The Conceptual Foundations of International Politics: Commentary and Critique of the Columbia University lecture series at Lecture Four: Rashad Khalidi

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Lecture 4

Rashad Khalidi

This 4th lecture in the lecture series is entitled “Cold War in the Middle East”. It begins by referring to President Bush Senior’s overwhelming use of force in Kuwait and the consequent increased presence of US forces in the Middle East. Bush Junior, in 2001, followed in his father’s footsteps by using overwhelming force to invade and dismantle the state of Iraq. These events raise the following question for Khalidi:

“Is the US an Empire?”

This question relates to the concept of “The New World Order” which we raised in the last lecture. When President Bush senior used the above words he was apparently thinking about the Primacy of America but when Kissinger used these words in his work “Diplomacy” he was referring to a new Balance of Power situation involving 6 major countries, namely the US, Europe, China, Japan, Russia, and India. In relation to the question “Is the US an Empire?” we need to look no further Kissinger’s work “World Order” and the following words:

“No truly global “world order” has ever existed”.

Kissinger is no stranger to the concept of overwhelming force. He refers in the first chapter of the above work to President Truman and the Atomic attacks on the Japanese and the fact that this was a moment Truman was proud of because it brought his enemies back into “the community of nations”.

This suggests that the US only uses overwhelming forced conditionally and instrumentally in order to restore order amongst the community of nations which in its turn suggests that the US possesses no absolute Imperial intentions. This may be true but this fact does not, however, suffice to give the US the right to bear the title of “the beacon for the world” as Kissinger suggests in his earlier work, “Diplomacy”.

Khalidi in his argumentation points to the British Historian Nial Ferguson’s analysis that the US is de Facto an Empire because of the following considerations:
1. The US has always had a global mission
2. The power of mobilizing the armed forces remains with the President and has not been devolved back to the people as is the case with other warring countries.
3. There are US fleets on all the seas.
4. There are US bases on all continents
5. Weapons manufacture has remained at high levels of production.

Ferguson argues that the US should wake up to its role in the world and take its responsibility, though exactly what this means is not clear in this lecture.

Paradoxically, Khalidi maintains, the principal threat to the US is not coming from any of the other big 5 nations but rather from the challenge to American power by Iran in the Middle East. Recent events in the relation between Iran and the US now appear to suggest that the US is responding to this threat more unilaterally than it has done in the past. Sanctions and a possible threat of overwhelming force are attempting to cause Iran to adopt a posture of submission. This latest policy from the Trump administration is a distinct departure from the earlier “community of nations” approach sanctioned by the UN.

Khalidi points to lessons that should have been learned in SE Asia: that military power may not be “capable of determining the outcome of conflicts always and everywhere”, thereby suggesting, without specifically saying so, that the current system of International Relations is the Westphalian balance-of-power-amongst- nation-states-system. This is Kissinger’s position and neither position is sensitive to one of the underlying mechanisms of globalization: a globalization process that is moving us away from the Westphalian system toward Cosmopolitanism via the intermediate stage of the European Union and other regional states, defense and economic organizations.

Khalidi, points out quite correctly that the amount of money spent on weapons and war(under the current Westphalian system) could be used for education. Universal education of the individual is one of the mechanisms we need to move us toward Cosmopolitanism. In this context consider Kant’s account of the role of the education of the individual in the journey from a natural antagonism toward one’s fellow man:

“The means which nature employs to bring about the development of innate capacities is that of antagonism within society, insofar as this antagonism becomes, in the long run, the cause of a law-governed social order…..All man’s talents are now gradually developed, his taste cultivated, and by a continued process of enlightenment, a beginning is made toward establishing a way of thinking which can with time transform the primitive natural capacity for moral discrimination into definite practical principle: and thus a pathologically enforced social union is transformed into a moral whole.”(Fourth proposition from essay “Idea for a Universal History” in “Kant’s Political Writings, p45)

