The right to be different

About the authors
Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform. He serves on the board of the National Rifle Association and the American Conservative Union, and is the author of Rock the House (Vytis, 1995) an analysis of the 1994 United States elections.
Will Hutton is chief executive of the Work Foundation. He writes a weekly column in the Observer.


Dear Grover,

You and I differ strongly over what constitutes the good society. I believe in a social contract and recognise that it needs to be paid for by taxation and organised by public authority. But in our shared commitment to democracy, the rule of law and the indispensable inviolability of private property rights, we share core western values. In principle, we can debate the appropriate political philosophy that should inform our respective countries’ economic and social organisation while respecting each other’s differences.

The trouble is that I, and millions of my fellow Europeans, no longer trust that the leadership of today’s America respects these differences. The administration of George W. Bush believes that the economy and society of the United States are the goal to which others should aspire and compare themselves with; that alternative ideas – even within the western tradition – are aberrant; that the US has a sacred duty to itself to give no quarter in asserting these beliefs; and that America has a special destiny to project them abroad.

Indeed, the current administration apparently believes the US is so special that the rules that apply to lesser nations – respecting international laws, upholding international institutions, observing the Geneva Conventions – should apply to it only selectively.

You may object that this characterisation is unfair; but if so it has been earned by the way the Bush administration has conducted itself over the last three and a half years. It has fought a war of choice in Iraq that broke fundamental canons of international law – the culmination of its policy of unilaterally breaking international treaties that developed into the doctrine of pre-emptive unilateralism in the wake of the atrocities of 11 September 2001. Its treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison has offended the United Nations Convention against Torture.

Meanwhile, it has arbitrarily divided Europe – where the great post-second world war achievement was to entrench capitalism and liberal democracy – into “old” (sclerotic, socialist, pacifist) and “new” (willing to join a coalition of the willing in the “war against terror”). Divide and rule, coupled with a deep disdain for European beliefs and values, has been deployed to serve a policy of aggressive unilateralism in which the US is above the law.

I believe this is not only against US interests, but it is a betrayal of what America should stand for. America is an inspiring concept; the symbols of the statue of liberty, the American flag and the Capitol have meant hope, liberty, freedom of expression and respect for the law. The US has made mistakes, certainly, but the world has believed it is essentially benign and a force for good. It is bad enough in itself that all that is now in question. But it is also self-defeating - because the US, although awesomely powerful, is not an island. It is embedded in a network of international interdependencies – first and pre-eminent, certainly, but still embedded in the same rules that apply to all.

Two truths underline this interdependence. The first is economic. The United States owes the rest of the world approaching a net $3 trillion, the consequence of decades of current account deficits that are set to continue. Asia and Europe want to export to the US; but the US is a willing importer – indeed two-thirds of US merchandise imports are through the affiliates of US multinationals who locate production overseas because it is more competitive than producing in America. This is a relationship in which everyone wins, but it is dependent upon foreigners’ – especially Asian central banks’ – willingness to continue to add to their holdings of dollars.

At some stage in the future (nobody can predict whether it will be five months or five years) there will be a tipping-point in which dollars are sold rather than bought, and in massive quantities. The US will be unable to raise protectionist tariffs on imported goods that are largely produced by its own companies in order to square the books; it will have to raise interest rates to persuade foreigners willingly to lend to it with incalculable consequences for its indebted consumers. The way to minimise the pain will be to internationalise the solution with formal support from the Europeans and Asians through international institutions – anathema to America’s current way of thinking.

The second truth of the US’s interdependence is Iraq and the war on terror. Building a broad coalition within the aegis of the UN to challenge Saddam would have been slow and inglorious, but it would have been legitimate and the cost in terms of lost lives and billions of dollars would have been shared. It would also have had a better chance of achieving the goal that the US wanted - building a viable democratic state in Iraq, or at least one that respected the rule of law. Instead, the US has earned the opprobrium of an invader; reconstruction in Iraq is dangerous and insecure; and now, as the mayhem spreads to Saudi Arabia, there is a real threat to western oil supplies.

