“Supposed Universal Values”
Tibor R. Machan
Professor of history Sean Pollock at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio, recently wrote about Senator John McCain’s foreign policy views in a letter to the Sunday New York Times Magazine. He asked, I think rhetorically, “Does McCain not see that by intervening militarily in foreign countries and by justifying such intervention in terms of supposed universal values, America stands in the tradition of imperial powers whose policies and practices have tended to engender the kinds of insurgent movements he fears?” I focus on this here because the question raises some important issues.
One is whether when people like Senator McCain support military intervention, do they in fact invoke “supposed universal values” in support of their position? I don’t know but if former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan--certainly familiar with the Bush administration--is to be believed, the war in Iraq has little to do with any such values. It has to do with oil. Or perhaps with some obscure UN resolution. Or maybe the support for McCain’s position comes from the United Nation’s covenant of “the responsibility of protect” against tyrants and/or natural disasters.
Certainly if there are universal values, ones all people ought to embrace and governments in any country should protect, it does not follow that foreign governments must intervene when they are being violated. These governments are, let’s remember, public servants of their own citizenry, not of the populations of foreign countries. Nothing at all about there being universal values requires intervention of any kind. If I believe that my neighbor ought to show tenderness toward his children and he doesn’t, I am not authorized to meddle in his family life. Perhaps I am justified in thinking badly of him, even of trying to encourage him in various civilized ways to change his ways. But no intervention is supported by such universal values.
Professor Pollock shows disdainfulness toward universal values, otherwise why did he say “supposed.” Maybe he wants to guard against the tendency he ascribes to Senator McCain by his skepticism. Yet, this tendency to intervene by someone who holds such universal values does not follow from holding such values. This is especially true of liberal democratic countries that are committed to the principle of freedom of choice. Unless another country is aggressing against its neighbors--or there is strong reason that it will do so imminently--no justification exists to intervene. Furthermore, not all intervention in support of such values, when justified on the grounds that apply--not merely that there are such universal values--amounts to imperialism. But I’ll leave that point aside here.
When, for example, a country is ruled by brutal thugs and the bulk of the citizenry is desirous of outside help intervention is not at all imperialistic. But even then the help must come only if the citizens of the country capable of giving it approve. Otherwise help must come from volunteers since the legal duty of a country’s government and military is to provide protection to its citizenry, not to citizens of other countries.
A liberal country’s foreign policy must not amount to aggression, not even to humanitarian intervention. Force must only be used in defense of the country itself, or of a friendly ally. That is what the government officials of a liberal country swear to when taking office, to protect the constitution of the country, meaning, to protect its integrity and citizenry from those who would attack or seriously threaten them.
None of this denies that there are some, perhaps just a few, essential, universal values every society should follow, ones that all governments should protect in their society. Senator McCain’s belief in military intervention need have nothing at all to do with his embrace of universal values such as human rights for all. As a senator in a free society he is sworn to secure rights for those who elected him not for people abroad. But this does not mean those people abroad do not possess those rights just as citizens at home do.
It is a logical fallacy, which has some very deleterious results when committed, to think that the existence of universal values implies that one must become the police that should provide the protection of those values. Something else is needed for this to happen, namely, to become properly authorized to give that protection.