Vinoth Ramachandra

Global Politics: 1948 vs 1945

Posted on: March 18, 2012

One of the most moving letters I received in response to my last Blog post was from a retired professor of philosophy, now living in a small town in Texas. “I have never seen US politics in greater decline”, he laments, “and characterized as much by mere perversity as by obtuse partisanship and venality- and, the country itself is increasingly militarized economically. To the extent that the church is ensnared in these politics, it will be soiled, as it always has been in any country in this respect.”

The men vying for the Republican party presidential nomination reveal the depths to which that once honourable party has now sunk. They embody the very antitheses to the values of the Kingdom of God which Jesus announced: ignore the poor, protect and pamper the rich, plunder the earth, kill your enemies.

Let’s turn from the fiasco of American presidential politics to the terrible tragedy unfolding in Syria. The two are, however, linked in recent memory. Syria was one of the Bush administration’s favourite destinations for what was euphemistically termed “rendition”- sending any suspected “terrorists” to places where they could be interrogated and tortured with impunity. The West’s attitude has changed with the Arab Spring. But it is not surprising to find President Assad taking a leaf out of Bush’s book and calling his brutal crackdown “a war against terrorists”.

Syria represents yet another failure of the Arab League and, indeed, of the United Nations. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are not only the biggest arms dealers in the world but can rarely act in concert, with national interest always trumping the global good. The possibility of losing Syria as a major military purchaser was the reason for Russia’s veto of the UN resolution on Syria. However, fears about US strategic interests in the area also contribute to Russia’s support for the Syrian regime.

Having lost key client states in the Arab world, the US is less influential in the Middle East. But maintaining control of oil markets and US strategic capacity are still key regional goals for the US. The nature of its military engagement is changing – away from large-scale deployments of ground troops in favour of rapidly expanding fleets of armed drones, and growing reliance on sea-based weapons. Thus the US backs Saudi intervention in Bahrain to ensure the US Fifth Fleet maintains its Bahraini base; Washington’s escalating sanctions give the West greater leverage in control of oil markets and the “threat” of Iran serves to justify expansion of the US naval presence in the gulf.

The main problem with the United Nations Organization is that it was conceived in a world of sovereign states, a world where the overriding concern of the post-World War II settlement was the guarantee of the inviolability of national borders and national sovereignty. But today’s world is one where wars happen typically within states. Whole populations, or minorities within populations, need assistance against their own governments. Thus the 1945 UN Charter’s emphasis on the inviolability of sovereign states poses a conundrum. It stands in blatant contradiction to the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, lacking a well-equipped global police force of its own, and often hamstrung by the chronic lack of funds and use of the veto by the permanent members of its Security Council, its peace-making and peace-keeping abilities have been severely curtailed.

While despots (and even liberal democracies from time to time) invoke “national sovereignty” to deflect criticism of their brutality, “human rights” is the language that civil society and international non-governmental organizations like Amnesty regularly employ. The latter language is also the only weapon that the poor and the oppressed can use against their own governments. This is why the misguided rejection of “rights discourse” by some Western Christian leaders is unfortunate. It reveals a lack of historical awareness: of how much “rights discourse” is rooted in the Biblical writings, the early Church Fathers and then conceptualized by the twelfth-century European canon lawyers. It is not a product of post-Enlightenment individualism. All moral vocabularies can- and are- abused. But that is all the more reason Christians should be in the forefront of articulating and defending the rights of the poor and oppressed against their own governments.

There are no blueprints for preventing or resolving violent conflicts around the globe. We are a world in transition, searching for new forms of political organization and structures of accountability, as empires and nation-states become less relevant as well as lose legitimacy.

The early church, as an egalitarian, multinational, socially inclusive polity (ekklesia), in which the weakest members were to be the most honoured, stood as a radical antithesis to the politics of both empire and republic. But in the ensuing centuries it was quickly co-opted by empires and republics, and even took on the characteristics of empire in many of its manifestations. If Christians are to contribute to the quest for a more just and peaceable world, their proclamation of the Good News of the Reign of God has to accompanied by a decisive repudiation of all those forms of nationalism, chauvinism and ethnocentrism that still distort the face of Christ within the church. A national church that has been co-opted and domesticated by ethne or  Caesar has ceased to be the church of Jesus Christ- the sign and foretaste of a new world order.

8 Responses to "Global Politics: 1948 vs 1945"

Thank you Vinoth for this blog-post. While the old-world order based on the sovereignty of the nation-state is not yet even close to being dead, its lack of legitimacy and relevance is surely being exposed. There is broad agreement amongst international relations historians that the genesis of today’s world of sovereign states began with the 1648 Westphalia peace treaties after the wars of religion. Exactly three hundred years later the world agreed on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights after WWII. Maybe it will take another three hundred years to see full fruition of this declaration. The realization of the Kingdom of God in history seems to be a very slow process but as MLK said the arc of world history ultimately bends towards peace and justice – God’s final shalom.

