Bush Offends Sophisticates’ Pieties

John Zvesper

September 1, 2004

Journalists the world over have written off President Bush’s speech at the United Nations this week as a performance addressed more to his domestic electoral needs than to an international audience. That, they explain, is why his speech included an unrealistically optimistic view of the situation in and prospects for Iraq.

This widespread view is unconvincing. In the first place, Bush’s portrait of Iraq was not outstandingly optimistic: he uses words like "adversity" and "difficulty" to describe the "demanding" work that remains to be done there. Besides, the central parts of his speech consist of a call for members of the United Nations "to build a better world beyond the war on terror," and to enhance human dignity, by combating diseases such as AIDS, by ending the slave trafficking in women and children, by improving the delivery of foreign aid, by relieving the debt burden of developing countries, and by opposing religious violence, ethnic cleansing and genocide. The world’s journalists should be made aware of the fact that this agenda—though it is admirable—is not finely attuned to winning presidential votes in swing states.

What really offended the assembled delegates of the world’s governments and the watching journalists is that Bush presented this call for enhanced human dignity in the context of his call for widening the circle of liberty and democracy. As he said, "no other system of government has done more to protect minorities, to secure the rights of labor, to raise the status of women, or to channel human energy to the pursuits of peace." Though Bush—as always when discussing this topic—made it clear that the development of liberal democracy takes time and cannot be imposed from without, his discussion was offensive for several reasons.

First of all, the most immediate opportunities for this widening are located in the Middle East, with Iraq naturally at the top of the list. This suggestion—in addition to offending the anti-Israeli thinking of many UN member states—provoked the ill will that many UN representatives still feel towards Bush’s defiance of the non-decisions of the UN with regard to Iraq in 2003. Because the war in Iraq continues, this ill will is now accompanied by not a little feeling that having made its bed, the United States (and its often forgotten coalition partners) must lie in it. The prim told-you-so pronounced after Bush’s speech by the Swiss president, Joseph Deiss, has been frequently quoted in the European press: "In hindsight, experience shows that actions taken without a mandate which has been clearly defined in a security council resolution are doomed to failure." (In fact, previous experience would seem to suggest that very often it is such mandates that precede failure. As for the present case, we shall see.)

Another reason that Bush’s words fell on stony ground is that no one’s call for more liberal democracy is likely to please the majority of governments in the UN, who are neither liberal nor democratic, and could hardly be expected to rally to the cause of human liberty. As Bush did not hesitate to note, it is not only terrorists but also "their allies" who "believe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Bill of Rights, and every charter of liberty ever written, are lies, to be burned and destroyed and forgotten."

However, there was also (at best) a tepid response to Bush among the representatives of liberal democratic regimes, and this needs further explanation. What most offended these sophisticated UN delegates was Bush’s rejection of their postmodern pieties, their unwavering faith in the dogmas of pragmatism and moral and cultural relativism. Bush justified his call for the expansion of liberty by asserting that "the dignity of every human life" is "honored by the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, protection of private property, free speech, equal justice, and religious tolerance." Many of these traditional liberal principles have become suspect in pragmatic, "progressive" circles. But especially grating to the postmodern mentality that dominates sophisticated minds in liberal democracies is Bush’s claim that "we know with certainty" that "the desire for freedom resides in every human heart," and that therefore the "bright line between justice and injustice—between right and wrong—is the same in every age, and every culture, and every nation." Recognition of such self-evident truths is completely inadmissible in the postmodern faith, in which the only certainty is that nothing is certain.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who spoke just before Bush, was more warmly received. Annan used the language not of political liberty, but of multilateralism and international law. His theme was "the rule of law." While Bush would call for widening "the circle of liberty and security and development" that "has been expanding" in recent decades, Annan called on the UN to "restore and extend the rule of law throughout the world."

The rule of law is a noble theme, touched on by Bush as well. But liberty—as Bush suggested—is a more fundamental principle. It is citizens’ equal liberty that justifies their participating in ruling and being ruled—the essence of the rule of law.

Unfortunately, laws are not always based on equality and liberty, and an ill-founded rule of law can enforce injustice. Not all laws seek to secure liberty and justice. In itself, without reference to more fundamental principles, law is merely an expression of consensus, of "multilateral" agreement—that is, of might (measured by voting systems), not of right. In his speech, Annan traced the current waves of Islamofascist terrorism (in Iraq, Darfur, and Beslan) to "our collective failure to uphold the rule of law." However, these terrorists, who (as Bush pointed out) believe that charters of liberty are all lies, have their own, illiberal set of political principles and laws in mind, which they are very anxious to enforce. They favor the rule of Islamic laws, as interpreted by them. They do not recognize the international laws that Annan seeks to promote, any more than they recognize Bush’s more basic principles of liberty. But they do recognize laws.

Thus, an ill-founded, postmodern rule of law, which seems to promise an easy-going way of making moral and political decisions—just get agreed procedures to produce agreed rules, without too much attention to their substance—can prove to be worse than useless. It is offensive and requires more courage, but it is also more promising, to support laws clearly based on the liberty that is the heart’s desire.

John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American author residing in Europe.