Foreign policy and the Golden Rule

Even though I argued in my previous post that liberals are under no particular obligation to support Ron Paul (e.g., vote for him), I do agree with those who say that he is raising important issues and has a perspective that needs to be heard, particularly with respect to foreign policy.

In a recent post at his new Atlantic blog, Robert Wright does a good job of articulating this perspective. What Paul is doing, Wright argues, is expanding our “moral imagination” by inviting us to look at U.S. foreign policy through the eyes of those whom it affects:

It’s certainly true that Paul’s hawkish critics are using his weirder ideas and checkered past to try and make non-interventionism synonymous with creepiness. But, whatever their success, Paul is making one contribution to the foreign policy debate that could have enduring value.

It doesn’t lie in the substance of his foreign policy views (which I’m largely but not wholly in sympathy with) but in the way he explains them. Paul routinely performs a simple thought experiment: He tries to imagine how the world looks to people other than Americans.

Wright cites this impressive pro-Paul campaign ad that explicitly draws an analogy between our occupation of foreign countries and an imagined Chinese occupation of Texas:

Wright comments:

I’ve long thought that the biggest single problem in the world is the failure of “moral imagination”–the inability or unwillingness of people to see things from the perspective of people in circumstances different from their own. Especially incendiary is the failure to extend moral imagination across national, religious, or ethnic borders.

If a lack of moral imagination is indeed the core problem with America’s foreign policy, and Ron Paul is unique among presidential candidates in trying to fight it, I think you have to say he’s doing something great, notwithstanding the many non-great and opposite-of-great things about him (and notwithstanding the fact that he has in the past failed to extend moral imagination across all possible borders).

I think this is right, and I think this is why some liberal critics of Paul are wrong when they reduce his foreign-policy views to nothing more than a selfish, “leave-me-alone”-style libertarianism. One can disagree with Paul’s views on, say, foreign aid (not to mention much of his domestic agenda) and still appreciate the basic point that American foreign policy-makers (and the public) too often fail to exercise the moral imagination Wright is talking about.

In fact, a similar argument has been made often by Noam Chomsky–someone whose political views otherwise have very little in common with Ron Paul’s. Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out that justifications of U.S. policy often appeal to a double standard which makes it okay for us to do things to others that we would never tolerate being done to us. Here’s a recent version of the argument where Chomsky points out how the interests and voices of parties who object to U.S. (and Western actions more broadly) on the international are routinely ignored, rendering them “unpeople.” The double standard is that some people’s voices count (usually power players in business and government), while others’ (e.g., those of the people without power–who often end up on the receiving end of our military actions) don’t. Chomsky’s “radicalism” often consists of nothing more than trying to apply the same principles to U.S. policy that we would apply to others.

It’s arguable that what moral progress the human species has enjoyed has largely happened when the majority, or those with power, have been persuaded (or in many cases forced) to look at the world through the eyes of the minority, or of those who have been oppressed or victimized. In Robert Wright’s terms, this is expanding our moral imagination; in Christian terms, it’s learning to treat others as we would want to be treated. Especially when it comes to foreign policy, “American exceptionalism” all too often means refusing to see ourselves as others might see us. To the extent that Ron Paul makes people aware of this, he’s doing us a service.

3 thoughts on “Foreign policy and the Golden Rule

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