Toward a Humanist Foreign Policy

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH has proved to be as much of a disaster on foreign affairs as on domestic issues. More, if possible. And not just on Iraq. On many other issues, including global warming, missile defense, population growth, and now Iran, he has been just as flagrantly wrong as he was on the supposed weapons of mass destruction held by Saddam Hussein. It’s not just that he’s getting bad advice: his narrow worldview is upside-down to begin with. Combine that with his desire to seek advice only from people who will fortify his prejudices, rather than from the ones who know and understand the issues, and you get a dangerous combination.

It was a national tragedy that we had this kind of person at the helm when the terrorists struck on September 11, 2001. Bush used the attack to justify a foreign policy aimed at world domination, accompanied by an even more systematic and thorough attack on our civil liberties, all in the name of “protecting” us against further terrorist assaults. As a result we are no longer admired abroad–we are feared and hated–while on the home front we face an erosion of our rights, an extraordinary accession of executive power, and an assault on the wall separating church and state.

I think it was Henry Kissinger who once observed that absolute security for any one country meant absolute insecurity for its neighbors. The Bush response to a serious, but not existential terrorist threat, has been entirely disproportionate. We built up our conventional military forces and then used them against Iraq, a country that wasn’t even threatening us. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda continues to regroup in the frontier regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan while we stride across the globe like some modern colossus, threatening anyone who disagrees with us, turning a deaf ear to their arguments.

There has to be a better way, and of course there is. We need to lead by example, not threats. We need to listen to others, learn what their problems are, and exercise our talents and ingenuity toward finding solutions that help everyone to the extent possible. We need to take the dawning environmental crisis seriously and show that we’re willing to make our share of needed sacrifices. Above all, we need to recognize that we have to sacrifice some of our national sovereignty if we are to cooperate effectively on global problems with the rest of the world.

This last point is critical and is least understood, not only by Bush and his accomplices, but by many, if not most, Americans. The fact of the matter is that we can’t have it both ways. We can’t insist on total security for us and us alone, and expect full cooperation from everyone else. Cooperation requires some sacrifices, some concessions, from each of the partners.


The tradeoff between liberty and security is as old as humanity itself. Any human society that endures has rules that constrain its members in ways that make cooperation possible. So we prize liberty but fear anarchy. We are all for free choice but insist that everyone should respect the law of the land. We recognize that there’s a contradiction, or at least a tradeoff, between our yearning for as much individual freedom as possible, and the maintenance of public order, but we also believe that a just society can have its cake and eat it too. We admire societies, including our own, to the extent they have worked out institutions and attitudes and principles that maintain order while maximizing freedom. We deplore both failed states, where chaos reigns, and dictatorships, where order is maintained only by force. Isn’t that what democracy is all about?

Until now, there has been no such thing as a global society. The most complex societies have been nation-states. There is a global authority, the United Nations, but it has no teeth. On the most important issues, a sovereign nation can ignore any UN attempt to constrain or control its behavior. It’s true that many international and regional organizations, buttressed by treaties and conventions, bring a modicum of law and order into specific areas of international relations. They are useful and respond to real needs. But on the most important issues, any member of the UN can defy its authority, and the only recourse the UN has is to try to persuade other nations to put pressure on the miscreant. This sometimes works with small and powerless countries, but the big ones can behave as they please. When the chips are down, the current global society resembles Dodge City from the mythology of the cowboy movie, where victory goes to the fastest draw.


Humanity is now in a transitional phase, moving reluctantly from Dodge City to a global society ruled by law. We’ve seen this kind of transition before, on more limited scales. Some combination of circumstances alters the environment and the existing social order comes under great stress. People get desperate enough to commit to a substantially different order that involves cooperating with former competitors, even enemies, in a larger society. There are problems of adjustment but eventually almost everyone is integrated into the new order and few want to go back to the old one. Our own nation’s history tells the story: thirteen colonies, each of them filled with pride at its particular history and character, hesitantly agreed to form a confederation. From that, the tighter bonds of a federal republic were created and now here we are. Who wants to go back?

Our history of morphing from thirteen small societies into a subcontinental giant was extraordinary. Usually the process involves more trauma, more false steps (I say this even while acknowledging that our civil war was a thoroughly traumatic affair). European history is more typical in that respect. How many wars have been fought on European soil since the Roman Empire collapsed? And how difficult is it still, when all the disadvantages of narrow nationalism have been revealed, and all the blessings of union are being unveiled, for the several national parties to agree on the institutions and modalities of union?

All this suggests that creating some kind of law and order that will include the whole globe will be an enormously complicated task, one that certainly will not be fully accomplished during the lifetime of anyone alive today. But it’s equally plausible that some such order will evolve eventually, if humanity is to survive at all. Right now we are living in a fool’s paradise, based on an uneasy equilibrium backed up not by an effective international rule of law but by a balance of terror, known as mutually assured destruction. No nation-state is mad enough to use nuclear weapons first, not so far at least, and all are concerned lest some of those weapons fall into terrorist hands. But is this the best guarantee of stability that we can leave to our grandchildren? If this is the best we can do, will there be that many grandchildren left to receive our inheritance?


