A review of
From Empire to Community: A New Approach to International Relations by Amitai Etzioni
How Patriotic is the Patriot Act: Freedom Versus Security in the Age of Terrorism by Amitai Etzioni
According to the dust jacket on From Empire to Community, Amitai Etzioni is "the author of 22 books." That one appeared in 2004. In the same year, Etzioni also came out with How Patriotic is the Patriot Act?. The dust jacket of that says Etzioni is "the author of 24 books." Perhaps the flood of Etzioni titles is simply too much for publishers to keep track of. At Cornell university (where I teach), the library's catalog actually lists 61 books authored or edited by Etzioni, including over 20 in the last two decades. Meanwhile, Etzioni keeps up a busy schedule of commentary and conference participation from his perch as Director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
One way Professor Etzioni keeps up with the demand for new Etzioni books, it seems, is to work over timely topics in a timely fashionthat is, very hastily. His book which purports to be about the Patriot Act actually offers about 15 pages of generalization on that statute, much of which is not actually about the statute itself but about executive initiatives which Etzioni chooses, for his own reasons, to associate with the Patriot Act. Subsequent chapters then share Eztioni's thoughts about privacy in electronic communications, threats from bioterrorism, arguments for and against national ID cards and "the limits of nation-building" efforts in Iraq and elsewhere. It does not leave out much to say that, on each of these varied topics, Etzioni advocates a "middle of the road" approach which seeks "the delicate balance between public safety and civil rights" by eschewing "extremism in defense of either rights or security."
The book carries endorsements from both Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU ("thoughtful assessment") and Paul Rosenzweig of the conservative Heritage Foundation ("thought-provoking"), as well as Larry Thompson, who was John Ashcroft's deputy at the Justice Department ("very thoughtful"). The "middle path" earns respect from all sideseven if specifics are rather few in this very short (142 pages) and heavily padded book.
The formula can be applied to many topics, it turns outwhich also helps to keep up with demand for Etzioni musings. The "balance" between "extremes" is the central point of many books in which Etzioni expounds his call for "responsive communitarianism." Readers in a hurry may consult the "Platform" of the "Communitarian Network" which can be found on the website of Eztioni's Institute. It celebrates a balanced "communitarian perspective" in which "citizens learn respect for others as well as self-respect, where we acquire a lively sense of our personal and civic responsibilities, along with an appreciation of our own rights and the rights of others." And so on and on and on…and on. It is almost a relief to find at the end of the "Platform," amidst its careful balancing of bromides and platitudes, that the "responsive community" actually does demand one very definite policynot just gun registration or regulation but "domestic disarmament of the kind that exists in practically all democracies." The Second Amendment and long American tradition may be against it and nearly half the homes in America may practice a different philosophy when it comes to gun ownership
And the "Communitarian Network" cuts a broad swath across the soggy terrain of moderate liberal opinion in America. Leaders of teachers unions, former federal regulatory commissioners, professors of philosophy and the president of the Unitarian Churchamong many other champions of consensushave signed on to the "Platform" statement that is the manifesto for "Responsive Communitarianism." Perhaps they were stirred to action by its ringing assertion that "The basic communitarian quest for balances between individuals and groups, rights and responsibilities, and among the institutions of state, market and civil society is a constant, ongoing enterprise." Or perhaps they don't like people trying to defend themselves with their own arms.
Rejection of self-defense is one of the main themes of Etzioni's other mediation on the course of world events in 2004, From Empire to Community. But "balance" gets a lot of attention, too. Actually, the main interest of this book is in showing what happens when the harmonizing and balancing impulse is allowed to keep extending its reach, without ever acknowledging any firm boundaries. What happens is that the harmonizing impulse swallows the whole world.
Etzioni has two practical points, which are as fresh and stimulating as John Kerry's 2004 stump speeches. First, weapons of mass destruction and terror networks pose a new and most terrible threat to the world's security, but Saddam's regime in Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and did not have definite ties to al-Qaeda. Second, the world was eager to cooperate with the United States after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, but the "unilateral" attack on Iraq in 2003 forfeited this good will, especially in Islamic countries and in Europe. Or is that the same point?
It might be worth wondering why so many governments in Europe did endorse the war against Saddam anyway, and why no Arab countries offered any help to Saddam. Moreover, it might be worth wondering why European mass opinion tracked so closely with the opinion of Arab countries, while people in other places saw things differently (as, notably, in Japan, India, Russia, and Israelcountries still concerned about defending themselves). But this is not Etzioni's point which is…well, the need for balance.
