(The following editorial first appeared in the February 1989 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Thirty-five others, on a wide range of topics, are collected in the 2002 Tor book Which Way to the Future? A different one (usually one not available in the book) will be posted here quarterly. And, of course, brand-new ones appear in each issue of Analog.)
If you've been paying the slightest attention to newspapers and similar media in this country in recent years, you've probably noticed a great deal of public and private activity with the openly avowed goal of bringing about large changes in the internal conduct of other countries. A good deal of official foreign policy is devoted to such activities as supporting the regime of Our Administration's choice in this or that Central American country (or overthrowing one that Our Administration doesn't approve of). Both government actions and private protests by groups of concerned citizens seek to exert pressure toward the abolition of apartheid in South Africa or the improvement of human rights in the Soviet Union.
In at least some of these cases, most Americans, at least, would find it hard to dispute the worthiness of the goals. But the methods raise a most interesting complex of questions (and I'll confess right at the start that I have more questions than answers). When, if ever, are matters directly involving only the government and citizens of one country a legitimate concern of the government and citizens of another country? If such legitimacy does exist, what kinds of action can country B legitimately take in regard to the internal affairs of country A? What long-term significance might the trend toward growing acceptance of such "internal" meddling have?
If, indeed, it really is a trend. Trying to decide what's best for people somewhere else, or even trying to do something about it, is hardly a radically new idea. Foreign policy has long included efforts to see that other countries' governments would be easy to work with. History is full of crusaders and missionaries setting forth to bring Spiritual Enlightenment to the Heathens, whether the Heathens wanted it or not, and empires bravely shouldering the "White Man's Burden" (or its local equivalent) to bring Civilization to those not blessed with it. But advances in technology have made it easier than ever before to get to potential enlightenees, and I have the impression that there really are more people now openly and actively seeking to determine how others' countries should be run. Ironically, many of these same people would shake their heads at the miseries unwittingly brought to "primitive" tribes by well-meaning missionaries of the past but, of course, what they want to do is a different matter.
I suppose this is time for the obligatory disclaimer to try to forestall the misreading that I know will happen anyway. No, I am not condoning apartheid or persecution of Jews. I am merely questioning and please be sure you understand the difference between a question and an answer whether and when it is appropriate for us to try to solve these problems for them . To some it might be obvious that if nobody else is solving the problem, we owe it to the victims to do it ourselves, as a humanitarian gesture. But how would these same people feel about a group in Pakistan or Uganda taking it upon themselves to solve some of our problems? Suppose, for an example chosen to avoid fingering any real group, that there is an organization somewhere convinced that the U.S. is a threat to world peace because its society has been corrupted by the idea (contrary to this group's fundamental religious tenets) that women should have equality with men. Would we welcome their attempts to undo the "damage" to our social fabric? I hope not but if not, where is the fundamental difference between their wish to shape our society, and our wish to shape theirs?
Obviously, you may say, the important difference is that we are right and they are wrong. Ah, but that's exactly what they think over there, too. Can you suggest an objective test that we can both agree on,to determine which of us is really right?
The point of all this is that the ethics of such meddling (or helping, depending on who you talk to) are far from simple. Even interactions between two individuals are often full of ethical subtleties and thorns. In the kind of case I'm talking about, things are vastly more complicated. A question like "What should Americans do about apartheid ?" involves at least three different kinds of ethical relationships, none of them simple:
- Individuals interacting with individuals.
- Individuals interacting with governments.
- Governments interacting with governments.
I have previously proposed as a basic ethical principle that interference with a person A can be justified if and only if his actions will otherwise have an adverse effect on person B . For example, a passer-by might be justified in forcibly removing an eight-grade bully from a first-grader being beaten up on the way to school. That's a "Type 1" interaction. It is tempting to assume that the ethics of interactions between nations ("Type 3") are analogous, and that country C can justify military or other action against country D only to protect itself or another country from aggression by D.
The difficulty is that that simple analogy ignores "Type 2" interactions, which are often of the greatest importance to the people involved. Key fact: Nations are not equivalent to persons. They are composed of persons and the government often equated with "the country" is seldom, if ever, equivalent to the people of the country. If the people of a country, or some of them, are being bullied by their own government, might intervention be as much justified, perhaps even morally demanded, as in the case of the bully in the schoolyard?
Maybe so but one of the most easily justified functions of any government is to protect the country (which would ideally mean "the people") from interference from without. We certainly expect ours to do that. When and how can we justify trying to circumvent that role of somebody else's government?
