Letter to America

Letter to America

Resentment of US policies is growing.


In an effort to provide a needed international perspective in the debate over US foreign policy, The Nation asked a number of foreign intellectuals to share their reflections. This is the fourth in that series, consisting of an interview with Jürgen Habermas, professor emeritus of philosophy at Frankfurt University and author of numerous books, including The Future of Human Nature (forthcoming in English from Polity Press). The interview was conducted in the United States, where Habermas is a visiting professor at Northwestern University, by Danny Postel, a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education and editor of the forthcoming Debating Kosovo (Cybereditions).
–The Editors

What is your position on the imminent war with Iraq?

The United States should not go to war without unequivocal backing from the United Nations.

What conditions would have to be met in order for you to support military action against Baghdad?

The immediate conditions are those specified by the last resolution of the Security Council. And it should be up to the Council to interpret the findings. In any case, there should be no military action without a long-term commitment–and a realistic perspective–for coping with the uniquely explosive concentration of problems in the Near East. Just bombing Saddam Hussein out of his palace and leaving the “cleanup” to others won’t do.

Previous humanitarian interventions by NATO showed a shocking insensitivity to “collateral damage”–the term reveals what it’s supposed to conceal. In the future, military strategy should convincingly meet the condition of “proportionality” in every single strike.

You supported the Persian Gulf War in 1991…

Yes, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was a violation of international law, and Saddam Hussein moreover threatened Israel with gas warfare.

…and NATO’s Kosovo intervention in 1999.

Because of the stalemate within the Security Council, there was a greater burden of justification in this case. The massacre of Srebrenica changed my mind. Confronted with crimes against humanity, the international community must be able to act even with military force, if all other options are exhausted.

At that time, one could already see characteristic national differences in the modes of justification. In Continental Europe, proponents of intervention took pains to shore up rather weak arguments from international law by pointing out that the action was intended to promote what they saw as the transition from a soft international law toward a fully implemented human rights regime, whereas both US and British advocates remained in their tradition of liberal nationalism. They did not appeal to “principles” of a future cosmopolitan order but were satisfied to enforce their demand for international recognition of what they perceived to be the universalistic force of their own national “values.”

How do you see your position on Iraq today in relation to those previous positions?

Factions within the American Administration may have wanted for obvious reasons a regime change in Iraq anyway. But the public perception of the issue did not shift until Bush responded to September 11 by a declaration of “war” against terrorism. Since a state can wage war only against other states, that quick redefinition of a generically new phenomenon in familiar but misleading terms offered a way to satisfy the popular expectation “that something had to be done.” Bush’s foreign policy seems hence to be dominated by domestic concerns. The intervention in Afghanistan could for a while conceal the paralyzing disproportion involved in bringing to bear against a diffuse network of slippery enemies the high-tech machinery of a superpower armed to the teeth. An irritating situation one could not cope with was displaced by the familiar pattern of warfare with enemies whom you can seize. But Iraq is not Afghanistan. Governmental announcements notwithstanding, there is so far no unambiguous evidence of Baghdad’s involvement in specific acts of terrorism.

How do you see the role of the United States on the contemporary world stage?

What disturbed me most was the Administration’s new National Security Strategy of the United States. With this provocative document, a superpower assumes the privilege of launching pre-emptive strikes against anyone who appears to be sufficiently suspicious; it declares, moreover, its determination to prevent any competitor from even approaching a status of equal power. Not long ago, a generation of young Germans who were liberated from the Nazi regime by American soldiers developed admiration for the political ideals of a nation that soon became the driving force in founding the United Nations and in carrying out the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals. As a consequence, classical international law was revolutionized by limiting the sovereignty of nation-states, by abolishing the immunity of state authorities from supranational prosecution and by incorporating unprecedented crimes into the penal code of international jurisdiction. Should this same nation now brush aside the civilizing achievement of legally domesticating the state of nature among belligerent nations?

What is your view of US-German relations at this time?

The bullying attitude of Bush, Rumsfeld and others toward members of the German government reminds me a bit of scuffling among adolescents in the schoolyard. [German Chancellor Gerhard] Schröder was right to reject the tacit shift in Bush’s Iraq policy–from the declared goal of “disarmament” toward “regime change.” He should have confirmed, though, his unreserved respect for the authority of the UN. I find myself also in agreement with [Foreign Minister] Joschka Fischer’s repeated attempts to get the “Quartet”–the United States, Russia, the European Union and the UN–engaged in a joint effort to arrive at and guarantee a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This conflict also has roots in German and European history. Since the founding of the Federal Republic, solidarity with Israel has been an unwritten law of German foreign politics, whoever was in charge, and it will remain so for the time being. Our recent national elections have proved once again that anti-Semitism is, at present, not a danger within the larger population either.

And what about relations between the United States and Europe more generally?

Many Americans do not yet realize the extent and the character of the growing rejection of, if not resentment against, the policy of the present American Administration throughout Europe, including in Great Britain. The emotional gap may well become deeper than it has ever been since the end of World War II. For people like me, who always sided with a pro-American left, it is important to draw a visible boundary between criticizing the policy of the American Administration, on one hand, and the muddy stream of anti-American prejudices on the other. Remembering the period of the Vietnam War, it would be helpful in this respect if the opposition in Europe could relate to, and identify with, a similar movement in this country. Yet compared with 1965, timidity now prevails here.

Maybe a kind of systematically distorted communication between the United States and Europe is also in play. I had not thought of such a possibility until an American friend tried to explain to me what he perceived as the hawkish worldview of influential people like Paul Wolfowitz. They think of themselves, so the explanation goes, as the real defenders of universalist ideals. Europeans, always susceptible to anti-Semitism, are perceived as falling back on the cynical realism of their pre-1945 power games, while brave Americans and Britons are rushing to arms for the same goals as in World War II. From this perspective, only the Anglo-Saxons are committed to defending the universal values of freedom and democracy against an “evil” that is now embodied in “rogue” states. If that were in fact more than a caricature, we would need, perhaps, a discussion on the respective faults and merits of what we might contrast as “liberal nationalism” and “cosmopolitanism.”

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