Friday, January 21, 2005

Morality trumps Sovereignty

Sidney Goldberg writes:
A chief complaint against the Bush inaugural speech is that he seems to ignore the constraints of sovereignty, which prevent the United States from encroaching on the legitimacy of even the most evil of regimes and proclaims their borders sacrosanct.

But sovereignty often has nothing to do with ethics and one can respect sovereignty and commit ethical crimes in doing so. Was it ethical to abide by the sovereignty of Sudan while it was committing genocide? Is it ethical for us to sit on our hands while millions of Africans are maimed or slaughtered?

. . . where the United States finds a people who are suffering under the yoke of a tyrant, and it is a tyrant that we can eliminate and thereby ease the suffering, we should go ahead and do it. This would violate the laws of sovereignty in favor of the obligations of ethics. This action should be taken unless it causes even more deaths and suffering than the existing tyranny. In that case we have to put it on a back burner until a better opportunity for change occurs.

What we have to do, and I'm sure the President has thought this through, is go after the horrible but easy cases first, just as a good salesman makes the easy sales first and works his way up to the most difficult for last. . . Therefore, China and Russia shouldn't be at the top of our list for "regime change." As the easier tyrannies open up to greater freedom, China and Russia will become more vulnerable and therefore subject to our pressure and influence.

President Bush understands that "sovereignty" can be the greatest cover for evil and that respect for sovereignty is a minor if sometimes necessary virtue compared to ignoring it in the interest of doing what is right and easing human suffering. We do this in our personal life and we should do it as a nation.
Taking a cue from Lee Harris, I've written of the perils of believing in the paradigm of sovereignty before, though more from the political angle. Goldberg's argument based on moral factors is just as convincing and possibly more effective.

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