Software Nerd

Monday, August 28, 2006

The missing constitution

The U.S. Constitution, and the philosophical arguments that surrounded it, have ensured that the U.S. is still the freest of any sizable nation. The constitution's main contribution is to keep democracy in check: ensuring that elected law makers cannot make any laws they like.

Unfortunately, there was no similar framework in foreign policy to guide government action. Consequently, the U.S. has acted with varying temporal rules, as suited the current mood of her democratic opinion or her government. It is not that the principles were wrong; rather, there were no principles.

Today, the U.S. pursues a war and many complain that the French aren't enthusiatic supporters. Does past experience show that the French can trust the U.S. to be steady though? What if U.S. public opinion changes? There have been times when the U.S. has asked Israel to show restraint. When Egypt took over the Suez, the British and French wanted to go to war, but the U.S. held them back. Foreign policy is a realm of moods that fluctuate between anger and complacency, never settling on a principled approach that can be pursued long term.

A pragmatist may argue that one cannot be principled in foreign policy. Sometimes, for instance, the U.S. might need to prop up one dictator to prevent a worse one from taking over; at other times, a particular dictator may be preferable to a democracy -- e.g. an religious-extreme democracy (which, of course, would soon morph into a religous dictatorship). However, such thinking is flawed. If it is right to prop up a dictator -- and I will grant the possibility -- then it must be right because of some underlying principle.

One obvious principle is that the country will act to defend its interests. However, I think that is too broad. I do not have specific suggestions, but I think that if one were to look back at history, one could come up with a set of principles that are better than none. I think that a good government should act by set of broad principles that all -- citizen, friend and foe -- can rely upon.

Update (Aug 29): "The Kalamazoo Objectivist" makes a similar point, saying that we must have a criteria for going to war. A government ought to have objective and known criteria and rules for the way is will act. Foreign affairs andwars should be no exception. (HT: Gus van Horn for pointing me to this blog.)


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