Famed author and thinker Peter Dale Scott offers hope -- and enlightenment -- to those despairing in the age of Trump.
On a panel at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Peter Dale Scott expressed concern about the decay of the US commitment to global peace and collective security, as shown in the recent expansion of unilateral lethal US strikes against terrorists, sometimes with no legal authority. But he also voiced words of encouragement for those troubled by this, recalling the successes of the Civil Rights Movement and the people who later helped end the Vietnam War.
Peter Dale Scott is a former Canadian diplomat, Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, co-founder of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at Berkeley, poet, and 2002 recipient of the Lannan Poetry Award.
I want to thank the Commonwealth Club and George Hammond for devising this most timely conversation. America has indeed veered from Enlightenment when our president denies global warming and rejects international cooperation to address it. But I do not believe that such militant anti-scientism can prevail.1
I am much more concerned for those enlightenment values enunciated by Immanuel Kant, in his essay “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.” Kant’s visionary ambition — “the end of all hostilities” — contained important instrumental ideas. One was: “Standing armies shall in time be totally abolished.” Another: “No state shall by force interfere with the constitution or government of another state.”2
America honored the first principle for only a few years, but it honored the second as recently as that great American-inspired achievement, the 1945 UN Charter. Charter Article 2(4), to which the US is treaty-bound, requires states to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force.” For 60 years America’s observance of this rule has eroded; until under Trump it is virtually ignored.3 But America’s global unilateralism cannot be blamed on Trump; its roots are very deep and very old.4
The American Constitution marks the first major political implementation of Enlightenment values: an outstanding and enduring achievement. Of necessity, it was also very imperfect, doing much for liberty, but nothing to end slavery.5 This contradiction led to the Civil War and emancipation. These divisions, still with us, underlie much of our intemperate public discourse. The slow processes of emancipation and adjustment are still unfinished.
As a non-violent radical conservative, I am ambivalent about Lincoln’s Civil War. Slavery was an infamy that had to go. But the war accelerated America on a long process, still with us, of interventionism and imposing social change through military violence.6 (That too has its source in an Enlightenment idea — Rousseau’s unfortunate notion of forcing men to be free.) The Civil War also converted the United States from a plural noun to a singular one. As the southern historian Shelby Foote noted, “Before the war, it was said ‘the United States are’ … And after the war it was always ‘the United States is.’”7
This change — from an “are” to an “is” — was important. Washington, paralyzed for years over the slavery issue, now became an active agency for vigorous intervention: in the South (Reconstruction), in the West (the escalation of Indian Wars),8 and later overseas (Cuba and the Philippines). Most Americans are unaware of the continuity from the Indian Wars of the 1860s and ‘70s, to the Philippine interventions of the 1900s and 1950s, to the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.9
One source of our present discontent can be found in this evolution. Intervention in the south produced a political reaction, and in 1876 militarized Reconstruction — America’s first exercise in “nation-building” — largely ended in failure. The subsequent interventions elsewhere, predictably, have aroused reactions no less intense. But those infuriated elsewhere cannot vote. Instead many become terrorists.
Experts repeatedly advise that the Global War Against Terrorism is counterproductive: “If the terrorist group can recruit five new members for every terrorist killed or captured, the battle against the terrorist organization is lost.”10 As a result of such a campaign we see terrorist counterattacks against the countries that target them; and these in turn encourage public support for heightened revenge. We are currently mired in this avoidable dialectic.11
We, and our politicians, are very divided about intervention at home. But most politicians, along with our ruling elites and media, are so united in their support of interventions abroad that the underlying principle of UN collective security has been forgotten.
War has become an immensely lucrative activity, generating many lobbies, from the military-industrial complex,12 to others like the nation-building business oligopoly.13 Thus Congress was silent when Trump “cleared the way … for offensive strikes in Somalia,”14 and started “paving the way for lethal strikes against terrorists in Niger,”15 with no legal authority.16
Citing the Soviet Union, it has become fashionable to mock the folly of those who would seek to implement visionary ideas in the real world. A key example of renounced idealism is the Kellogg-Briand Treaty of 1928, which outlawed war as an instrument of national policy. Recently Henry Kissinger called it “meaningless”; George Kennan called it “childish.” They could hardly have spoken otherwise. Both men were only too aware that they were violating a treaty (and a Charter) that America had not only signed but inspired and brought into being: Kissinger in Cambodia, Kennan by underwriting a guerrilla army in the Ukraine.17
Measured by the events that led up to World War Two, the Kellogg-Briand Treaty, lacking sanctions, can be assessed as a failure. But by creating the notion of a crime against peace, it was the legal foundation for the Nuremberg trials, following which the interdiction of aggressive war was confirmed and broadened by the United Nations Charter. A recent book argues compellingly that in this way the Kellogg-Briand idea has slowly acquired its needed sanctions.18
What can we in this small room do to encourage American public politics back towards enlightenment decorum, in the service of a more peaceful future? The obvious first step is to eschew all hatred in ourselves when defending reason. We should also condemn it in others, from Antifa and Nazis in the streets, to sneering commentators in the media, to educators who condescend toward those undereducated in our society who may be truly suffering.
