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Hot SpotsReview - Hot Spots
American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World
by Amitai Etzioni
Transaction Publishers, 2012
Review by E. James Lieberman, M.D.
Mar 12th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 11)

Foreign policy is psychology writ large. When 2,500 U.S. Marines were assigned to Australia in 2011 it was a signal to China, presumably to deter expansionist acts by that country. Of course the Chinese saw it as a provocation. You need not need be Chinese to understand that, or to predict it.

The first chapter in sociologist Amitai Etzioni's latest book addresses this, describing two types, "adversarians," who view China as a present or future threat, and "engagers," who take that nation to be peaceful, more to be encouraged than feared. He notes that China finances a substantial part of our debt and did not abuse the power it has over the U.S. Adversarians emphasize that China sometimes acquires our technologies illegally, while benefitting at home from cheap labor and lax environmental standards. In this context Etzioni discusses policy, notably changes in our military regardless of China. Our investing in high-tech, low-cost drones and cyber-warfare tools is a policy hindered not by China but by traditional military leaders who prefer manned aircraft, large warships and conventional forces. Politicians have an interest in building conventional products in their home districts.

One need not be a political scientist, war historian or China expert to grasp this analysis. Professor of international relations and Director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University, author of two dozen books, Etzioni writes about complex issues with ease and assurance. Most of these essays, revised for this book, first appeared in academic or specialized periodicals. Respecting diverse viewpoints, Etzioni holds their advocates to a high standard while including a audience that mainly gets news and commentary from the press, radio and television but seldom from books and journals on foreign policy.

Typically, each chapter ends with cogent prescriptions that accommodate uncertainty; thus, while experts may disagree about current Chinese military aims, most would agree that we in the West are decades ahead. "This lead time provides a window for focusing on true [vs. rhetorical] engagement, holding back on containment, and above all, moving away from forward positioning of US forces and other acts that China considers to be provocative." (p. 16) Meanwhile the US can promote human rights and democracy globally, peacefully, noting signs that China is becoming less authoritarian.

The book has 22 chapters organized in eight sections. Part II has three essays, analyzing a possible nuclear Iran, its leaders' rationality and whether we can limit its influence in the Middle East. Etzioni takes up four key responses: engagement, sanctions, military strikes (liable to fail), and deterrence (Obama's apparent choice). Besides criteria of rational and irrational acts, he includes nonrational behavior, citing Talcott Parsons. Examples of this last are Iran's preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that "has no bearing on Iran's security," and Israel's "Masada complex" of suicide rather than surrender: the Samson image of sacrifice to conquer, and that of Warsaw ghetto fighters compared with the "lambs to the slaughter" image of Jews boarding trains to Nazi camps. "Such beliefs might lead Israel to attack Iran even when rational considerations indicate that such an attack would be extremely detrimental." (p. 67) The remaining topics are Pakistan, Muslims and Arabs, Nuclear Arms, the European Union, Armed Interventions, and Human Rights.

 Born in Germany, Etzioni grew up in Israel.  "As someone who killed and saw many killed long before reaching the age of twenty, I may as well state up front from which camp I hail. I still pain for every death I helped inflict, even though I was acting to defend those I loved from those who attacked us. Ever since I turned twenty [1949], when I first sat at the feet of Martin Buber, I have been somewhat of a persuader. I am not a pacifist but someone who holds that one is morally obligated to exhaust all other means possible before lifting one's arms, and that force should be applied only when there is a true, imminent, and severe danger. Above all, I maintain that making a compelling case for one's cause is both morally right and much more effective in the long run than the violent alternatives."  (p. 118) In this and other chapters Etzioni emphasizes that the "fault line that defines the clash of moral cultures and powers in the post-Cold War era does not run between civilizations but within them." (p. 117) And: "...the persuaders of the world are the natural allies of anyone who rises against the world of terror and, in effect, all other forms of violence." (p. 118) "Just as coercion reduces people to objects, persuasion respects their agency." (p. 119) The differences between systems using these two approaches "are unmistakable and of enormous human consequence. Regimes that minimize the use of coercion in law enforcement are vastly more effective and legitimate than their opposites." Norway contrasts with Singapore, and China today with that of Mao's time. (120). Etzioni eschews a liberal vs. extremist dichotomy, pointing out that, in major Islamic countries, support for suicide bombers and terrorism is low, and that most Palestinians want peace with Israel and oppose Hamas on this point. Notwithstanding a dearth of liberals, there are many moderates in all civilizations. His point is important and, regrettably, lacks emphasis in the mass media.

Some chapter titles illustrate the author's genial way of teaching: "Should We Support Illiberal Religious Democracies?" "Why There Cannot Be a Marshall Plan for the Middle East" and "Terrorists: Neither Soldiers nor Criminals." The last section has five essays on human rights, including "Drones: Moral and Legal?" Etzioni sees this tool as an extension of weaponry, "a rather minor, albeit new stepping stone on this woeful journey." (p. 306)

In "The Good Life in an Austere Age," the one essay not previously published, Etzioni challenges a shibboleth of capitalism: "Consumerism has long been shown to not provide contentment (or happiness)." (p. 224) This leads to a radical psychosocial prescription with deep conservative, i.e. religious, roots.  Moving our goal away from materialism is good psychology as well as economics in the long run. American advertising is to me the stone of Sisyphus on our endless climb to nowhere.

 The concluding section on human rights is good but could be better. There is little or nothing on sexual identity, birth control, overpopulation or global warming--ironic in a book about hot spots. Nevertheless I applaud a thoughtfully informed, stimulating, clear, wide-ranging discussion of big topics. Amitai Etzioni at 83 is still relevant, an exemplary scholar, distinguished teacher, ethically centered, and worthy of the honor of being among the top 100 American intellectuals.

 

© 2013 E. James Lieberman

 

 

E. James Lieberman, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Emeritus, George Washington University School of Medicine


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