Sovereignty and Torture

In the past, I have learned a lot from Jeremy Rabkin, but having read his review of my book (“The Lesser Evil is Not Good Enough,” Winter 2004), I begin to repent of my ecumenical spirit towards conservatives, since he really hasn’t taken the trouble to read my book. Instead he has attacked a liberal scarecrow of his own devising. This attack begins with a major misquotation. He quotes me as saying that “no government may ‘assume that the lives of [its] own citizens matter more than the lives of people in other countries.'” I believe no such thing. Like Rabkin, I believe that any state’s primary responsibility after a terrorist attack is to protect its own citizens. The book makes it clear that a state should respond robustly while being answerable to the laws and institutions of its own country.

However, unlike Rabkin, I also believe that a society that has democratically ratified international agreements like the Torture Convention and the Geneva Convention is bound to comply with them. This obligation is not only the formal treaty obligation of any state that ratifies it, but is sustained by the moral idea, incarnated in human rights conventions, that U.S. policy has to accord basic moral respect to non-U.S. citizens. A state is entitled to balance its security obligations to its own citizens against these international obligations—i.e., to enter reservations explicitly limiting the application of these rules to its domestic practice—but only in a manner consistent with the plain meaning of these agreements. The Torture Convention bans torture. It is not a text to be parsed, by ingenious legal casuists, into a permission for coercive interrogations that cross the line, as in Abu Ghraib. When the U.S. starts believing—as conservative sovereigntists like Rabkin have assiduously encouraged it to believe—that it owes no one an account of how it treats non-nationals, it can find itself creating a global detention and interrogation policy which incurs global obloquy without adding an iota to the security of its own soldiers and citizens.

Michael Ignatieff
Harvard University

Jeremy Rabkin replies:

Prof. Ignatieff charges me with “a major misquotation.” What I quoted in the review appears on page 7 of his book in a discussion of international humanitarian law. Ignatieff says, “citizens of a democracy insist that what matters most in a terrorist emergency is the safety of the majority…. Those who think this are also likely to believe that international agreements, like the Geneva Conventions or the Torture Convention, should not limit what the United States can do in a war on terror.” Ignatieff then says: “To take this position, however, is also to assume that the lives of your own citizens matter more than the lives of people in other countries. It is…to base policy on the premise that Americans come first.” To which Ignatieff counters, “Those who disagree will usually be committed to the idea that a democracy’s ethical commitments are universal and apply both to its own citizens and to its enemies.”

Ignatieff endorses “the idea that a democracy’s ethical commitments are universal.” In his letter, he again endorses what his book presents as this premise’s logical conclusion: foreign terrorists must be fully protected by the Geneva Convention and the Torture Convention. I think the U.S. Department of Justice was correct to conclude that the language of these international treaties does not prohibit what we have been doing in Guantánamo. Surely there is no question here of upholding a commitment we made to other parties in an international contract, since terrorists refuse to honor any aspect of these treaties. Why shouldn’t we interpret our international obligations in ways that impose the least burden on our efforts to defend ourselves? Ignatieff’s own protest makes clear that he thinks we have some obligation to international human rights law that takes precedence over our efforts to defend our own nation.

I don’t see how our experience in Iraq really helps Ignatieff’s argument, either. By ignoring international authorities, the United States was able to wield its sovereign power to rescue the people of Iraq from a monstrous tyranny. Those who champion universal guarantees of human rights never had any serious prospect of enforcing international standards in places like Saddam’s Iraq. Given Iraq’s progress toward democracy, it is those who heaped “global obloquy” on the United States—basically those historic champions of freedom, the Germans and the French—who ought to be rethinking their premises.

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French Perfidy?

John Zvesper claims that our book replaces the myth of Franco-American friendship with an “opposite-myth” of rivalry and antagonism (“Mythical Friends, Meet Mythical Enemies,” Winter 2004). Yet this assertion leads Zvesper into his own exercise in caricature. He claims, for example, that we insist on “France’s almost unrelieved moral squalor and political treachery.” Although we admit that our book focuses on frictions, tensions, and outright acts of war, anyone who has read it knows that we have not neglected to describe periods of rapprochement. In fact, it is precisely those moments, albeit infrequent—France’s aid at Yorktown, Nixon’s attempts at détente with de Gaulle and Pompidou—that set the long history of French-American antagonism in such high relief. A forgetful Zvesper actually refers to our treatments of both these episodes later in his review.

Unable to provide salient historical examples that might weaken our basic premise, Zvesper makes much of the tangential and trivial. Our failure to lambaste Woodrow Wilson is evidence that “something is seriously amiss,” apparently because he thinks the French position at Versailles served the interests of European peace. What really seems to gall this resident of southern France, however, is our belief in the frequent moral superiority of American foreign policy over that of his adopted country. Yet sadly, in order to even the score, he finds himself in the unfortunate situation of uttering absurdities, such as World War II “could have been prevented, most surely by a wise American approach to Europe after the First World War.” This takes the “blame America first” school of opinion to a new extreme.

Zvesper’s strangest contention of all, however, involves the American Civil War. We criticize France for installing a puppet emperor in Mexico in the 1860s and supporting secession. Zvesper insists that these moves might “have served the cause of human liberty by helping contain the slave power.” Supporting the Confederate States of America sure seems like a funny way of doing that. We choose Abe Lincoln over Napoleon III—just as we choose George Washington over Citizen Genet, John Adams over Talleyrand, Wilson over Clemenceau, FDR and Eisenhower over de Gaulle, Reagan over Mitterrand, and Bush over Chirac. If Claremont Fellow John Zvesper chooses differently, then something really is seriously amiss.

