• Text smaller
  • Text bigger

Republican Party elites who have worked so hard to nominate George W.
Bush tend to be uncomfortable with the conservative agenda of defending
American sovereignty. Is this charge unfair? Certainly it is the
Democrats who are most eager to blur the line between the nation and the
world. But Republican support for such internationalist briar patches
as the Kosovo intervention and the World Trade Organization reveals a
deep confusion about American sovereignty and why it matters. As
Republican “strategists” plot their autumn “gotcha’s” for Al Gore, they
seem oblivious to the fact that an entire core Republican constituency
may walk away from the Republican ticket, unless that ticket takes a
clear stand on the sovereignty issue. The Republican leadership needs
to understand why concern over the issue is so high, and I’d like to
explain it to them.

The center of internationalism, of course, is the United Nations. So
if we are to understand what is wrong with internationalism, we need to
understand clearly what the United Nations represents. To be fair, we
should begin by acknowledging that the U.N. arose from motives that,
however misguided, were not altogether malicious. Despite the dangerous
flaws in the conception and development of the United Nations’ vision of
global unity, it is important to remember that the effort itself began
during the closing days and aftermath of the Second World War. At the
end of such a period of exhausting war and wickedness it was natural
that there would be a great desire to relieve the world of it happening
again. The nations that originally formed the U.N. were those that had
just heroically spent themselves in the struggle to defeat international
evil. We should be slow to criticize their decent impulse to use that
moment of great moral focus to lay a foundation of common action that
would prevent the return of the unimaginable wickedness they had just
seen.

The Charter of the United Nations states that one of the basic
purposes of the organization is “promoting and encouraging respect for
human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as
to race, sex, language, or religion.” On Dec. 10, 1948, the General
Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. Much as the Declaration of Independence
did in the American context, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
has come to epitomize the effort of the United Nations to advance the
cause of human dignity in the world.

So why are conservatives so worried about yielding some of our
national sovereignty to an organization aiming at such high and noble
goals? Should we not fall in line with the more general effort of
people around the world to overcome the distinctions and divisions of
nationhood and replace them with a global community — particularly when
it is so clear that communication technologies and other factors are
rapidly producing a global community whether the governments of nations
like it or not?

That sounds good, until you look at the actual record of the United
Nations over the past half-century. For all the formal rhetoric about
human rights, the United Nations has failed to advance that cause. This
failure is particularly marked in precisely those areas that involve the
attempt to translate the universal language of the Universal Declaration
into concrete respect for human rights. On issue after issue we can
tell the sorry story of the impotence and even the active complicity of
the United Nations in the systematic suppression of both understanding
of and respect for those rights. Like accumulating symptoms that point
undeniably to some hidden cause of physical illness, so the record of
the United Nations in advancing human rights is a list of the symptoms
of a fundamental corruption in the effort itself.

We all need to ask the causes of this failure, because we need to
learn from it. Republican leaders need to learn from it the reasons
that many of their core supporters will withdraw that support if the
Republican ticket is tone deaf on the sovereignty issue. But there is a
more important reason to ask why the U.N. has failed. It is that
whatever the eventual fate of the United Nations may be, or of the
Republican ticket in this fall’s election, the effort to advance the
universal cause of justice will continue. It is particularly important
that the United States and its citizens take an intelligent and
effective part in this effort, and that means we must understand the
root cause of what has gone wrong with the United Nations.

That cause of failure is actually quite clear. The founders of the
United Nations neglected to take account of moral reality. It was never
realistically to be expected that the institution could effectively
respect principles of decency and right when it was, from the beginning,
substantially composed of nations that do not base their own political
order on principles of decency and right.

Consider, as only the most prominent example, the role of the Soviet
Union in the United Nations. For much of the post-war era, the Soviet
Union was the principal impediment to the effective defense of human
rights around the world. The Soviets were wholly outside and opposed to
the tradition of respect for human dignity to which the U.N. was
supposedly devoted.

But the Soviets didn’t act in bad faith simply because they were
wicked, but because Marxism is materialist in principle and denies the
distinct nature of man. The Marxist view is intrinsically opposed to
the doctrine of human rights, and to the doctrine of eternal justice
that underlies it. Man is just an extension of the material world, in
the Marxist view, and so all professions of respect for human
distinctness are in bad faith in principle, because ultimately the only
thing a consistent Marxist will respect is the power of matter unfolding
itself in history.