I think there is a special role in all of this for the humanist worldview. There are other voices being raised on this theme of world togetherness, like the descendants of the old world federalists, and some environmental groups. We can welcome their interest and cooperate with them as the situation demands, but we need to keep our own voice and perspective. Most humanists would support the view that the world needs a stronger UN and more effective means of controlling conflicts, and especially nuclear weapons. But we need more. I envision an active, explicitly humanist policy centered on a renewed dedication to certain basic rules of good conduct and an insistence that they apply to interstate relations much as they do to relations within the family, community, or nation.

Support for the concept of universal human rights is already an integral part of the humanist worldview, as is opposition to genocide. But for the most part, our concern has been directed at governments mistreating their own citizens. What I propose here is more general and more inclusive. I think humanists should judge the way all nation-states deal with each other by the same basic rules of good conduct as the ones that operate at lower levels of social organization. That is to say, the rules and taboos that make societies at all levels function harmoniously and efficiently. At the level of the family and the community, they can be defined loosely as: Don’t kill people, especially if they belong to your own group. Don’t try to cheat them, or steal from them, or run off with their spouse. Share, when you can, with the less fortunate . sound like the Golden Rule? Of course, for these are basic rules governing human social behavior that evolved long before religion–though religions falsely claim them as their own.

There are many different ways of formulating these rules. They take different forms when applied at the family level, for instance, as opposed to the state. And they are culture-bound to a great extent. But there is some form of them in every society that exists above the level of anarchy. They provide the social glue that keeps most people behaving decently toward other members of the group. They operate parallel to more explicit codes and institutions–the law, police, courts, and jails–that enforce the unwritten codes and back them up with explicit penalties for cheaters.

But how do we translate “do not kill people, or cheat them, or steal from them” into the language of interstate relations? Allow me to make a very preliminary stab at it here:

Do Not Kill:

    . No nation shall go to war against another nation unless first attacked in a clear act of aggression. No state shall join in a war except when authorized to do so by responsible global authority (in contemporary terms, the UN Security Council).
    . Genocide shall be considered a crime against humanity and its authors shall be tried and prosecuted accordingly.
    . Targeted political assassinations shall be considered crimes and both the leaders authorizing them and the persons carrying them out should be treated accordingly.

Do Not Cheat or Steal:

    . “Black” propaganda is a form of cheating and shall be condemned as such. “White” propaganda, where authorship is correctly attributed, comes under the heading of freedom of speech, and should be allowed.
    . Bribery is inherently a form of corruption.
    . Elections should be open and certifiably fair.

Fairness, and Helping the Less Fortunate:

    . The disparity between the wealth of the rich nations and the poverty of the poorest should be of concern to all, and addressed through bilateral and other aid programs and other measures.
    . Development of resources in common areas, especially the deep seas, Antarctica, and outer space, should be regulated through international agreements and controlled by impartial international authority.


If Americans can rise above selfish, chauvinistic nationalism and recognize that global problems demand global cooperation, we ought to be able to agree that we have to have an international rule of law with teeth. Furthermore, if we honestly believe democracy is better than dictatorship, we should hold as a very high priority the objective of achieving a future world order that achieves peace and harmony, primarily because people everywhere want peace and harmony and are willing to sacrifice some of their narrowly nationalistic interests, when necessary, to make that possible. In other words, we don’t want some highly coercive world government telling everyone what they can and cannot do, even if it’s one we initially impose ourselves. What we do want is a more orderly global system based primarily on shared values and arrived at freely, through consensus. We want nation-states to cooperate primarily because they know it’s the right thing to do, not because someone threatens to punish them if they don’t.

Getting there will be a long and laborious task, but we humanists can start now by insisting that the same basic ethical principles that govern human behavior in families and communities should be binding on our country in conducting its affairs with other nations. If we can set an example in this regard, who knows, an enlightened public might follow. In the end, our country’s moral authority could be multiplied. In time, this seed could blossom into a universal moral code for the planet. Perhaps this is too visionary, but it is consistent with the broad pattern of social evolution we have seen in human society. Therefore, in the long run, this serves as the most practical possible alternative.

A world at peace is and should be the primary long-term goal of our movement. Using criteria such as those previously listed, humanists can establish a collective position on topical international issues, particularly those that involve U.S. foreign policy. Those criteria may not provide explicit answers, but it is better to have general guidelines than none at all. Most of the rest of humanity is floundering at this point, too involved in parochial concerns to see the big picture. We humanists are unencumbered by religious prejudices and as open to objective consideration of interstate ethical principles as most. Let’s get out in front with a clearly defined, well recognized posture in favor of a world at peace, governed by law and not brute force, with the values we hold most dear undergirding that law, and shared by all.

Carl Coon is the vice president of the American Humanist Association and a former ambassador to Nepal.

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