The Corner

A Quick Response to Glenn Greenwald

(Updates below.)

The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald is cross with me because I tweeted on Friday evening that America “is the greatest country in world history” and contended that moral equivalence on possession of nuclear weapons is absurd on the grounds that North Korea is a “totalitarian nightmare state . . . run by a family crime syndicate” and the United States is not. Such ideas, Greenwald writes, are “not just untenable, but laughable.” 

Firstly, I would say that I’m an odd person for him to have chosen to react to, given that what I wrote is apparently so ubiquitously thought. My view, Greenwald claims, is not “the slightest bit controversial” and forms “the overarching belief system of the US political and media class.” I am merely pronouncing “axioms, from which all valid conclusions flow.” In rebutting my view, Greenwald writes:

The probability that you will happen to be born into The Objectively Greatest One, to the extent there is such a thing, is less than 1%. As the US accounts for roughly 5% of the world’s population, the probability that you will be born into it is 1/20. Those are fairly long odds for the happenstance of being born into the Greatest Country on Earth.

It was rather unlikely that I’d be born in America, which is probably why I wasn’t. I’m British, not American. I was born in Cambridge, England. Greenwald tries to get around this by suggesting that my view is the product of what I was presumably “taught to believe about western nations closely aligned to our own” and implies that those who believe America is the greatest country in the history of the world do so reflexively:

The “truths” we’re taught to believe from birth – whether nationalistic, religious, or cultural – should be the ones treated with the greatest skepticism if we continue to embrace them in adulthood, precisely because the probability is so great that we’ve embraced them because we were trained to, or because our subjective influences led us to them, and not because we’ve rationally assessed them to be true.

The implication here is obvious, if flawed: That I think what I think because I’ve been conditioned to do so, whereas Greenwald thinks what he thinks because he’s thought about it. If he must use a Brit to make this point, I’d suggest that Greenwald first go to Britain and ask people what they think of American hegemony. He should be prepared to be disappointed, for I am the exception, not the rule. If being born in a country is supposed to make you irrationally affectionate for it, then I am a witness for the opposite case.

His post is also rather selective. Greenwald continues:

Note that Cooke did not merely declare America’s superiority, but rather used it to affirm a principle: as a result of its objective superiority, the US has the right to do things that other nations do not. This self-affirming belief – I can do X because I’m Good and you are barred from X because you are Bad – is the universally invoked justification for all aggression. It’s the crux of hypocrisy. And most significantly of all, it is the violent enemy of law: the idea that everyone is bound by the same set of rules and restraints…[The idea] that Cooke expressed here – that the US, due to its objective superiority, is not bound by the same rules as others – is the most cherished and aggressively guarded principle in that circle. Conversely, the notion that the US should be bound by the same rules as everyone else is the most scorned and marginalized.

The rest of my Friday evening tweets, which Greenwald omits, and my larger view, which he never bothered to look up, make clear that my view is that the Western world as a whole — not just America — is to be treated differently than, say, North Korea. Why? Because it behaves differently. As I wrote, “We are good. This is a constitutional republic under the rule of law. They are bad. Their government is run by a family crime syndicate.” Does Greenwald deny this? Perhaps he does. The principle is not too controversial, even domestically. After all, we don’t let convicted felons own firearms in the United States but allow law-abiding citizens to do so. It is certainly not an irrational thing to say that Britain, France, the United States, Canada, Australia, and so on are objectively, empirically, demonstrably different to Iran and North Korea. That is a fact. The world’s people appear to have noticed this, too. I am by no means the only immigrant who loves the United States.

If you allow, as I wrote, that “the United States, and most of the West, is the pinnacle of human achievement; DPRK is not,” which I do, then it becomes not just acceptable but necessary for the West to hold on to its dominant position in world affairs and to possess the power to prevail against the barbarians that would tear civilization apart. Each to their own, but I am pleased that the last two hundred years have seen Britain and then the United States dominate the seas and hold preeminent positions in global affairs. If Greenwald is not pleased by this, that’s fine. But there will always be a balance of power, and he must say who exactly he would like to have the upper hand instead? Austria? Japan? China?

Part of holding that upper hand is ensuring that you have the power to stop others from controlling things.Against this, Greenwald goes on to quote Orwell’s contention that:

Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side . . .

I do not think that the ownership of nuclear weapons falls into this category. Owning a weapon is not the same thing as using it. It would be just as bad if the United States indiscriminately bombed London without having been provoked as if North Korea or France did so. But that is not what I was discussing. I was suggesting that the United States owning nuclear weapons and North Korea owning nuclear weapons are incomparable in the same way as are my sister owning an AR15 and Charles Manson owning an AR15. Ownership of weapons is a matter of discretion and record and intent. The United States has shown that it can be trusted with weapons — yes, the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the correct one — and everything North Korea does suggests that it can not. Thankfully, the United States has the power to influence this. 

Toward the end of his piece, Greenwald constructs a cartoon version of my opinion: 

This belief in the unfettered legal and moral right of the US to use force anywhere in the world for any reason it wants is sustained only by this belief in objective US superiority, this myth of American exceptionalism. 

American exceptionalism is not a “myth,” but let’s not rehash that old argument here. He is right to suggest that I believe in all that Shining City on a Hill stuff. What I most certainly did not write, however, is that the U.S. has an “unfettered legal and moral right” to do what it wants “for any reason” — and nor do I believe it, which my vocal criticism of the Libya intervention, opposition to the drone war, and skepticism of recent American foreign policy demonstrates. Much as it might surprise him, I am actually an admirer of Greenwald’s — if just for his consistency — and we agree on a lot more than he’d presume. (Go and look at my Twitter feed if you don’t believe me.) Suffice it to say, this is not his best work.

UPDATE: Greenwald has replied to me at the foot of his Guardian article:

Cooke has a mostly thoughtful reply, here. I don’t have time this afternoon to respond in detail, so I’ll leave it to readers to decide if you think he’s offered a satisfactory explanation for what he thinks. Just two notes: (1) I explicitly said I was not contesting the view that North Korea’s government is totalitarian and horrific, and (2) I wasn’t suggesting that Cooke himself believes that the US has the right to use force anywhere it wants and for whatever reasons, only that the premise of American exceptionalism he endorses is the necessary ingredient for that belief and is typically the animating principle behind it. I quoted Cooke because, as he himself suggests, what he wrote is a pure distillation of a widely held view in US political discourse.

I think (1) is fair. I meant to ask whether Greenwald denies the vast difference between the United States and North Korea, not to insinuate his comfort with the regime. For the record, he did make clear that the North Korean regime is “monstrous.” (2) is reasonable as well, although I’d point out that the person Greenwald chose to write about — me — holds the “axiom,” or “necessary ingredient,” without the resultant views that Greenwald is so worried about. Consequently, I do not make a particularly convincing case: If you’re going to argue that x leads dangerously to y, perhaps find someone who holds both x and y as truth; certainly don’t make someone who holds only x the centerpiece of your column. Still, I’m prepared to accept the “pure distillation” point.

I’d also point out that believing that America should have nuclear weapons where North Korea cannot because America is a better country than North Korea — which Greenwald described as “[applying] the first couple steps” — is by no means the same thing as believing American force can be used without limit at any time and for any reason. Not in the same ballpark, in fact.

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