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Friday, August 22, 2003

Liberal realism.

David Rieff offers the pessimistic assessment that "whatever else it may eventually accomplish, the war in Iraq seems to have put the final nail in the coffin of the dream of global citizenship that began more than half a century ago with the founding of the United Nations" ("Goodbye, New World Order," Mother Jones Jul-Aug 2003).

Many of us may still aspire to the idea of global citizenship and long for the day when the words "international community" would not be cause for a bitter smile or a sardonic shrug. But it is important to understand how far we are from that day and to act accordingly. . .

However paradoxical this may seem, it is precisely those committed to struggling for a better world in these dark times who stand most desperately in need of abandoning the fantasy of an idealized, law-based international system. In this sense, the profound disenchantment occasioned by the war in Iraq may actually be an opportunity to rethink realism. . .

People, and nations, are not altruism machines — never have been, never will be — and it is about time activists learned to live with this fact rather than endlessly, generation after generation, trying to ignore it or wish it away. To say this is in no way to disparage activists. Without them the world would be even more savage and cruel than it already is. But most people commit their lives to their families and, at most, can be mobilized only occasionally in the name of some ideal. They are quite comfortable seeing themselves as citizens of a specific locality, not as global citizens. The idealist dream — whether it is Christians or Muslims proselytizing among the unbelievers, Che Guevara dreaming of creating what he called, to my ears chillingly, a "New Man," or, perhaps, Paul Wolfowitz imagining that he can democratize the Middle East — is that this can be changed.

In contrast, the realist is anti-utopian, skeptical, and, while in no sense passive, acts from the conviction that while there are many wrongs that do indeed need to be righted, and many causes worth defending, not everything is possible, least of all, to paraphrase the slogan of the anti-globalization movement, "another" world.

Is it time to abandon "an idealized, law-based international system"? Is Rieff's liberal realism compatible with a religious vision of the world? Does his anti-utopian liberalism betray a fundamental liberal commitment, or has he stripped away a delusion so that we can revive a functional liberal approach to international conflict?

I first read the essay back in June, and only discovered that it was on-line earlier this week. I'm still unsettled by it, but think that some variety of liberal realism is necessary to counteract the hapless sentimentality of what so often passes for Unitarian Universalist commentary on world affairs.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 22 August 2003 at 5:58 PM

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