Friday, October 01, 2004

Anti-Federalists all over again

One of the wonderful things about the Internet is the whole wave of different resources so easily attainable. Reading this article on it opened up a completely new insight into the forthcoming US election for me. Not the constant building up or knocking down of expectations (particularly interesting is the Republican's claim that Kerry is "a better orator than Cicero"), or the wider issues of presentation (is Kerry a 'flip-flopper'?), or even whether Bush or Kerry would be stronger on terrorism/homeland security/economy/Medicare/insert key issue here - I saw. But the difference between the two international visions put forward from the neoconservatives on the one hand and the 'internationalists' on the other.

Bush undoubtedly believes - strongly - that freedom can be brought to the world through a certain mixture of force of arms, persuasion, and leading by example. Now, I would strongly argue that his policy in Iraq was the wrong way to go about this, even if I admire the fact he made it clear from the outset that he was getting rid of Saddam because he was morally odious. I supported the war, but because once we got to September 2002 to have backed down would have been a show of supreme weakness on behalf of the West, not because I ever thought we should have been making an issue of it in the first place.

I also have no doubt that he went into Iraq with, in some cases, the noblest of intentions. Yes, oil was an issue (and having such an oleological cabinet was not a clever move from someone who is normally a master at creating the right image), and from the whole world's point of view, having the oil supply in the hands of stable, free-trading governments is a good thing - although this does not of itself justify going to war against any state. Yet creating a stable democracy in Iraq could act as a beacon to the greater reforming movements in Saudi Arabia and Iran. I think Bush was highly misguided in thinking the invasion of Iraq was the correct means to achieve this end. But I will return to this theme in a later post.

What is more of interest is the rhetoric he - and now Tony Blair (in a clear shift from the arguments he was making before the war) - is using to justify the war in retrospect. Bringing freedom to the Iraqis was the main aim of the war. Giving them the right to choose their own leaders, the freedom from the fear that Ba'ath party agents were waiting to feed them rat poison, giving them the chance of seeing some of the benefits of the huge resources possessed by the country. And if - a big if - the coalition succeeds in bringing democracy to Iraq and seeing off the Islamist insurgency, then there can be no doubt that the Iraqis will be much better off. Whether this can be achieved without at worst a civil war or at best a division of the country giving autonomy to the Shi'ites, the Sunnis and the Kurds is another question entirely.

But everyone agrees it is better to have Saddam in prison, rather than in power. The deeper issues that run through the whole question of war in Iraq focus on whether it was right to blow apart the international community to launch an invasion. Indeed, the seeking of a second UN resolution explicitly justifying military action on the basis of WMD does weaken the coalition's argument that they wanted to fight for the freedom of the Iraqis. And it is on this issue that the clear divisions between Bush and Kerry are highly apparent. At the most basic level, Bush believes the freedom of each individual is the most important issue. Kerry believes that state sovereignty is the key issue.

Ultimately, although the article I linked to above makes comparisons between aspects of Lincoln's and Calhoun's thought, I think there is a huge amount of overlap between the debate here, and the Federalist vs Anti-Federalist contest for the ratification of the US Constitution. Indeed, it is a sign of America's remarkable growth in the last 225 years that such a debate can now be transferred to the world stage as opposed to what was, at the time, a peripheral debate in many ways to contemporary power politics. Naturally, this argument cannot be stretched too far, for otherwise it suggests that the USA has legal jurisdiction in areas of the world it does not, and as of right should not, have. Even the most ardent anti-American in Europe, however, does not deny that the significance of the US election is that it elects the leader of the free world. Arguments that the interventionist stance of the US, if it were to be continued, should entitle the rest of the world to a vote are somewhat far-fetched but not without some merit. To be more to the point, however, I think looking at the ratification debate from 1787-9 does provide a highly interesting and revealing prism through which to view the opposing world views currently locked in combat.

In many ways, the bad guys won. The majority of the population would probably have voted against the constitution, but a number of factors conspired against them - the hasty calling of many state conventions, which prevented a true mobilisation of opposition; better access to the press on the part of the Federalists; the fact that only 9 states were needed for ratification, which meant that the recalcitrant states were voting on whether they wanted to join the union. Of course, crucially important was also the fact that the Federalists quickly acceded to their opponents' demands for a Bill of Rights.

The salient division, however, between the two sides, was where they felt the basis of government lay. The Federalists, in their rather interesting take on the meaning of the word 'federal' (one source of their political potency was their presentation), argued, essentially, that the freedoms of each individual American should be protected largely by the national, as opposed to the state, government. Although their preferred "Virginia Plan", with an even stronger national government, was heavily modified, the basis of the new government was to reside the balance of power firmly in the central bodies, with sufficient coercive powers to enforce their will. And with the addition of the Bill of Rights, the theory that the nation was the guarantor of individual freedom became much stronger.

The Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, were worried about the implications of control by a remote central government, with far greater powers than it had been given before and far greater powers than most people were actually willing to give it. Instead they believed that popular sovereignty meant government had to be instituted from the bottom up, and that control on a local level, where politicians were more accountable to their immediate electorate, and would have a much greater knowledge of local desires. Indeed, a reading of this suggests that they share my view of the Declaration of Independence, which wan't really a polemic in support of individual rights, but claiming that the colonies of America were every bit as entitled to the status enjoyed by the mother country, Britain. It spoke far more about community than it did about the individual. But the key thrust of Anti-Federalist thought was that democracy and the will of the people was best contained within the state, and that issues of greater importance could be dealt with by the states meeting collectively and deciding upon measures as equals.

Of course the situation isn't entirely analogous. The US, even as the world's only superpower, technically has no legal sovereignty over Iraq. But at the most basic level, Bush believes that the freedom of each individual in the world overrides the nation state's right to govern within its own borders. Kerry believes that each sovereign state has responsibility for its own internal security, and that change can only truly be brought about through discussion and encouragement. States rights have always been a sticking point in US history - from the ratification of the Constitution to the Civil War, through to the Civil Rights Movement and even the controversy over gay marriage. It is highly interesting to see that a form of this debate now governs the way we view the international community.