European Dignity, American Rights
Outlining a debate on capital punishment.


John O’Sullivan

For many years, a delegation of European Union ambassadors to the United States would troop off to Foggy Bottom for an annual meeting with the Secretary of State at which its members would solemnly demand that the U.S. abolish the death penalty on the grounds that it was a violation of human rights. Every year, the Secretary of State or his representative would politely explain that capital punishment was not a federal responsibility but a question to be determined by individual states. And every year this would make not an ounce of difference; the ambassadors would duly turn up the following year and make the same request.

For all I know, this quaint ceremony continues still, in all its showy pointlessness — like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. The European Union has adopted the abolition of capital punishment as one of the main aims of its common foreign policy. It regularly sends out diplomatic delegations to urge lesser breeds without the law — the Philippines, Indonesia, the U.S. — to conform to its high “European values” on this matter. I suppose that, when the financial roof is falling in and the wind is howling through broken windows, giving self-righteous moral lectures to your IMF creditors is one way of keeping warm. (Not the best way, of course, but one way at least.)

Americans tend to be tolerant of such European self-regard. Probably too the diplomats advising the Secretary of State are the kind of people who would oppose capital punishment in the U.S. And being Washington bureaucrats, they may also sympathize with the seeming inability of the EU’s ambassadors to grasp that, under the U.S. Constitution, individual states enjoy genuinely independent authority. That’s not how EU federalism works — and many in Washington prefer the Brussels way.

All this may explain why, so far as I know, the ambassadors have never been sent away with a flea in their collective ear. But it would be a fitting response — and a wonderful educational opportunity for the ambassadors — if Mrs. Clinton were to insist that they take an annual tour of all 50 state capitals so that they could address their concerns on capital punishment to the proper authorities. She would naturally have to grant them Secret Service protection since the EU has a pretty broad program of instructing other countries on what laws they have a bounden duty to pass — international gun control (“the widest possible”), abridging the First Amendment in order to regulate “hate speech” on the Internet, and, of course, abolishing capital punishment. That kind of hubris irritates American voters who are much less deferential to political elites than their European counterparts, and I would pay a scalper’s price to get tickets for a front seat when the ambassadors visited Georgia, New Hampshire, and, above all, Texas.

Okay, it’s a pipe dream to think that a progressive U.S. administration would speak harshly to the Europeans on anything, let alone defend the right of states to retain the death penalty. Some conservatives will also respond tetchily that the U.S. intervenes abroad too, so what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, Hrumpf, Hrumpf, etc., etc. But there’s a difference in principle between intervening with dictatorships to protect dissidents from being tortured and intervening in democracies to prevent voters from choosing the laws they live under.

Or so you and I might think. But the EU and its American supporters’ club have a reply to such naïveté — as the distinguished Hudson Institute scholar John Fonte laments brilliantly in his recent book, Sovereignty or Submission. The EU does not root its intervention simply on case-by-case indignation. On the contrary: its intervention on capital punishment is but the tip of an iceberg of theory.