Soviet disrespect for moral truth was no secret to the founders of
the United Nations. And the decision to form an organization that
included such a nation is the clearest possible sign that right belief
on moral matters was never a defining characteristic of the community
being formed.

So the U.N. has failed with respect to human rights because it is
based on a false practical principle — it does not take seriously the
requirement of moral principle in politics. This is not just an
incidental failure. It is a failure that derives from a fundamentally
wrong understanding of politics — from the view that there can be a
political whole that is not ultimately rooted in a community of moral
belief. No procedural or organizational cleverness can bring tyrannical
countries together with principled ones to form a group that respects
human liberty.

The naïve expectation that this could be pulled off is not just a
case of excessive optimism on the part of the founders of the United
Nations. It also reveals a fundamental inclination to accept the social
science vision of politics — that politics is ultimately about the
patterns of organization that will emerge from mankind’s material and
instinctive nature. From this perspective, moral principle and claims
of truth and justice are simply manifestations of the deeper material
basis of human nature.

Because the membership of the U.N. from the beginning included
nations that denied the real foundations of respect for human dignity,
it is not surprising that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
would also betray ambiguity at critical moments. Although defenders of
the document have worked hard to characterize it as a prudent expression
of an implied doctrine of natural law with an ultimate foundation in the
God of nature, the fact is that the document is an ungrounded moral
façade — moral injunctions floating free of any principled reason that
would require assent, and thus moral words without a corresponding soul.

The first article of the Universal Declaration makes reference to the
rational nature of all men, and this is indeed one of the paths to
understanding that the God of nature has willed that human beings be
accorded a special and equal dignity. But the document is strikingly
silent on this implication, and the effect is that while it does cling
to some concept of common humanity, it discards the ground of that
concept. There must be a principle that distinguishes us from matter
and justifies our claim to special dignity, and we cannot effectively
assert that distinction without acknowledging its transcendent source —
a Being beyond physical experience.

Silence on this point might be prudent under certain circumstances —
we are not always obliged to speak fully of the deepest things. But
when the community of nations summons its best effort to state before
the people of the world the true nature and source of the particular
rights that it exists to protect, the only explanation for silence
regarding that source is the fact that the members of the community
disagree about it. Omission in the Universal Declaration of any mention
of the authority of God, which is the true source of all human rights,
is a confession of the fundamental disagreement of moral vision in the
signatories.

Without the clear statement that human rights come from God, and must
be respected out of respect for the authority of God, the Universal
Declaration permits the impression that the rights it contains are a
laundry list agreed upon by human will. And precisely because the
countries signing the document were in disagreement about the actual
source of those rights, it has proven to be impossible to attain
consistent support for the authentic rights in the list, coherent
understanding of what the various rights are and require, or any
rational basis for preserving the list from arbitrary, spurious or even
harmful additions.

Which brings us back to the challenge of defending American
sovereignty in an era of increasingly ambitious internationalism.
American sovereignty matters because it marks out for us and for the
world a human community that is not — at least in principle, and in a
great deal of its most important practice — unclear about the reasons
that human dignity must be respected. The authentic internationalism –
as our Founders understood — aims not at one world government, but at
the universal acknowledgment by the community of nations of the truth
that human dignity comes irrevocably from God. Our Founders addressed
the Declaration to the world precisely because they knew that this truth
should be international, and might one day become so.

At the root of conservative discomfort about the emerging machinery
of internationalism is the sense that the façades of transnational
structures conceal at least a dangerous ambiguity, and often even the
strongest disagreements about what human communities are for, and the
limits they must respect. For all our doubts about the state of the
American regime, we know that we have a deep tradition of national
agreement on the most important things. There is nothing like such
agreement in the halls of the WTO.

Do the people in the back rooms of the Republican victory strategy
sessions understand this? And do they understand how important this
question is to the grass roots Americans they are counting on to bring
the Party to victory in November. I have my doubts.

  • Text smaller
  • Text bigger
Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.