats were unable to do the same, but if the Democrats had done a better job at using the language of values to make the case against the war, then war might have been avoided.

From a substantive point of view, it's also useful to have a discussion of first principles. And using resonant language is certainly compatible with a coherent, smart, "wise and sane" foreign policy. You really need both things, not just one and the other. The values provide the vision, and the realism provides the implementation.

Posted by: Korha | Jun 28, 2007 11:04:50 AM

Good column, but you haven't really "had it" with values (that statement could be willfully misinterpreted) but with the rhetoric of values.

Posted by: will | Jun 28, 2007 11:07:12 AM

I'm more sympathetic to this argument than I once was because of the Bush administration. The one area where I thought there was a strong case for a values push back was torture. Stupid interventions and going to war based on lies are not new experiences for America, but torture was by and large an aberration. However, now most of the GOP candidates aside from McCain are openly okay with it and even McCain caved on the legislation. If the average conservative doesn't care in that case, I can't really see expecting them to care in cases where the U.S. has a history of bad practice.

However, I wouldn't support a strictly consequence based approach. My favorite way to get out of Iraq would actually be democracy. Have the Iraqis vote on a referendum about whether America should stay or begin an orderly withdrawal and be out within a year. That answers the moral blackmail question while at the same time providing a solid rationale for leaving. At the same time I think we can win such a referendum in Afghanistan.

Aside from the elections don't equal liberal democracy thing, a problem with Iraqi democracy is that in any occupied conflict torn nation, even a legitimately elected parliament will find their health and safety greatly depends on the occupier. On issues like this, we need to go straight to the people.

So I think the problem may not be values, but as you say the absence of concrete values. Moreover, many of the concrete values will potentially appeal to Americans, but are not well established American traditions.

Building off past examples I'd say instead of democracy we could make two concrete points:
1) Support the right of any non-violent political movement to participate in elections. Notably this includes some Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. (Hamas and Hezbollah don't qualify. It might make sense to let them participate, but I don't think there's a general principle there).
2) In any U.S. occupation we will respect the right of the people of that country to ask us to leave.

I think those are both solid basically value based principles. Trouble is, they don't make for easy tie-ins with American policy history.

Posted by: Greg Sanders | Jun 28, 2007 11:09:16 AM

Barack Obama quotes. I actually have these written down in a file on my computer:

“Values are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question.”
--The Audacity of Hope p. 59

“We hang on to our values, even if they seem at times tarnished and worm; even if, as a nation and in our lives, we have betrayed them more often than we care to remember. What else is there to guide us? Those values are our inheritance, what makes us who we are as a people. And although we recognize that they are subject to challenge, can be poked and prodded and debunked and turned inside out by intellectuals and cultural critics, they have proven to be both surprisingly durable and surprisingly constant across classes, and races, and faiths, and generations. We can make claims on their behalf, so long as we understand that our values must be tested against fat and experience, so long as well recall they demand deeds and not just words. To do otherwise would be to relinquish our best selves.”
--The Audacity of Hope p. 69

Posted by: Korha | Jun 28, 2007 11:10:00 AM

But if you're looking to project a new image of America to the world, surely "Secretary of State SLAUGHTER" isn't the best person to lead the mission. Anyone know of wise deans of IR schools called Prof. Consequentialist-Approach, or the even more snappy Dr. "conditions-for-the-use-of-force-and-the-constraints-surrounding-it"? Otherwise, the messaging is wrong right from the start.

Posted by: Sam | Jun 28, 2007 11:32:34 AM

Korha -

I think there's a really big difference between Barack Obama or John Edwards talking about values, and AnneMarie Slaughter writing a book about values. One is about communicating a complex bundle of thoughts, plans, and emotions in a economical package for the purpose of winning votes, and the other is in theory a working out of what American foreign policy actually ought to be.

In the first, we use shorthand and we talk about first principles. In the second, we should actually explain what our principles mean, and moreover, what they do. Slaughter's barely self-critical interventionism takes almost no time to work out what it will do in the real world, choosing instead to write a paean to "American values" throughout American history, ignoring all the evil that has also been done in the name of those values.

