The most powerful person in the world is one who is chosen democratically, somewhat. It’s not the case that everyone affected has a say – and there are volumes written on the extraordinary flaws and outrages of the system that produces the decision – but there is an election. At every such election, there is an opportunity for a society to decide for itself its trajectory within the world – and, when the society is the most powerful in the world, to determine in substantial part the trajectory of the world.
It’s now well into the twenty-first century. Societies are richer than ever before, we have more options than ever before; our technology and our knowledge can build the world we want to see. We know everything. And yet, societies are beset by crises, cowed in fear, uncertain about the future, and united in our pessimism. We know nothing.
But in a democratic society, people can decide for ourselves; inform themselves, understand, decide, and act. In a democratic society, all ideas proceed forth, filter through, clash, synthesize, and the compelling passions of human desire resolve themselves into some semblance of a plan. A democratic society is a self-determined society, with institutions to carry out collective understandings and decisions; at the highest level, a democratic society is a planned, a self-planned society. Your individual plan for your own life is democracy, a tyrannical democracy, and rightly so; our collective plan for our society is substantive democracy, and the highest expression of human society. You are nothing more than the effect you have on the world; the world should be nothing more than the synthesis of the best the human race can produce.
What is the plan for the world? There being no institution to decide this question consciously, the nearest question we have is – what is the plan of the richest and most productive society on earth, with respect to the world? What is our orientation to the world? We have no right to a say over the rest of the world – but our orientation to the world matters crucially. What is the world we want to see, and how do we want to get there? And, in the context of a democratic election to determine who shall have the power to make decisions on these issues – how will those questions be answered? What visions will be presented, what shall be made of the possible uses of the world?
It’s now the twenty-first century – there is no excuse for isolation, for cultural ignorance, for racism or the denigration or fear of those far away, or different. At least not in the richest society in the world – it’s all on the internet. The conclusion is inescapable that there are no exotic people. Similarly, there is no excuse for the most basic of human needs going unfulfilled: hunger, preventable disease, homelessness, displacement and war became indefensible long ago. Everybody wants to get on in life; everybody wants a world free of hunger, disease, and suffering; everybody wants a life neither nasty, brutish, nor short; everybody wants a better world for their children. It is trite – it is embarrassing to say it.
And yet the world which does not satisfy these most basic needs, when such goals are within the power of the world community, is also an embarrassment. The universal imperative of moral reciprocity demands that we treat others as we would be treated ourselves. And it tragically, embarrassingly, fails still. Are you embarrassed to live in this world? Are you proud to be one of the humans: this rich, extraordinary, complex, beautiful, tender species – this paragon of animals? Or are you embarrassed to be one of these poor, pathetic, abject, cowering, vicious animals – this quintessence of dust?
It is always overblown to talk about human destiny, and to apply Shakespearian hyperbole to human nature; but nor is it far-fetched, today. Choices made today may irrevocably change the course of human development; and the debate on foreign policy between presidential candidates in the most powerful nation in the world is arguably the closest forum currently existing where one might see a conscious democratic discussion about the trajectory of the world.
What shall we do? What shall we do to achieve the coming together of all peoples? What shall we do to deal the final blows to preventable disease and hunger? What shall we do to achieve a truly global society – a human society worth the name? What shall we do to achieve a true globalization – not just the flow of capital and goods; not just the cessation of wars; but the creation of a true, integrated global community? What could we achieve?
These are crucial questions to be discussed in the context of a democratic election in the most powerful nation in the world. Not to decide the questions for the world – but to determine the orientation of this society towards their answer, in recognition of the rights and the dignity of all peoples. They go further – they lead to deep and searching questions about the nature of the world and its future.
What relevance does the nation state have in the present? What justification is there for the concept of sovereignty – the idea that the absolute and final power in all matters legal and political should reside within the nation state, with its possibly arbitrary borders and whatever hodgepodge of social fragments lies hemmed in between them? What can be done to achieve the self-expression and self-determination of the global society – with institutions at the appropriate levels for the decisions that need to be made, from the individual and the municipal, to the regional and the global?
What is the appropriate basis upon which the world should operate? The United Nations? A federation? A parliament? Or are clashing sovereign nation states with populations that have much in common still the best arrangement possible – for the time being? International law, with its current customary minimum essential to civilization – fundamentally, start no wars, respect sovereignty, respect self-determination, and respect the United Nations – should it be expanded above this minimum, and more thoroughly applied?
How is one society to approach the problems of the day? In other words, what is to be the foreign policy of this nation? What sort of foreign policy would you like to see? Or better, what sort of international policy – for today there are no foreigners, only those who live outside the arbitrary borders of our nation – would you like to see?
So, when two main contenders for the election to most powerful person in the world come together and debate their visions for the world – their orientation to the world – on September 26, 2008, in a debate specifically about foreign policy, what was the vision we saw of the human community?
Of the human family, peace on earth, and a vision for the world – nothing.
Of globalization, cultural interconnection, about worldwide understanding – nothing.
Of the contemporary place of the medieval legal concept of sovereignty – nothing.
Perhaps, then, we should lower our expectations.
Of the United Nations – nothing.
Of worldwide hunger and preventable disease – nothing.
Or, even, of multilateralism? Nothing.
Or, at the least, of international law? Nothing.
Did they even suggest any policies chosen because of accordance with international law? No – from maintaining a war waged in supreme violation of international law; to escalating an occupation which daily bombs civilians from afar; to crossing borders for unilateral attacks; to threatening nations about their nuclear programs without once mentioning the International Atomic Energy Agency.
What a vision is this, then, of the uses of the world. Weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable, all.
But still, it is true that we have a choice.
We have a choice – we can have an open-ended commitment to war in Iraq; or a timetable to bring home “combat brigades”, leaving about half the military troops still there – and all corporate mercenary forces.
We have a choice – to attack Pakistan with more consent from president “Kardari” (sic, McCain), or less.
From there, it only gets better.
We have a choice – to escalate war in Afghanistan, or to escalate war in Afghanistan.
We have a choice – to escalate the military budget, or to escalate the military budget.
We have a choice – to threaten Iran, or to threaten Iran.
We have a choice – Venezuela is a rogue state, or Venezuela is a rogue state.
We have a choice – ally with Georgian atrocities against Russian atrocities; or ally with Georgian atrocities against Russian atrocities.
We have a choice – enlarge NATO and threaten Russia; or enlarge NATO and threaten Russia.
We have a choice – provoke and waste resources with missile “defense” systems; or provoke and waste resources with missile “defense” systems.
And those are the major issues. Those are the uses of the world. In the debate of the great men, in the visions of the hopes of the world, that is where the discussion begins and ends.
But to a more important vision – to you, what of this society and this earth? What is in your vision? Is it a vision of threats and bullies, of guns and bravado – is it the world operating, as it does today, as a giant version of the mafia? Is it a vision of enemies to be defeated, and victories to be won? Is it a vision of one nation predominant over the rest? Is it a vision where the assumption always holds that your government has the right to attack anywhere on earth it sees fit? Is it a vision of international lawlessness? Is there any hope? Are we forever to escalate wars, provoke, threaten, and reign – even when the world is as rich, as educated, and as enlightened as it is today? Is it merely a sterile promontory, this world, a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours? Does anything really matter at all?
Or is it, rather, this world, this planet, before the stars, a spaceship tracking an extraordinary course, a small planetary community struggling to make its way in the universe, a family about to put aside its squabbles – upon a brave overhanging firmament, an excellent canopy, a majestical roof fretted with golden fire – what is it?
What is the debate a democratic society should be having? What is the change we should believe in?
It is childlike, of course, to look upon the world with such a view. But the naivete of children looking upon the world is not to be denigrated – for it is rarely false. And growing up should never mean abandoning a vision for the future – for it is only with such vision that we stand a chance of getting there.