In the light of this understanding I would like to make a few practical suggestions. 1) At this stage of where we are in world history, the USA’s leadership still maters on the world stage. I say this as one deeply critical of the United States and its unrighteous behaviour in relation to the world outside its own borders. I believe there are resources in America’s own history that provides an alternative view and understanding of the world that are critical for America’s leadership to be a blessing instead of a curse. Here I particularly have the writings of Jonathan Edward’s in mind. I wish more US church leaders would read more Jonathan Edwards instead of reading Franklin Graham or Tim LaHaye. 2) The future of ‘global governance’ must move away from state-centric politics to regionalism. Here I am most critical of my own country, India. India has the worst relationships with her neighbours. Look at the state of SAARC and the history of sovereign inequality between neighbours. The development of robust structures of regional accountability is key. My hope is that new norms will develop in international relations that make it illegal for powerful states to interfere in other people’s regions. The norm of the inviolability ‘regional sovereignty’ based on the universal principles human rights. Instead of one centralized global structure of accountability through the United Nations, there needs to be a plurality regional structures of governance particular to each region’s culture and history. The state is accountable to and within these structures, and its sovereignty can be violated by these structures. I know I sound a bit positivist but this is my sense of hope for the future. 3) Finally, I believe, the arms trade is one of the most demonic principalities in our world today. The trade of arms must be tightly and strictly regulated. I can’t understand how anybody who cares about our world can accept the arms trade industry that is shrouded in such secrecy and illegality as business as usual. The need of the hour is for a global arms trade treaty. But unfortunately the US has increasingly become a war-economy, and the US and UK governments have becomes brokers for their arms business. Anyone interested in this issues must read Andrew Feinstein’s well-researched and informative book ‘Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade’.

Thank you so much Vinoth for this post, and thank you Philip for your very insightful response. I’m very grateful for Christian voices such as yours.

Philip, thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree that the political health of the US is crucial for the world, and that is why the present state of US politics is so depressing.

I don’t share your enthusiasm for regional structures. What purpose do they serve? We already have the EU, ASEAN, SARC, etc- these are all self-serving entities that do not contribute to the global common good.

There are problems facing us which require global co-operation and global solutions (e.g climate change, nuclear proliferation, financial instability). These imply not so much doing away with nation-states altogether but rather placing stricter limits on “national sovereignty” even in internal policy-making. On the other hand, the nation-state is too large for many local problems which require devolution of decision-making to municipalities, provincial councils, etc (the principle of “subsidiarity” according to Catholic social teaching).

The reason why the Republican party has sunk low, is because the it’s voter base requires it. And a larger portion of this voter base is Christian. Maybe Jesus taught to care for the poor, but Christianity in the present day American context does the exact opposite.

I guess if the Republican Party is the antithesis of the Kingdom of God than the thesis of the Kingdom of God is that it advocates incentivices weakness and coercive redistribution of wealth, abusing and robbing the wealthy, worshiping the earth, and affirming all forms of evil.

Since your name is Luke, may I suggest that you read through your namesake’s Gospel to see what Jesus proclaimed about the kingdom of God and its values? You could meditate on passages such as Luke 1:51-53, 4: 16-19, 6:20-26,12:13-21, and 16:19-31. Compare these with what “Christians” in the Republican Party teach.

I see in those passages a warning against the self-sufficiency that comes with being wealthy. I also recognize through the whole teaching of scripture that the church is to care for the poor. What I can’t find is where the government is to take from the rich to give to the poor so that the poor can find self-sufficiency in the government. When the government takes care of the poor it is non-relational and therefore does nothing about the root causes of poverty, which in the US is less about actual injustice and more about bad choices. I live with the poor. My neighbor, who receives subsidized housing and food stamps, just bought a $2000 camera. They can watch the pictures on one of their 3 50 inch flat screen TVs while enjoying $100 worth of steak. I am not making any of that up. The poor are no more righteous than the rich, both need Jesus desperately. Attacking the rich does not help the poor.
The European style welfare state advocated by the Democrats will do more to drive the poor away from God than the pick-yourself up and do something advocated by the Republicans. At least the Republicans are not trying to replace the church with the state.

Luke, I often wonder: why don’t Republicans apply their “pick-yourself-up and do something” philosophy to the lazy rich kids in the US who sponge off their parents’ wealth? You talk about bad choices- the choices we make depend on the information we have access to, as well as the educational and relational opportunities open to us. (The advertising industry that seduces your neighbour, and influences all our choices, was not invented by the poor). If Republicans were to advocate higher taxes on inherited wealth, it would mean rich and poor kids competing on a more level playing field. Then it would make their moralizing talk “self-reliance” and “individual responsibility” more credible.

Further, have you forgotten all the government handouts, bailouts,and subsidies given to US companies and banks by Republican politicians over the years? And for every social welfare cheat, I can show you 10 CEOs who cheat the public, break the laws and get away with it (if Madoff and Stanford were jailed, it is only because they stole from the rich!). The old Republicans wanted “minimal” government. Today’s Republicans want a government controlled by the super-rich and which panders to their interests.

I suggest you need to develop a Christian understanding of the role of government in God’s creational purposes. The Church is not the only means of promoting justice and social wellbeing. You could begin by looking at all the Biblical references to the “rights of the poor” (yes, rights, not charity) and the duties of kings in the Old Testament, as well as the economic institutions of ancient Israel (such as the Jubilee, debt release, Sabbaths for land and workers, and the complex system of tithes/taxes) that were intended to create social solidarity and not dehumanizing inequities.

Finally, if you would like to know how the real world works, may I commend the following older posts on my Blog:
10 April 2009 (“Is Capitalism Christian?”)
15 Jan 2010 (“The Poverty Business”)
26 Mar & 9 April 2010 (“Reflections on Healthcare”)
03 Sept 2010 (“Heat Over Climate Change”)
18 June 2011 (“The Games of the Rich”)

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March 2012
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