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Delusions of internationalism: David Held's flawed perspective

About the author

Roger Scruton is a philosopher, writer, political activist and businessman. He is a professor in the department of philosophy at St Andrews University and a scholar at the American Entreprise Institute. His home on the web is

There is much food for thought in David Held’s appeal for a new “global covenant”, and readers of openDemocracy will surely be helped by his contribution. We all need to think openly and patiently about the new situation of our world, and about the ways in which we might act together to avert the often discussed, but seldom understood, catastrophes. So I am grateful to Held and openDemocracy for making this new approach so widely available.

For the openDemocracy debate on David Held’s argument for a new global covenant, go to Globalisation – Visions and Reflections

If I express some reservations – ones that derive that from a very different standpoint than Meghnad Desai’s – this is not because I endorse what David Held calls the “Washington consensus”; nor is it because I believe that the world can dispense with the kind of global thinking that he has embarked on. It is rather because I believe that there is a hidden premise in his argument that needs to be brought to the surface and examined for its credentials. This is the premise of social democracy itself.

In the days when the labels “left” and “right” were accepted moves in political debate, it was common for “left-wing” writers to confront their “right-wing” critics with a kind of interrogation: where are you coming from? The result was to dismiss the critics without listening to their arguments. This meant that debates on the left had a tendency to become internal to the leftist camp, so that fundamental items of doctrine – equality, social justice, internationalism and so on – were never properly examined.

I don’t for a moment suggest that David Held is following in that, by now surely discredited, “left” tradition. Nevertheless, while defining himself in opposition to a supposed “Washington consensus”, he is assuming a consensus of his own. This assumption is one that I question.

A problem of focus

David Held says that the process of political internationalism (in its current stage of development) began in the immediate aftermath of “formidable threats to humankind – above all Nazism, fascism and the holocaust”. Nowhere in his account is there mention of that other formidable threat to humankind, the Communist International, even though its criminal record is a lot longer than those of Nazism or fascism and extends into our own time. Nor is there much awareness of the fact that our new situation is precisely the one brought about by the final collapse of the Soviet Communist Party and of the vast machine of oppression it established and controlled.

Our world is not the post-1945 world that produced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but the post-1989 world that left the United States the sole remaining superpower, and the country to which all eyes then turned in search of the future.

Held’s eyes are also turned in that direction – in my view obsessively so – with the result that the entire global situation is mapped out in terms of an alleged “Washington consensus”. All criticism in his argument seems to be fired in that direction, as though the world would set itself to rights, were it not for those self-interested factions at the helm of American government, who are determined to bend the world’s economy to their own profit.

The version that Held gives of this idea is a sophisticated one, and not everything he says against America is wrong: far from it. But I cannot help thinking that there is a false emphasis here and that the emphasis stems from Held’s desire to cling to the social-democratic vision, without examining it for what it is worth.

I entirely endorse the criticisms that he and others have made of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the near-criminal regime of “intellectual property rights” which has borne so heavily on third-world rural economies. But to imply, as he does, that the impoverishment of the third-world countries is a result of the Washington consensus is to come uncomfortably close to an old and surely discredited leftist instinct. Blame Washington, since Washington – alone among the power-centres of the world – is responsive to blame.

I am reminded of the way in which so many branches of the “peace movement”, during the years of the cold war, would direct their fire exclusively at the western alliance, not necessarily because of a leftist sympathy for the Soviet project, but because of an understandable sense that it is futile to blame governments that permit neither free discussion nor the assumption of blame.

In just this way Held seems to end up blaming Washington for the dire condition of poor countries today – as though Washington were responsible for the Rwandan genocide, for the massacres in the Congo or Sudan, or for the state-propelled environmental disasters in North Korea and China. Are we really to believe that Zimbabwe’s transition from a food-exporting to a food-importing country is the result of American trade and foreign policy, and has nothing to do with the fact that Zimbabwe is in the hands of a racist maniac?

If blame is to be allocated, then to direct it all at America, while exonerating the people, policies and leaders of the poorer parts of the world, is to follow a dangerous path. It entails refusing to view people outside the enclaves of western capitalism as subject to judgment: in other words, refusing to recognise their full humanity.

Three evasions

It seems to me that David Held’s argument would look very different if it is seen in the light of three issues that social democrats tend to avoid.

The first is the issue of the free market. Held is right to point out that advocates of free trade and the market economy often lend support to unfair terms of trade. He is right that these unfair terms help to impoverish the countries that are most in need of help. The fault, however, is surely not the market economy, but the subsidies that distort it. Most of these subsidies are hidden: infrastructure, technology, education – all offered at public expense to the citizens of the western countries, and none available except through immense private efforts in what used to be called the third world.

But how can such impoverishment be rectified? The British empire made an attempt – by building railways and establishing schools, introducing the common law, legal education and access to the highest court of appeal. The expense entailed was calculated (according to “leftist” orthodoxy) to facilitate the exploitation of the imperial territories, but only (according to the “rightist” response) in the way that such things are always calculated to facilitate the exploitation of the territories where they are instituted, Britain’s own territory included.

The Washington consensus may be considered a modern equivalent – but the American attempt to introduce economic, legal and political infrastructure into Iraq is immensely controversial in Washington, even among those who have been identified as “conservatives”: witness Francis Fukuyama’s article in the National Interest (Summer 2004).

The attempt is also repudiated by David Held, who yet notes the inadequate provision of essential “public goods” (including transport systems and education) in the poorer parts of the world. He differs from advocates of the Washington consensus only in expressing the hope that international institutions, rather than the United States and the economic processes it champions, should take the initiative in providing them.

