Friday, July 20, 2012
[Opinion] On Behaving as a Major World Power
1. The BBC reported today (Thursday, July 19, 2012) (BBC News 2012): "Russia and China have vetoed a UN Security Council resolution proposing further sanctions on Syria, prompting an angry Western response."
By vetoing the UN Security Council resolution, I have the impression that both Russia and China do not act as a major power should.
How should a major power act?
Every nation acts on its national interest.
But beside naked national interest, a major power's action should be guided by certain universal moral values such as the sanctity of life and freedom.
I think this is what distinguishes the US and the West from Russia and China in the current Syrian crisis.
While Russia and China foreign actions are just national interest, US foreign actions has a moral tone to it.
The genius of American foreign policy is that it acts on its national interest within a moral framework.
2. American foreign policy has both idealistic and realistic elements.
Idealistically, America promotes certain moral values such as the "inalienable rights" to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" (from the United States’ Declaration of Independence).
Realistically, like other nations, America acts on its national interest.
What is distinguishing about US action is that, by and large, it is within what is permitted by its moral values.
By and large, the US acts on its national interest within the confine of its moral values.
3. Morality is normative and concerns with such notions as what is obligatory, optional, impermissible, permissible and omissible.
A moral framework will divided or parse actions into these categories.
The Traditional Threefold Classification of these notions looks like this (McNamara 2010):
(a) One ought to act on what is obligatory to act.
(b) One is forbidden to act on what is impermissible to act.
(c) One is permitted to act on what is obligatory or optional to act.
(d) One can omit to act on what is optional or impermissible to act.
4. My impression is that for the US, its moral values are a major constraint on its national interest:
(a) For its foreign actions, the US does not act on all that it is obligatory to act.
The US act on some, but not all, that it is obligated to act by its moral values.
When an action is obligated by its values and in its national interest, the US tends to act on it.
When an action is obligated by its values but is against its national interest, the US tends not to act on it.
(b) For its foreign actions, the US usually do not act on what is forbidden to act.
When an action is forbidden by its value and is against its national interest, the US would not act on it.
When an action is forbidden by its value but is in its national interest, the US tends not to act on it or if does act, then act covertly.
5. A look at the Diagram above tells us that that one cannot omit to act on what one is obligated to act.
What is obligatory is not omissible.
This is the usual criticism of the US: it does not do all that its values require or obligated it to do.
The idealist asks: Why did the US and NATO bombed Muammar Gaddafi's Libya last year and not Bashar al-Assad's Syria this year?
Both the Libyan and Syrian peoples aspire to freedom.
What is the difference?
The realist replies: the national interest of the US and the West is different in Libya than from Syria.
That is why the US and NATO will not involve themselves military in Syria at this time.
American foreign policy has both an idealistic and a realistic element.
6. I heard in the CBC News tonight that the Russian Foreign Minister criticized the US for harboring motives other than helping the Syrian people: since Assad's Syria is a close ally of Iran and since Iran is against the US, the US wants a regime change in Syria to weaken Iran.
But if we accept the premise that all nations should act on their national interest, then this is no criticism of the US at all.
Should the US act on other than its national interest?
Should Russia or China?
What distinguish the US from Russia and China is that besides naked national interest, its actions are constrained by its moral values.
From an idealistic viewpoint:
(a) the failure of the US is that it does not do all that it is obligated to do by its own moral values; and
(b) the success of the US is that, by and large, it does only what is permitted by its own moral values.
How should a major power act?
Beside on its national interest, a major power should act morally.
As should be for all nations.
BBC News. 2012. Syria conflict: West 'appalled' by Russia China UN veto. July 19.
McNamara, Paul. 2010. Deontic Logic. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta.