Thursday, April 19, 2007

Morality vs. Strategic Interests; Then vs. Now

A couple of current events in the news have caught my attention for their relevance to this past Wednesday's class. One, the recent move to strike the phrase "global war on terror" from the government docs, another a debate that has emerged in the conservative media following the VT massacre: Is our society becoming desensitized to "evil"?

Both of these issues, I think, relate to a rather interesting component of our discussion the other day: the duality of American influence in the world. We differentiated America's comparative advantage - its military capabilities and economic might that it uses to project its influence - from its "moral authority," which the U.S. seems to command, or at least demand, on the international scene, standing as defender and advocate of universal values like freedom, democracy, and human rights.

Some argued that Kwangju represented a point in the U.S.-ROK relationship's development at which these two components, which had previously been blurred together, separated from one another in the eyes of many Koreans. I'd like to take that a step further.

Without any specific evidence to back it up, and without delving into a Cold War history that I am not at all qualified to discuss, I suspect that Kwangju was part of a larger trend throughout the course of the Cold War in which U.S. moral authority and strategic interests and capability, which once blended together nicely, became increasingly distinguished, both domestically and abroad. Basically, it became clear that in many cases, protecting American strategic interests did not coincide with protecting the values that America held in such high esteem. Thus, through unpopular or controversial events like Vietnam, or Kwangju, or political dealings in Latin America, the U.S.'s monopoly on the global moral authority began to slip.

Once the Soviet Union fell, the "evil" had been defeated. America, the good guy, had prevailed, and the people cheered. But with this massive metamorphosis in the international system, the U.S.'s claim on moral superiority slipped even further because its strategic interests could not be masked as well as they were when they were carried out in opposition to a dangerous enemy. Stick with me, there's a point here...

Throughout the 90s and into the early 21st century, a new value set rose to international prominence via globalization: capitalism (a newer, better capitalism, which by and large stresses win-win exchanges, and seems to incorporate or facilitate many of the values championed by America). Common interest in economic development, and the political and social benefits that derive from it, emerged as a uniting force. This not only brought countries closer together economically, but also created convergence in terms of common values and interests. A new set of values began to emerge that put people on a level playing field morally (another way the world is flattening).

9/11 mixed things up a little bit. Global terrorism and religious extremism emerged as a powerful, evil enemy, and Uncle Sam once again was ready to lose the Stars 'n Stripe top hat for a white Stetson and a six-shooter. Unfortunately, I think the war in Iraq soon squandered the moral leadership we had temporarily regained.

So long story...err...not as long, recognizing this and the broader changes in the globalizing world, a domestic debate in the States is emerging (maybe "reemerging") over whether America is still "in the right" in terms of how it carries out its foreign policy. Progressives favor removing the grandiose terminology like the "global war on terror" from government docs to more accurately reflect the strategic priorities at stake and the diverse tactics used to achieve them. Concerned conservatives place this in a social context, instead of an international relations context, and question our society's moral fiber in the media. One side wants to acknowledge the divergence b/w two causes; the other sees them as one entity. I'm not sure where to come down on this.

Does our superior moral compass (if we have one) give us a free pass to do the things we do? Are we still the powerful good guy in a world of evil and amorality? Does the world need such a figure anymore? Does it want one?


Grace said...

I would say that most of the world by now has been disillusioned with US foreign policy and behavior and definitely does not view us as the "powerful good guy" anymore. Ignoring the opinions of others and going against the UN because I-have-the-power-to-do-so aren't really the types of attitude that wins respect from people.

While I believe our ideals are praiseworthy and worth fighting for, I don't know if we have the moral legitimacy in the eyes of the world to "preach" them to others.

The world, as well as people, always want a hero to admire and respect (at least I think so). But I definitely don't think the U.S. is that hero figure anymore and maybe there never will be one again.

Grace said...
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Grace said...
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