15 June 2004

Beyond the west

In today's world, more people are more free than ever before. Our possibilities of helping the others out of unfreedom are also larger than ever. But what are the basic terms of engagement that we, in the west, propose to the rest of the world? At the moment, there are two extreme positions, the western triumphalist fundamentalist and the western cultural relativist. The first is well captured in the opening of the Bush administration's 2002 national security strategy. 'The great struggles of the 20th century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom,' it begins, with perfect accuracy, but then goes on 'and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy and free enterprise.' A single sustainable model? What titanic hubris.

The cultural relativist position says: 'These values are peculiar to the west; we cannot expect Muslims or Confucians to share them; therefore we should not expect of them the respect for human rights, free speech, democracy and so forth that we expect among ourselves.' This is equally misguided.

The right way lies between these two extremes. It can be described, without apology, as the path of freedom - not just for us but for all. Freedom is hard to define, let alone achieve, but those who are unfree know exactly what unfreedom is. A Confucian no more enjoys having his nails pulled out than a Christian. To see your daughter raped by a militia gang is as soul-rending for a Muslim as for a Jew. So many people in the world still live, and die, in an unfreedom that we can be quite sure they do not want, simply because they are human and we are human. What is now the most widespread form of basic unfreedom? Sixty years ago, when Franklin Roosevelt spelled out his 'four freedoms', most of us would probably have said dictatorships and the wars they cause. Today, the answer must be poverty. The first freedom towards which we should now work is Roosevelt's 'freedom from want'.

Two large but very simple steps can lift millions of human beings out of this kind of unfreedom. The first step is to practise what we preach: free trade. We should open our markets to their goods and cut our agricultural subsidies. This can only happen if America and Europe do it together. The second step is to increase aid. All rich and free countries should give at least 0.7% of their GDP, and all rich and free individuals should give 1% of our annual income, so as to provide clean water, basic sustenance, shelter and medical care for the poorest of the world's poor.

There are two competing views about how to remake the world. We can assume that everyone except those citizens of coalition countries who support the war on terror are fools or we can assume that they are capable of rational thought. If they are fools what we do does not matter so long as our leaders keep churning out platitudes about globalisation and the war on terror. If they are not fools then we had better start making policies that allow them a place at the table.

Making human rights effective works. Compare the progress the EU has made in the former Warsaw Pact nations with the progress the US has made in the former Baghdad Pact nations. Making human rights effective must have something going for it, because it is the policy the war party claim they are following.

Making human rights effective could be started easily by demolishing the practices, not the bricks, of Abu Ghraib.

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