"Liberty" as a first principle can lead to a million things, some good, some bad, some very, very bad. Slaughter makes very little effort to explain why that is, and makes no effort to work out why "liberty" has been such a powerful ally of imperialists throughout modern history. If she had written a serious book about the real effects of certain uses of first principles, your critique might stick. What Ezra's getting at is that this is supposed to be a substantive book, and it floats above real world problems with a rhetoric that has been used to create exactly those same real world problems.

Posted by: DivGuy | Jun 28, 2007 11:35:50 AM

I didn't read Slaughter's book, so I can't comment on it. If you read it, I'll go with your interpretation.

However, Ezra did say this in his essay:

"What the Democrats' post-Bush foreign policy vision must do is be able to outlast the Democrats. I have no doubt that President Obama, or President Edwards, or Secretary of State Slaughter can implement a values-based foreign policy I find congenial. What I do fear is what happens when their terms close, and the language that they let Americans remain accustomed to is appropriated by a far more hawkish administration."

That's clearly lumping Obama and Edwards with Slaughter with Democrats, right? Perhaps I'm misreading it, but my read was that Ezra doesn't think "values-based foreign policy" is enough, enough if he finds that policy "congenial." I, on the other hand, think that's just the best we can do. And I think there is a political danger in trying to frame ideas in so-called valueless terms, because those frames are less effective.

Posted by: Korha | Jun 28, 2007 12:35:25 PM

-Korha ...you didn't read the piece, you interpreted it.
That's dishonest in this forum. Don't.

-Ezra ...You said [v.`a v. Wolfowitz, et al.]
"What they hadn't thought about were outcomes -- constraints on our action and capabilities, the likely effects on others' actions of our use of force, etc."

-Systems thinking, then. Always useful in my own small experience. Seems to work as well as it or anything can in the larger world...too.
Nice job, you.

Posted by: has_te | Jun 28, 2007 1:06:41 PM

I blame that damn nominalist Yglesias for this. Corrupting our youth, he is.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 28, 2007 2:25:30 PM

What I want is not a foreign policy vision that builds from a foundation of values, but from one of consequences.

Consequences only matter relative to values, as Korha points out. Values alone aren't enough; we also need to be pragmatic about what will actually promote our values. If Slaughter fails to do that, that's bad. But we do need to focus on the values too.

Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, et al, see themselves as realists, not idealists, so referring to the failure in Iraq to support your point doesn't work. They had in fact thought about the consequences of their acts, and were simply very wrong about what they would be. They were vigorously questioned about the unreality of their views, but were too arrogant to properly respond. That's closer to the heart of the problem than a focus on values, I think.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jun 28, 2007 2:50:34 PM

Consequences only matter relative to values, as Korha points out.

True enough. But the problem with GOP foreign policy is probably better expressed in terms of disastrous consequences, since the Republican Party was very good at cloaking its agenda under cover of values. This is especially true within the elite-pundit circles that Slaughter travels in.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jun 28, 2007 4:36:39 PM

the problem with GOP foreign policy is probably better expressed in terms of disastrous consequences

Definitely. The question is whether this ought to entail abandoning focus on values in expressing our own goals.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jun 28, 2007 6:11:11 PM

Excellent column, Ezra.

Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, et al, see themselves as realists, not idealists, so referring to the failure in Iraq to support your point doesn't work. - sanpete

Given that their actions demonstrate a remarkable disconnect with reality, how they style themselves is irrelevant. Their 'reality' was an idealistic utopia.

They had in fact thought about the consequences of their acts, and were simply very wrong about what they would be. - sanpete

Only in a positive sense. *These* acts will do *this*. *But what if they don't* never entered into the equation, and nothing I've ever seen besides conservative apologia indicates otherwise.

They were vigorously questioned about the unreality of their views, but were too arrogant to properly respond. That's closer to the heart of the problem than a focus on values, I think. - sanpete

They were *not* vigorously questioned by those they WOULD respond to (Bush and Cheney), because those people shared the same idealistic disconnect with reality.

Posted by: LittlePig | Jun 29, 2007 10:41:51 AM

how they style themselves is irrelevant

Ezra's talking about how they presented their ideas, actually. I don't think they or many others were misled by the talk of democracy and so on that most people assumed was only a secondary concern at most (as it clearly was). The public and our leaders were misled by what the Administration presented as hard reality.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jun 29, 2007 2:25:52 PM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 8, 2007 8:25:58 AM

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