John J. Miller
National Review

Mark Molesky
Seton Hall University

John Zvesper replies:

I thank John Miller and Mark Molesky for their kind concern that I may have become politically deranged by living behind enemy lines. Yes, it’s always a risk. But they have only to check my recent online writings to see that I have had no trouble articulating excellent reasons to support America over France, and Bush over Chirac.

Miller and Molesky pounce on what looks to them like a contradiction in my review (rereading shows it isn’t), but they say nothing to challenge my basic observation: although they (like previous historians) helpfully warn us that Franco-American solidarity is mainly mythical, they also overstate both French depravity and the continuity and pervasiveness of Franco-American cultural and political animosity. As has been noticed by other reviewers (including other American ones), Our Oldest Enemy is splendid polemics but flawed history.

I suggested the flaws might have arisen in part because “Miller and Molesky largely overlook the importance of regimes in politics,” and therefore too rarely discriminate among the various regimes known over the centuries as “France.” This point—to which they do not respond—is neither “tangential” nor “trivial.” Sure, choosing between Napoleon III and Abraham Lincoln is a no-brainer. But my (thankfully) counterfactual supposition here—which Miller and Molesky do not mention—was that the Confederacy had won its independence. Then the relevant choice (for Lincoln, at least) would probably have become a less attractive one, between Napoleon III and Jefferson Davis. It does not take much brain to see an independent CSA and Mexico soon becoming rivals, and the USA and a French-Mexican regime becoming allies against an evil and expansionist CSA. The obvious purpose of this thought experiment was to show that regimes matter, by showing that America gone bad (the CSA) might not deserve good Americans’ support, even against the France of Napoleon III.

* * *

Hamilton and Machiavelli

Karl Walling takes me to task on two basic points (“Our Interest Guided by Our Justice,” Winter 2004). One is that I present a “sanitized” version of Machiavelli. I believe too much has been made of Machiavelli the “teacher of evil” and self-conscious prophet of “modernity.” The (mainly) political theorists who argue this focus on what Machiavelli wrote rather than what he did. My biographer’s view of Machiavelli is shaped by the fact that he was an able and indefatigable servant of the Florentine Republic for most of its precarious existence and a patriot of the first rank. His teaching that the statesman, when necessary, must “be not good” to preserve the liberty of his country was the lesson of bitter experience.

Did Hamilton believe that the statesman, at times, must be able to be not good? I argue that he did. For example, his correspondence with Washington around the time of the “Newburgh conspiracy” in 1783 shows that he favored exploiting the threat of insubordination on the part of army officers as a tool to intimidate Congress into adopting measures to guarantee a reliable flow of revenue to the central government.

Hamilton’s foreign policy for the young United States, I argue, can be summarized by the formula: peace through economic and military strength, and strength through peace. He also recognized that there were times when one must “molest” or be “molested.” He was eager to seize the mouth of the Mississippi, lest French control of the area constitute a pistol pointed at the back of the United States. I think it is misleading to say (as my reviewer does) that Hamilton assumed that mankind’s “natural state” was peace (recall Federalist Nos. 6, 7, 8). Hamilton assumed that the United States, like other ambitious commercial republics, would be involved in frequent wars (Federalist No. 34). His constitutional and financial ideas were inseparable from that belief.

Walling’s second basic criticism is that, in questioning the intensity of his attachment to natural rights, I have “stripped Hamilton of any moral depth, and far worse, dismissed the fundamental principles on which the nation was founded.” In fact, I don’t say that natural rights principles were not at the heart of the American Founding, or that they have not influenced American foreign policy. My point is that the founders were not of one mind on the question and that Hamilton’s mature position on natural rights was probably closer to Hume’s (and implicitly Machiavelli’s) than to Jefferson’s and Locke’s. A belief in natural rights did not strongly animate his foreign policy outlook. His opposition to the French Revolution in its radical phases arose less from concerns about the violation of natural rights than France’s threat to the balance of power and its wanton call for the overthrow of duly constituted authority in Britain and elsewhere. Like the flesh and blood Machiavelli, the Hamilton who emerges from my book is a resourceful, tireless, and self-sacrificing worker on behalf of the prosperity and independence of his country, a tower of strength and a fount of ideas without whom the infant republic might not have survived.

John L. Harper
The Bologna Center
Johns Hopkins University

Karl Walling replies:

With nary a word about the worst practices condoned (or encouraged) by Machiavelli in his writings, Prof. Harper focuses on Machiavelli’s patriotism, thus taking a leaf from Machiavelli, who concluded The Prince with an exhortation to free Italy from the barbarians, as if anything done with a patriotic motive is justified. We should not be fooled. Patriotism cannot justify the crimes Machiavelli endorsed in the previous twenty-five chapters of his masterpiece.

Hamilton’s judgment was not always sound. As he wrote to Washington, he did not believe the enlisted ranks would follow their officers in the Newburgh affair, so he was willing to exploit the illusion of mutiny in order to secure an impost, which he believed necessary to preserve the Union. This was perhaps the most questionable call of Hamilton’s career, justified by balancing what he considered a greater against a lesser evil.

Hamilton never denied the Anti-Federalist claim that commerce and republican government might help promote peace within the Union or between America and the world; instead, he showed that Congress needed the power to regulate commerce so it could prevent trade wars from becoming shooting wars, thus making the liberal dream of peace through commercial republicanism more likely to succeed. Truth be told, he probably suspected Americans were too pacific rather than too warlike. Historically, war has been the natural state of man, but normatively, Americans have believed that peace is best, or natural in the way things ought to be, though producing this naturally desirable state requires what Hamilton and Harper suggest: a government and economy prepared for war, but disposed toward peace, whenever essential rights are not at stake. Hamilton may have learned to prepare for the worst from Hume and Machiavelli, but his aim to seek something better and more legitimate—government rooted in popular reflection and choice—owes more to Locke.