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Below is the text of an essay I wrote in 1999 while I was working in the State Department, commenting on the events and policies around me.

It was ignored, and I didn't really promote it, because I was a mid-level officer in the Public Diplomacy cone, and how dare I think or write about world events and policy?

But I have been reminded of it by recent events, in many places, so I thought I would post it here, without making and changes or updates from the original, and see what, if any, reaction there would be from the DK community.

Original essay below the fold:

American foreign policy has been guided by two largely unstated assumptions since the end of WWII.  This paper examines those assumptions explicitly, and suggests the damage they have done to U.S. interests and the world.

The assumptions are:
National self-determination is a key right of all peoples everywhere.
International borders must remain inviolate and unchanged.

On the face of it, these seem both obvious and innocuous.  However, they bear further examination.

The first assumption is from Wilson’s 14 points, and as a program to strengthen and justify America’s post-war (actually, post WWII) policy of rolling back European colonial empires and helping countries in Asia and Africa gain their independence, it is both morally right and supportive of our interests.

But circumstances change, and that changes meaning and consequences.  The principles were in fact meant to limit the legitimacy of any form of interference by outside powers in the actions of governments, no matter how horrible.

What this statement now has come to mean is that personal and political identity is determined by national or tribal identification.  Individual rights are thus lost in the pursuit of group national self-determination.   We have seen the consequences of this kind of thinking most clearly in the former territories of Yugoslavia, where ethnic hatreds led to campaigns of “cleansing” and near-genocide.

This is just as dangerous an idea elsewhere.  In Africa, where the borders drawn up in Whitehall and Elysee paid no attention to tribal realities, and where tribal territories were never clearly defined anyway, civil wars have caused the deaths of millions in practically every country, over and over again.  Rwanda is but one example.  In places like Afghanistan, tribal loyalties have prevented efforts to build true national identity corresponding to the internationally recognized borders.  Again, the result is, all too often, violence and death.

We have already mentioned the problem that international borders in Africa and Asia all too often do not correspond even faintly to linguistic, ethnic, tribal, or traditional realities.  Indeed, other writers have mentioned that the very idea of fixed international borders controlled by central governments is a European invention imposed on these places by colonial powers – and now an ironic legacy of both empire and anti-colonialism.  Again, Afghanistan is the clearest example, where a major international border is defined by the Oxus River.  This is fine if you are a general looking at the territory that your army can control without having to cross this barrier to maneuvering.  It does not, however, pay attention to the tribal, ethnic, and family ties that bind the people on either side of the river.

The greater problem is that neither policy pillar supports either American principles or American interests.  To the extent that we support the idea that someone’s political identity is determined by his ethnic identity, we deny the American principle of inherent rights of man and the rule of law.  To the extent that we support the inviolability of borders, we support the lawless rule of strongmen interested only in securing their own rule over territory, rather than properly governing people.

As legacies of the anti-colonial period of the forties and fifties, both principles were meant to prevent bloodshed.  It was believed at that time that making adjustments to borders to make them conform better to the professions, loyalties, or identities of the people who lived there, would lead to mass massacres such as happened during the partition of British India into Pakistan and India.  The failure of this policy is contained in the list of genocides that litter the history of the twentieth century:  Somalia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Biafra, Indonesia’s Year of Living Dangerously, Congo, Liberia, Iraqi Kurdistan, etc.

Of course, we cannot argue that territorial adjustments could or would have solved all or any of these conflicts.  Often, people of multiple ethnic, religious, and even linguistic identities live in the same neighborhoods or buildings.  The fact that Serbs and Bosnians were sometimes married to each other did not prevent ethnic cleansing.  But it is equally naïve to believe that the legalistic effort to fix borders for all time can prevent the violence that our policy was meant to prevent.

Those who claim that our government should stand up for American principles of equality, justice, and rule of law in international or overseas settings are often accused of unrealistic idealism.  Yet there is a certain element of racism in the idea that brown people are not “ready” for democracy, and have to live under strong men just to have some measure of safety in their daily lives.  One wonders how much safety there is in a life under a criminal kleptocracy such as Saddam’s Iraq, Assad’s Syria, Amin’s Uganda, or too many other tyrants to name.

Far better principles for our policy would be the following:
    Governments are institutions created by people, not mystical projections of either ethnic groups or religious icons, and they deserve no more loyalty than that which they earn by their actions.
    The powers of individuals and institutions both within and without government must be divided and balanced among each other, so that no one’s ability to harm another can go unchecked.
    Laws must be impartially applied to everyone.

These principles ought to guide the government of every nation, in both its domestic and international policies.  One is hard put to find any nation – including the U.S. – in which the government consistently applies them.  With these principles in place, however, one can believe that it wouldn’t matter what identity someone chooses to adopt.  Language, religion, land, culture, family, ethnicity would be freely adopted, instead of excuses for criminality and cruelty.

Of course, it won’t be that easy.  There is a lot of history and memory running around this world.  There are many who fervently believe that their religion, for example, does set the terms of government and does justify mass murder.  But there are enough people in every part of the world, professing every faith, who know that religion and governance should not mix and understand the advantages of the principles of open government.

It is difficult even to imagine how to effectively apply these ideals to international relations.  We are seeing this difficulty as the Bush administration seeks to turn Iraq into a healthy, multiethnic, functioning democracy.  Just elections, and just constitutions, aren’t enough.  Education is a big part of the effort, but even there we have to recognize that real progress will require both creativity and humility, both of which are in short supply in Washington.

We can’t expect every country to be either willing or able to simply copy the American model of politics or jurisprudence.  We have enough trouble making it work ourselves.  And we can’t expect that our will alone will determine whether any country is accepted in the international community.  There are Burmas, but there are also Sri Lankas, where the judgment is far more difficult.

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