The US needs friends; but to win them back – and Europe is only too anxious to be won back – it needs to change course. To continue as it is will jeopardise its own interests and those of the west. Instead, it needs to accept its interdependence and offer leadership based on a commitment to shared values and international law. This means recognising its economic vulnerability and accepting that its low tax model may not be the best for the rest of us. Even if America thinks that it is best, we in Europe have every right to be different - and America should respect us for this, not seek to overturn our model of life and economy.

Yours,


Dear Will,

You understate the gulf between the United States of America and Europe.

Europeans, and especially Brits, tend to think of America as Europe-West, as part of “Western Civilisation.” We are not. America is the successor to the European civilisation, not its extension. We fight our wars - the revolution, the war of 1812, the first and second world wars, and the cold war - to not be a part of Europe. Europe is where and what many of our ancestors left. On purpose.

Vietnam, Korea, and the recent overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, as well as the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, were all seen – rightly or wrongly – as striking back at folks who were coming for us. We are not a people, not a race, not a religion. We are a people “of the book” – the constitution. Our creed is liberty. Europe is not our friend or ally by the dint of culture, proximity, or national origin of some Americans, but rather where and when Europe stands for freedom.

You suggest that Europe feels threatened because “George W. Bush believes that the economy and society of the United States are the goal to which others should aspire,” and that “America has a special destiny to project them abroad.” Yes and no. Everyone should be free. The citizens of the now-deceased Soviet empire all had the inalienable right to life, liberty, and property. No government can take that away. Even when our American government tramples our rights, it does so illegitimately. There is no person in any nation who does not have the right to be free.

But as John Quincy Adams said: “America is the friend of liberty everywhere but the guarantor only of our own.” We do not go abroad looking for monsters to slay. Was Iraq a violation of this view? Perhaps. When he was informed that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons, the will to share them with America’s enemies, and a history of striking out (invading his neighbours and plotting to murder the first President Bush), the president concluded that mere deterrence was not enough. This may have been an error. Governments regularly screw up. Ours is no less fallible than others. That is why American patriots love their country and fear and limit their government.

As the world knows and always knew, we are leaving Iraq at the earliest possible moment when we can be assured it will not become a base from which to attack America; same with Afghanistan. We are not the British, French, Spanish, Russian, or Portuguese empires. When we want wealth, we create it, not steal it. When we want people, we import them by creating a nation where damn near everyone on the planet wishes to live.

You suggest we wish to impose our worldview on other nations. No. It is Europe that has fought to impose the Kyoto climate change agreement on the United States. This treaty specifically disadvantages America and benefits Europe, China, and the “third world”. Even as the Clinton administration suggested America would sign this, 98 Senators – the folks who have to ratify treaties – publicly and unequivocally rejected it. No one should have been under the delusion America would don this economic straightjacket.

The European Union is trying to impose its high tax rates on America and other nations through “tax harmonisation.” We wish only to compete to provide the best government at the lowest cost. You may keep any destructive tax and regulatory regimes you wish in Europe. But you cannot keep your entrepreneurs, workers, and capital from fleeing such madness. We welcome all political refugees – both people and their money – from big government.

America will defend its own liberty on its own terms, with or without the support of the governments of the world. Will it be overbearing, incompetent, destructive, and silly? Of course; it is a government, and all governments are dangerous and destructive. It is what they do. Ours is simply less destructive and murderous than others of similar size.

When we figure out how to privatise our armed forces and foreign policy, then we will have a government that runs more like Microsoft or Wal-Mart than the present government - a government that has two modes: ignore and kill. Until then, those who wish America ill should keep their heads down and not stand next to those foolish enough to shoot at us.

Onward,


Next week: Harun Hassan remembers the US invasion of his homeland, Somalia, and writes to Michael Maren, a US reporter who was at the scene of the chaos.

The Letters to Americans project will run until the US presidential elections on 2 November 2004. Projects like this are challenging to organise and expensive to deliver, but we think it is worth it to bring America into dialogue with the world. If you agree, please support us.

Copyright and Contact
All Letters to Americans exchanges are copyright openDemocracy. For syndication, republishing and other enquiries please e-mail Julian Kramer@opendemocracy.net