‘We Are a Force for Good’ Is a False Ethic

There is a temptation in our social networks — and in some media outlets — to simply turn the American myth upside down and say the U.S. is really an evil empire. People always want things to be black and white. Alas, there is no black and white in politics.

While Russian planes destroy Islamic State terrorists, echoes of the United Nations General Assembly resound in empty hallways.

In its own way, the war of words that went on there has been an instructive spectacle. Obama once again proclaimed the great American myth; Putin and a few other leaders like Belarusian President Lukashenko attacked that myth.

No one but the U.S. has an effective and attractive global myth. That’s why everyone else can only criticize it or avoid getting involved.

When Putin asked, “Do you understand what you’ve done?” that was, of course, a rhetorical question. They understand.

In America’s own press there is plenty of criticism of U.S. foreign policy. It’s easy enough to go online and find extremely harsh U.S. television reports about the consequences of the parties’ policies and the government’s policies in the region.

Knowing that, it would be hard to claim the U.S. administration is living in blissful ignorance. But the myth doesn’t exist because they don’t know any better; it exists because it’s necessary.

Accusing Obama, Putin, or other leaders of hypocrisy would be incorrect. Official speeches are part of a genre that isn’t meant to reflect reality. These speeches meet the people’s need for ethical clarity rather than for information. The information they can get elsewhere.

People want to see where the good and the bad are. They want to know that they’re on the right side. Reality is disturbingly confusing and chaotic; politicians with their speeches offer a myth that allows people to see order within reality.

That’s one of a leader’s roles. The myth will ignore a significant part of reality, but that’s why it’s important. It needs to give people a world view in which reality bothers them as little as possible.

Naturally, the American myth is unipolar, not only from a political or economic standpoint, but from an ideological and even ethical one.

According to its myth, the U.S. isn’t just the greatest economic and military power in the world. It’s also the North Star, “a global force for good” as stated in the White House’s National Security Strategy.

Accordingly, good comes from America and is opposed by the forces of evil, embodied by dictators who bomb their own people.

Obama’s lofty speech contained all the hallmarks of this ideology: “It is not a conspiracy of U.S.-backed NGOs that expose corruption and raise the expectations of people around the globe; it’s technology, social media, and the irreducible desire of people everywhere to make their own choices about how they are governed.”

We won’t ask whether or not the inhabitants of Crimea or Donbass can “make their own choices about how they are governed.” That would be rude and tactless. Instead, we’ll move on from freedom-loving peoples to the other part of the picture: cruel dictators.

As Obama said: “When a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, that is not just a matter of one nation’s internal affairs – it breeds human suffering on an order of magnitude that affects us all.”

Well, we’ve all seen a number of situations where the governments of various countries have carried out large-scale military operations against its own rebellious citizens, killing armed rebels and civilians alike.

In some cases, this was interpreted as a “dictator slaughtering his own people.” In other cases, it was “a legitimate ruler suppressing an armed rebellion.” What differentiates one case from the next?

How can we determine who is a freedom fighter and who is a lawless rebel? How can we define which projectiles flying into people’s homes should disturb the moral sensibilities of honest people everywhere, and which shouldn’t cause them to bat an eyelash? How can we figure out who is generously helping freedom fighters topple a tyrant who is “slaughtering his own people,” and who is financing terrorists that are undermining a legitimate government?

Within the framework of the American myth, naturally this is up to the U.S. to decide. “Here are the ‘good guys,’ and here are the ‘bad guys,’ because we said so.” The accusations of Assad being a bloody dictator are word-for-word reproductions of previous accusations against Saddam and Qaddafi.

And though one can see a certain half-admission in Obama’s speech that something went wrong in Iraq and Libya, that doesn’t in any way lessen his determination to repeat it all in Syria.

With all this in mind, Putin’s speech was obviously a direct refusal to accept this picture. “No, you are not a global force for good. You stepped in it big time, and anyway you need to be more humble.”

There is the temptation in our social networks—and in some media outlets—to simply turn the American myth upside down and say the U.S. is really an evil empire.

They committed genocide against the Indians and, of course, lynched the blacks. People always want things to be black and white. Alas, there is no black in white in politics – only monstrous confusion.

The Americans are neither angels nor demons. They are sinners, just like us. There is no North Star in this world.

There are moderately bad people and very bad people, like the Islamic State group. Diverse political groups form the most unexpected coalitions. Yesterday’s worst enemy can become today’s valiant ally, then become an enemy again tomorrow.

The ethic of “we are a force for good” might be a tempting one, but it’s always false.

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  1. I loved this. I think the US definitely feels it can proclaim what is and isn’t ethical. This becomes dangerous as our world becomes more interconnected and complex, politics full of more gray areas. But while there is no North Star in this world, there is certainly an objective right and wrong and somebody has to try to find it, whether everyone else agrees with it or not. What would ensue if the US stepped back and let some of these dictators/groups do their worst?

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