America is still to be both believed in, and questioned. We in this room can begin by questioning our own enlightenment values which so alienate the supporters of Trump. Trump is on sure ground when he says over and over to cheering crowds, “this is a nation of believers.” We who are also questioners should recognize that enlightenment values are not an absolute, but part of an ongoing dialectical process between faith and reason, which is as old as Plato’s Euthyphro and the Book of Job.
There is a timeless tension between belief and enlightenment. Humanity is both a condition (a form of being) and a process (a becoming). The good life is a harmonious reconciliation of both. Let me say as a Canadian, despite all else I have said tonight, that I regard America as one of the world’s best examples of this harmony. Even under Trump.
Enlightenment values, historically, have concerned process, not being. The word itself implies change. The 18th century enlightenment (there have been others), was a polemical effort to replace dogmas with ideas: it never fully escaped the shadow of Voltaire’s écrasez l’infame.21 The Enlightenment inspired the American Constitution and the separation of church and state (a very good idea). It also inspired Marx’s idea that religion was “the opium of the masses” — a false notion that contributed to the failure of the Russian revolution.
Just as we in this room need equanimity, so the nation outside needs equilibrium. Good ideas unchecked can produce their violent opposite, accelerating the natural dialectic of history.22 The dream of liberté and égalité, unrestrained, produced in rapid order the French Revolution, Napoleon, the Metternichian reaction. Similarly, the spread of these ideas to the Middle East, most recently in the Arab Spring, has produced violence in many countries, and also militant reactionary Salafism, underwritten by the nervous monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The consequent dislocation of masses of refugees now threatens the equilibrium of Europe, encouraging racist xenophobia.
We have seen the same xenophobic reaction in America after 9/11, but to a far smaller degree. There are no easy formulas for returning America in the direction of tolerance and compassion. But I am old enough to remember the nightmare in America of McCarthyism, and how McCarthy’s own excesses brought that nightmare to a dramatic end.
America today is gripped by another nightmare, of hysterical over-reaction to terrorism.23 A state of emergency, and an Act authorizing America’s longest war, were proclaimed after 9/11 to deal with al-Qaeda; they are still in force, resulting in suspensions of parts of the American Constitution.24 None of this is by accident. The emergency allows US armies in Asia to protect US investments in Kazakhstan, and a US Brigade in Ohio to protect against any resurgence of a successful anti-war movement in America.25
Thus I argue in my book The American Deep State that, as a first step, Congress should end the state of emergency and restore the Constitution.26 That will not happen soon. All power corrupts, all imperial power intoxicates, and all great previous empires have ended in idiocy. The British-French Suez Canal folly in 1956, for example, was idiotic.27 So was the Soviet folly that year in Hungary, contributing not only to Moscow’s eventual loss of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but the final demise of the once global Communist dream.
American folly became flagrant in the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars. It is linked to today’s White House folly of anti-scientism: Both arise from a US political economy based on the petrodollar, and both are promoted by petrodollar interests.28 We clearly need to wean our economy from its dependence on petroleum, for the sake of both peace and climate stability.
Surely the American people, who inspired the successful Civil Rights Movement and who later helped end the Vietnam War, can successfully mobilize to demand a more reasonable, and realistic, foreign policy for a multipolar world.
To this end, we can all work to embody and promote among ourselves America’s historic spirit of comity among differences, achieved through widely dispersed checks and balances.
1. From 2008 to 2015, under Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, 2000 environmental scientists were fired, and decades of governmental research were discarded, sometimes in landfill. It was a nightmare of anti-scientific reaction, possibly funded by the American Koch brothers. But it ended.
2. Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” in Andrew J. Williams, Amelia Hadfield, J. Simon Rofe, International History and International Relations (New York: Routledge, 2012), 73.
3. See e.g. Marty Lederman, “Why the strikes against Syria probably violate the U.N. Charter and (therefore) the U.S. Constitution,” JustSecurity, April 6, 2017, https://www.justsecurity.org/39674/syrian-strikes-violate-u-n-charter-constitution/.