But this raises a second question: what grounds does Held have for thinking that international institutions would have the slightest interest in doing so? There are powerful arguments, presented by Rosemary Righter and many others, for the view that the United Nations acts not as a judge but as a legitimiser of criminal regimes. It has consistently impeded the essential reform without which its ostentatious parading of human rights and international law is little more than a mask: namely, the introduction of local and territorial rules of law – yes, even in places like Iraq and Syria where such things have not been seen since the tyrants and the secret police took over.

Moreover, in any real emergency, such as the one precipitated by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the UN depends upon the powerful nations to take action, which they will do only if it is in their national interest. In the daily work of global governance the UN acts simply as an unaccountable legislative machine, nurturing a corrupt and overpaid bureaucracy. David Held is understandably reluctant to accept the UN in its present form. But what prescription does he have in mind, whereby to reform or replace an institution that is regarded with increasing scepticism by the power on which it principally relies to enforce its edicts?

A third point follows. Held is commendably aware that much of what goes wrong in the world does so because legal order has broken down. What he fails to mention is that international law is without effect in countries which have no rule of law, and treaties of human rights are mere chaff where there are no courts to which the citizen can apply for their enforcement.

The Washington consensus, he suggests, is in the business of imposing American rules and justice. But American “rules” are largely the old rules of common law (itself founded on natural justice), and Americans are aware that international jurisdiction will be meaningless without the internal transformations that enable the people themselves to apply it. Their attempt to introduce legal procedures into the legal vacuum created by the Middle Eastern tyrants is surely commendable in itself, whether or not you think that war was the right way to begin it. And you can be against the war in Iraq while recognising that there is no other way to reintroduce the rule of law.

The problem of equality

Among the many other social-democratic assumptions that demand examination is that of social justice itself. Throughout Held’s argument there seems to be an implied belief that inequality and injustice are the same idea. If John is rich and Mary is poor, then this is an injustice. But what if John has worked hard while Mary has idled? What if John was born in a fertile place, Mary in a desert? What if John has enjoyed the benefits of a long-standing rule of law, while Mary lives among brigands and nomads?

The root assumption of the social-democratic position seems to be that we should work for equality, since without it there can be no justice. But you can make everybody equal – as Stalin did in the Ukraine, or Kim Jong-Il does to North Korea – by taking everything away from all of them. You can enforce equality by confiscating the profits of successful enterprises, however honestly and honourably they have pursued their trade. This conception of equality threatens to lead to a state where the people have nothing and the ruling clique takes what meagre profits there are.

It is undeniable that markets lead to inequality. It is undeniable, too, that there are large-scale imbalances and market-failures which ensure that current “free-trade” policies are really no such thing, besides having serious adverse effects on fragile and developing economies. The more naive pronouncements of free-market ideologues – many of whom fail to see that the free market is an ideal type with no actual instances – could lend support to Held’s conclusion that exclusive reliance on the theory of the market is to jeopardise all the fragile compromises on which humanity has hitherto depended for its periods of equilibrium.

Nevertheless, it must be recognised that a market is not a zero-sum game, in which every benefit achieved by one person imposes a cost on another. Even when constrained by unfair terms of trade, a market, properly conducted, will benefit all participants. Some participants will be rich and others poor, but both rich and poor will be richer than they otherwise might have been. Moreover, there is no injustice in the fact that industrious people have an advantage in the marketplace – just as there is no injustice in the fact that handsome people have an advantage in love or intelligent people in science.

Still, the argument about global governance and the future of humanity is not really about justice, and it seems to me that matters are greatly confused by importing the old question of third-world poverty into the new concerns about political order and international security.

It is not poverty but wealth that produced Osama bin Laden, and it is the combination of fossil fuels and fossilised religion that has made Saudi Arabia into the crucible of such implacable embitterment. Underlying Held’s vision is the image of America as a country made dangerous by its wealth. However the wealth of America is a result of its democratic politics and common-law inheritance. Unlike the wealth of Saudi Arabia, it is the outward sign of an inner freedom.

The Washington consensus, as described by Held, stems from a belief that the goal of international relations is not social justice, conceived in social-democratic terms as a kind of equality, but social and economic freedom, in which people can obtain a proper reward for their efforts and get the state and the bureaucrats off their back.

Those obsessed with equality will often dismiss the pursuit of freedom as irrelevant or counterproductive, believing, with L.T. Hobhouse, that “liberty without equality is a name of noble sound and squalid meaning”. That is emphatically not the view of Americans – not even of those Americans (who may well be the majority) who reject Held’s “Washington consensus”.

American-style freedom, true, is not widely available. But that is because its fundamental precondition (and the precondition of a true market economy) is the rule of law – and because the rule of law has been extinguished all over the world, through no fault of Washington, but on the contrary, despite the best efforts of Washington to insist on it.

A few highlights from Roger Scruton’s many essays on openDemocracy:

  • Terror and globalisation: Islam outside the state (September 2001)
  • Immanuel Kant and the Iraq war (February 2004)
  • Tony Blair and the wrong America: a response to Godfrey Hodgson (April 2004)

I have no solution to the problems that David Held puts before us, yet believe that it is indeed very important to cast one’s thought as widely as he does, in order to see the connections that exist between the many problems that beset us. I offer these criticisms, therefore, in a spirit of respectful dialogue.

Nevertheless I am certain that the social-democratic consensus assumed by Held is not shared by everyone and is, moreover, largely rejected in the United States – the one country on which, welcome or not as the reality is, everyone depends for positive action. Hence I believe that there can be no new global covenant which is based on assuming such a consensus.

Personally I am more disposed to trust the old global covenant, enshrined in treaties between nation-states. After all, in modern times only nation-states have ever achieved what is most needed, which is a stable and territorial rule of law.

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