One can wonder what Kant is referring to here when he talks of a “pathologically enforced social union”. He is certainly referring to social unions that are not in accordance with practical principles of the kind he is talking about in his moral and political works. He is probably also talking about the “commonwealths” of his time where antagonism is projected onto outside enemies and we thus as a consequence, find ourselves locked into a cycle of war and preparation for war which seems never-ending. But even this process has, according to the hopeful Kant, a positive telos or purpose:

“Wars, tense and unremitting military preparations, and the resultant distress which every state must feel within itself, even in the midst of peace..these are the means by which nature drives nations to make initially imperfect attempts, but finally after many devastations, upheavals, and even complete inner exhaustion of their powers, to take the step which reason could have suggested to them even without so many sad experiences—that of abandoning a lawless state of savagery and entering a federation of peoples in which every state, even the smallest, could expect to derive its security and rights not from its own power or its own legal judgment, but solely from this great federation, from a united power and law-governed decisions of a united will.”(ibid p47)

Today we find ourselves not quite in the Westphalian-balance of power political situation thanks to Kant’s foresight. The UN exists. It is a Kantian institution created for the purpose of regulating international disagreements. This lecture series has in earlier lectures expressed skepticism with respect to the efficacy of the UN in the arena of international disagreement. Kissinger has also expressed his skepticism. This state of affairs may actually have its explanation in an earlier proposition of Kant’s which points out that man needs a master but does not want a master. This dialectic of authority and subject which man wrongly conceives of along the lines of master and slave is a dialectic that is currently playing itself out on the world stage. Kant’s account is tied up with his transcendental account of the relation between the future subject of the coming kingdom of ends and the future justice system. There is no dialectical relation between these two fundamental elements but rather a relation in transcendental logic which states that the subject and the legislator of the legal system are in a relation of identity: these are the laws that the subject would have created were he in the legislators position and the legislator, in turn, regards himself as a subject which must obey these laws. This is a relation of identity. Justice in such a kingdom of ends requires knowledge both on the part of the subject and the legislator and this in our contemporary societies is not something which is yet actualized. One reason for this state of affairs is that our educational systems are not yet cosmopolitan, they are rather, in Kant’s words, pathologically national. What we need are Cosmopolitan educational systems financed by the money which otherwise would have been spent on war and preparation for war. The situation looks hopeless but it is not so for the eagle-eyed Kant whose gaze spans hundreds of thousands of years. He sees that in our contemporary situation, for every war that occurs the germ of enlightenment survives. He detects in the manifold of political phenomena that there is a plan of nature which will eventually realize the cosmopolitan goal. He can see a state of affairs in which wars cease and cosmopolitan educational systems can actualize the moral whole.

In this context, Kant has the following to say on p49:

“We are cultivated to a high degree by art and science. We are civilized to the point of excess in all kinds of social courtesies and proprieties. But we are still a long way from the point where we could consider ourselves morally mature. For while the idea of morality is indeed present in the culture, an application of this idea which only extends to the semblances of morality, as in love of honour and outward propriety, amounts merely to civilization. But as long as states apply all their resources to their vain and violent schemes of expansion, thus incessantly obstructing the slow and laborious efforts of their citizens to cultivate their minds, and even deprive them of all support in their efforts, no progress in this direction can be expected. For a long internal process of careful work on the part of each commonwealth is necessary for the education of its citizens.”

This position is in accordance with the positions of both Plato and Aristotle who tie the character or personality of the individual to the kind of state he inhabits. So, the question of whether the US is an Empire or not is largely irrelevant in the Cosmopolitan process. The Paradox of the US as the beacon of all political value and as the commonwealth using overwhelming force on other commonwealths is a modern paradox which we all live with and prevents us from regarding the US as the saviour of the New World Order. Paradoxically for the Americans we Europeans believe that the beacon of all political value is the much older Kantian beacon shining through the fog and mists of time into the future. Whether or not this beacon will light the way into the future will also depend on whether the European Project can live up to its Kantian hopes and provide commonwealths of peace and prosperity via cosmopolitan educational institutions.