Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Re-educated German Reminds America of Its History

Philosopher and social critic Jurgen Habermas was born in Germany in 1929. His father was a Nazi sympathizer. Under those conditions, and given Hitler's internal propaganda machine from the early 1930s to the end of the war in 1945, it would have been difficult for a 16-year-old to be immune to the conventional thinking of his surroundings. When the Americans arrived, they fostered a re-education program, particularly among the young. Habermas, in retrospect, was grateful for the ideals that Americans brought to Germany.

In the bizarre post-9/11 world, Bush and many members of Congress tossed out a good many of those ideals. Here's an interview of Jurgen Habermas by Eduardo Mendieta from sometime in 2003 that was published in Logos Journal in August 2004:
What I take to be false is Kagan’s [neoconservative] stylization of US policy over the course of the last century. The conflict between “realism” and “idealism” in foreign and defense policy occurred, not between the continents, but, rather, within American policy itself. Certainly, the bi-polar power structure of the world between 1945 and 1989, compelled a policy of balance of terror. The competition between the two nuclear-armed systems during the Cold War created the background for the towering influence which the “realist” school of international relations in Washington was able wield. But we must not forget the impetus which President Wilson gave to the founding of the League of Nations after the First World War, nor the influence which American jurists and politicians themselves exercised in Paris after the US retreated from the League. Without the US, there would have been no Kellogg-Briand Pact, nor the first international legal proscription of wars of aggression. But what fits least in the militant picture of the role of the US that Kagan paints, is the policy of the victors in 1945, initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. What Roosevelt called for in his undelivered Jefferson Day Address of April 11, 1945, was for the world to seek not only an “end to war,” but an “end to the beginning of all wars.”

In that period, the US was at the peak of the new internationalism, and spearheaded the initiative for the creation of the United Nations, in San Francisco. The US was the driving force behind the UN, which (no accident) has its headquarters in New York. The US set in motion the first international human rights convention, campaigned for the global monitoring of, as well as the juridical and military prosecution of, human rights violations, pressed upon the Europeans the idea of a political unification of Europe—initially, against the opposition of the French. This period of unexampled internationalism, loosed, in the ensuing decades, a wave of innovations in the field of human rights, blocked, indeed, during the Cold War, but implemented, in part, after 1989. As of that point in time, it was yet to be decided if the one remaining superpower would turn away from its leading role in the march toward a cosmopolitan legal order, and fall back into the imperial role of a good hegemon above international law.


For a European observer and a twice-shy child such as I, the systematic intimidation and indoctrination of the population and the restrictions on the scope of permitted opinion in the months of October and November of 2002, (when I was in Chicago), were unnerving. This was not “my” America. From my 16th year onward, my political thinking, thanks to the sensible re-education policy of the Occupation, has been nourished by the American ideals of the late 18th century.

Under Bush, Americans lost their way for the better part of five years. Visitors like Habermas were startled by what they saw. When the history of our era is written by those who have twenty years from now the facts of what happened from 1989 to 2009 (many of those facts actually available in 2002), Bush, Cheney, Rice, Wolfowitz, Perle and Rumsfeld will be skewered for being so profoundly wrong about the problems the United States has been facing since the end of the Cold War (Actually, our current problems started with the election of Ronald Reagan but that's another chapter in the broader story). Some day a significant number of Americans are going to have to do a little re-education of their own if the qualities that have made our country successful are to be remembered as well as updated. For our first 200 years, Americans had brains but also a good amount of luck. Since 1980 we have made far too many mistakes and most of those mistakes can be attributed to a Hobbesian conservatism that has proven to be a failure. In the next ten years, we'll see whether the Hobbesians still have life or whether Americans are finally ready to move forward.

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