"When that government is wrong," you may say. "When the interests it's trying to protect are not those of the people it supposedly represents." And I may be tempted to agree yet still I must be concerned with how we can know when that is the case. I can hear some of you saying impatiently that it is so obviously the case in the matter of South African blacks or Russian Jews that the matter should not be dignified by discussion. Again, I am tempted to agree, on the basis of what I have read and heard but how many of us have any first-hand knowledge at all of what's going on in those places? I can easily imagine that, even if the problem in each case is just the kind and just as bad as we think it is, there may be features of that culture that we don't know about that would cause our solution, imposed from without, to do more harm than good.
Remember that elements of social systems may make sense only in the context of the other elements intended to work with them, somewhat as a socket wrench makes sense only in a world that uses lug nuts. "Honesty is the best policy" only in a society in which most people believe it strongly enough to act on it themselves and refrain from taking unscrupulous advantage of other people's openness and candor. A society can function reasonably with either Puritanical or traditional Polynesian attitudes toward sex, but it cannot expect its people to subscribe to both without developing all manner of neuroses. A custom may look utterly bizarre to an outsider who sees it in isolation and judges it in the light of his cultural context, yet serve a harmless, useful, or even essential purpose in its own culture, as part of a self-consistent, interrelated system. Classic example: Katherine MacLean's novelette "Unhuman Sacrifice" (published here in November 1958), in which a well-meaning missionary does considerable damage by interfering with an "obvious atrocity" which he fails to realize is an integral and essential part of the biological make-up of the species in question.
So an outsider is not always in a good position to evaluate someone else's "internal affairs." Yet it remains true that governments can do immoral things to their own people. Does the latter fact imply that foreign intervention in internal affairs is sometimes justified, while the former implies that it must be done, when it's done at all, with the greatest caution?
Possibly. My fear for the moment is that intervention (at least by us) is being more widely accepted than the need for caution. Nonetheless, I am intrigued by the possibility that this apparently growing acceptance of interference with other countries' internal affairs may represent an early step toward the acceptance of some sort of world government.
The concept of a single worldwide government has, of course, been around for a long time. The League of Nations and later the United Nations may be viewed as efforts in that direction, though neither could be considered a true world government. But I don't think the idea has at least so far had much popular support. Nations are too different, their peoples know too little of each other, and they quite reasonably distrust the idea of putting their affairs in the hands of unseen strangers who know nothing of conditions here .
That just may, for better or worse, be beginning to change. At least a few people in many parts of the world have begun to recognize that some matters cannot reasonably be regarded as purely internal, and that for such matters, if no others, decisions need to be made at a higher level than national. My personal preference concerning world government, as for any government at any level, is, "No more than necessary!" But sometimes, like it or not, some may be necessary. People in the western United States have long been familiar with the idea of water rights that a person living on one part of a river cannot use its water without regard for people upstream and downstream. People in the U.S. and Canada are now finding themselves forced to think together about the problem of acid raid. People all over the world are beginning to recognize that the rampant destruction of tropical rain forests is of direct concern to everyone who breathes, everywhere on the planet.
And now we have what looks like an increasingly casual acceptance of the "rightness" of people in one country taking an active role in determining policies and courses of action within another. Could this be an early phase of acceptance of the idea of a single government shaping policies everywhere? Maybe or maybe not. One reason for doubt is that while I hear many Americans talking about how South Africa or the USSR or Nicaragua should clean up their acts, I hear far less indication of any recognition that South Africans or Russians or Nicaraguans might have their own ideas about what we should do, much less that we should pay any attention to them. And I have even less firsthand knowledge of what, if anything, people in other countries are thinking about these matters.
So the popularity of trying to dictate other countries' behavior in "internal" affairs may be a groping toward some form of responsible unified government, or it may be mere meddling or the sincerely well-meant efforts to help that sometimes succeed but just as often lead to tragic misunderstandings. In any case, whether those who want to tell other countries how to run their internal affairs have no ambition beyond that, or whether they are thinking in terms of eventual world government, they would do well to bear in mind that turnabout may well be seen as fair play. This point seems to me seldom appreciated I get the impression that many international do-gooders assume that if world government ever comes, it will take the form of an empire with Us at the head, or at the very least as world policeman. There is doubt that the rest of the world will see it this way. It just may be that if we want to tell other countries how to run themselves, we must not be surprised if they volunteer to do us the same favor. And if a world government does come, we must expect to be partners in it, not tyrants.