4. See Brian Bogart, “US Conflicts Abroad Since World War II: America Declassified — Chronicling the Official History of US Conflict Dependence,” Institute for Policy Research and Development.
5. The Constitution actually made arrangements to perpetuate slavery, which is why William Lloyd Garrison detested and publicly burned it, calling it as “a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell.”
6. There were of course examples of military intervention before — the early Indian wars, the Mexican-American War — but the scale and intensity radically increased.
7. Shelby Foote, Interviewed in the documentary series The Civil War (PBS): “…. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an ‘is’.” The change was noticed in 1887 by the Washington Post:
There was a time a few years ago when the United States was spoken of in the plural number. Men said “the United States are” — “the United States have” — “the United States were.” But the war changed all that. Along the line of fire from the Chesapeake to Sabine Pass was settled forever the question of grammar. Not Wells, or Green, or Lindley Murray decided it, but the sabers of Sheridan, the muskets of Sherman, the artillery of Grant. … The surrender of Mr. Davis and Gen. Lee meant a transition from the plural to the singular. (Washington Post, April 24, 1887, 4)
8. Before the Civil War the largest and longest Indian War was the Second Seminole War (1835–1842), with estimated casualties of 3,000 Seminoles (John K. Mahon, History of the Second Seminole War [Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida Press, 1967]. 321). In 1894, the US Census Bureau estimated that 30,000 Indian corpses had been “found by the whites” in all the wars between 1789 and 1891, adding that the actual number of deaths “must be very much higher.” Its confirmed estimate for the wars between 1846 and 1891 was that 11,000 Indians had been killed (Bureau of the Census Report on Indians taxed and Indians not taxed in the United States (except Alaska) at the Eleventh Census: 1890 [Washington: Government Printing Office, 1894], 637–40).
9. Peter Dale Scott, “Atrocity and its Discontents: U.S. Double-Mindedness About Massacre;” in Adam Jones, ed. Genocide, War Crimes and the West: Ending the Culture of Impunity (London: Zed Press, 2004).
10. Graeme C. S. Steven and Rohan Gunaratna, Counterterrorism: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 31. For other examples of expertise weighing in against current U.S. counterterrorism strategies, see The American Deep State, 174-75.
11. Cf. Peter Dale Scott, “Why Americans Must End America’s Self-Generating Wars,” Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, April 22, 2015, http://apjjf.org/2012/10/36/Peter-Dale-Scott/3819/article.html.
12. Retired Army Colonel Lawrence B. “Larry” Wilkerson, former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell, has concluded from his insider experience that “We have become a national security state, that means our reason for existing is war and defense contractors are the merchants of death” (Speech at Code Pink Conference: Divest from the War Machine, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFJIBU-YBsY). Wilkerson reports that 40 percent of US army recruits now come from just seven states, such as Alabama and West Virginia, increasingly because of poverty. (Officers can look forward in retirement to good jobs in the defense industries, the raw recruits to PTSD and opioids.)
13. In 2015, just one company, Chemonics International, “received a contract of $9.5bn over eight years from USAid — the largest contract ever from the government agency Devex reports. Only one other contractor receives more USAid awards, the Partnership for Supply Chain Management, which is a conglomerate of 13 companies” (“Top US government aid partner to pay $500k damages to African American job applicants,” Guardian, November 21, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/nov/21/top-us-government-aid-partner-to-pay-500k-damages-to-african-american-job-applicants?CMP=twt_gu).
14. Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Carries Out Drone Strike Against Shabab Militants in Somalia,”
15. Ken Dilanian, Courtney Kube, William M. Arkin, Hans Nichols And Cynthia Mcfadden.
16. Witness the action of the House just now: “The House has just approved a nearly 700 billion dollar Military Spending Bill. That is almost 100 billion dollars more than President Trump had asked for….. The House vote was an overwhelming 356 to 70 with 127 Democrats voting in favor. A similar measure is expected to pass the Senate, although lawmakers will have to agree on raising the budget cap first.” (“Divided Congress Unites to Spend $700B on Military and War,” The Real News, November 18, 2017, http://therealnews.com/t2/story:20484:Divided-Congress-Unites-to-Spend-%24700B-on-Military-and-War).
17. Mario del Pero, “The Role of Covert Operations in US Cold War Foreign Policy,” in Heike Bungert, Jan G. Heitmann, Michael Wala, eds., Secret Intelligence in the Twentieth Century (London; Frank Cass, 2003), 71-73.
18. Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017): “As its effects reverberated across the globe, it reshaped the world map, catalyzed the human rights revolution, enabled the use of economic sanctions as a tool of law enforcement, and ignited the explosion in the number of international organizations that regulate so many aspects of our daily lives.” The book may be ahead of its time: the New York Times chose a prominent interventionist, Max Boot, to review it. His predictable judgment: “’There are some ideas so absurd only an intellectual could believe them,’ George Orwell wrote. The notion that the Kellogg-Briand Pact was a raging success is one of them” (Max Boot, “When the Governments of the World Agreed to Banish War,” New York Times, September 21, 2017).
19. Another such idea was Young Europe’s dream of a united Europe, frustrated in 1848, but implemented a century later (with help from America).
20. This is, I believe, what I call the “prevailable” direction in history. Cf. Peter Dale Scott, The American Deep State (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 179, 181. I define my term “prevailable will of the people” in Peter Dale Scott, The Road to 9/11 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 270.
21. Consider, for example, Kant’s essay “What Is Enlightenment?”: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage…. It is more nearly possible, however, for the public to enlighten itself; indeed, if it is only given freedom, enlightenment is almost inevitable…. This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom–and the most innocent of all that may be called ‘freedom’: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: ‘Do not argue!’ The officer says: ‘Do not argue–drill!’ The tax collector: ‘Do not argue–pay!’ The pastor: “Do not argue–believe!’” (Immanuel Kant, ““What Is Enlightenment?” http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html).
22. We can include in these unchecked ideas America’s naïve faith that you can improve what we think of as the “third world” with vast sums of money, in so-called “nation-building” or modernization programs. Although much good has been achieved on a small scale, major projects have always led to major corruption. Yet as Bradley Simpson has observed, “modernization … was part of a larger, widely dispersed fabric of thinking about the process of becoming modern, the origins of which stretch back to the Enlightenment” (Bradley R. Simpson, Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968 [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008], 8).
23. From my book The American Deep State, 139-40:
I call our new hysteria the “Doomsday Mania,” after the Doomsday Project that (as we saw in chapter 7) was the Pentagon’s name for the twenty years of COG planning to suspend parts of the U.S. Constitution. The Doomsday Project was escalated under Reagan in 1982 as emergency planning “to keep the White House and Pentagon running during and after a nuclear war or some other major crisis.” Expanded by the end of the Reagan presidency to cover planning for any emergency, the planning was entrusted to a secret committee including Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, even when both men were no longer in the U.S. government.24 Composed mostly of fellow Republicans, even under Clinton, at least one section of the committee became what a former Pentagon official described as in effect “a secret government-in-waiting.” From its outset in 1982 to its implantation on 9/11, the Doomsday Project was indeed apocalyptic in its baseless determination that America faced a terrorist crisis so dire that the Constitution needed to be partly set aside. A decade before 9/11, its far-reaching arrangements were expanding the groundwork of Oliver North, to create what CNN in 1991 already described as a “shadow government . . . about which you know nothing.”
24. Scott, The American Deep State, 31-34.
25. Scott, The American Deep State, 9, 68, 89. “The United States has been at war continuously since the attacks of 9/11 and now has just over 240,000 active-duty and reserve troops in at least 172 countries and territories” (“America’s Forever Wars,” editorial, New York Times, October 22, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/22/opinion/americas-forever-wars.html?_r=0). (3) An international Gallup Poll confirmed in 2014 that “The rest of world believes that the United States is the country that poses the greatest threat to world peace, beating out all challengers by a wide margin” (Meredith Bennett-Smith, “Womp! This Country Was Named The Greatest Threat To World Peace,” Huffington Post, January 2, 2014, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/02/greatest-threat-world-peace-country_n_4531824.html). The New York Times reported this finding in their online International Business Times, but not their domestic print edition. See Eric Brown, “Leading Threat to World Peace is…America?” Cf. Paul Street, ZMagazine, February 24, 2014.
26. Scott, The American Deep State, 179-82.
27. Before that, there were the idiotic conditions both countries imposed on Germany at Versailles in 1919, and their consequence the Second World War. I should mention also the “Jameson raid” of 1895, as part of a process which “provoked, predictably, a responsive buildup from other powers, particularly France and Germany; and this ultimately made World War I (and its sequel, World War II) all but inevitable” (Scott, The American Deep State, 170).
28. How do we enjoy more than our share of the world’s resources? Partly from financial management and control of petromarkets, which leads to dominance also in the arms market. Here I am telescoping quite lengthy arguments in The American Deep State; also David E. Spiro, The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony: Petrodollar Recycling and International Markets (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Vitruvian Man (Luc Viatour / Wikimedia).