As for "global community," which turns out to be the same thing, Etzioni goes far beyond the timid carpings of the Kerry campaign, but still within a formula that will be reassuringly familiar to enthusiasts of "responsive communitarianism." Western countries, Etzioni cautions, are too prone to think that what the less developed countries need is access to higher standards of living and better protection for human rights. But it is wrong to think people all want the same things. Actually, peoples of what he calls "the East" care about community and spiritual concerns. What is needed, therefore, is a grand "synthesis," which "blends 'hard' religions, especially the totalitarian version of Islam, with Western ideas of autonomy to make for soft religions. It blends Eastern spiritual notions with a Western commitment to liberal social action (in the Mario Cuomo, Hubert Humphrey…sense of the word 'liberal.')." In other words, "balance"or a global version of "responsive community." Then we can all agree.
But Etzioni is not content to preach new religions. The world needs governing authority, along with shared ideals. Fortunately, Etzioni sees the capacity for more extended global government already existing. The United States was so successful in mobilizing world-wide cooperation in the fight against terrorism that its efforts could be called a "Global Safety Authority." When the "GSA" first appears on page 123, it seems a kind of ironic invocation of American power. Forty pages later, we find that this "ad hoc anti-terrorism coalition is on its way to becoming, or at least might be converted into, a standing Global Safety Authority and that it is expanding the scope of its missions to include…pacification and humanitarian intervention." Soon it appears as a model for all sorts of other "Global Authorities," including a "Global Health Authority" and a "Global Environmental Authority." What will power all these "authorities" is the combination of American leadership and global consensus on shared concerns. Because, as he says, it has "long been argued" that "the world might unite if it faced a global threat" and "massive terrorism and weapons of mass destruction clearly constitute" such a threat today.
Greater than the all-out nuclear war between superpowers that might have rendered our world uninhabitable? Did that threat induce the Soviet Union and China to submit to a global authority for enforcement of disarmament? Never mind. They didn't have to consider the threat of pandemic diseases. And they didn't yet have a world consensus against genocide, which Etzioni claims to see emerging in response to the world's regret over the slaughter in Rwanda. And therefore, the world agrees on what to do about Darfur? Never mind. At least, we can agree on how to prevent the mad mullahs of Tehran from getting nuclear weapons, can't we?
The important thing is that if we all agreed, we wouldn't have to worry about resistance to American sponsored global authority. And we could agree on the abstract formulas, without agreeing on the details. Authorities, as Etzioni is careful to emphasize, do not need to be democratic or accountable to be "authoritative." He endorses international criminal tribunals as an example. Of the actual International Criminal Court, already up and running, he says, somewhat mysteriously, that it needs to be "reformed" but does not say what particular reforms are needed or how they such reforms might be accomplished. Presumably, his thought is that if America re-engages with this institution, it can secure a proper…uh, balance.
None of what Ezioni proposes in this book is particularly compelling or even particularly informative about the subjects discussed. But it is not really about any particular policy or policy challenge. It is about the Vision, which is harmony. But precisely because Etzioni is so abstract and formulaic in his thought, his book does have some clinical interest. Etzioni's impulses reflect a broader current of opinion that entrances many people todayvery much so in Europe, but also in those circles in North America and elsewhere which look to Europe for moral instruction. For these people, as for Eztioni, the Bush Administration has done terrible harm by organizing the overthrow of Saddam. But as most critics see it, the harm results not from overweening ambition but from almost petty small-mindedness. At most, the United States rescued people in one very brutal tyranny, but in so doing, American policy put at risk an entire structure of international law and authority, which promises, in time, to assure peace and harmony and human rights and sustainable development throughout the whole planet.
To say that this vision is unrealisticthat the United Nations by itself could not, for example, have stopped Saddam from acquiring nuclear weapons and fomenting new threatsis not saying enough. A vision which is so obviously unrealistic appeals to many people because it is, for them, morally satisfying. They feel that it should be true and that is enough to give the vision continuing appeal, despite all experience to the contrary. But the unreality of the larger vision, as it applies to international security, is directly connected to the suffocating ethos of "caring" in its underlying approach to public life. Perhaps it is the domestic political impulseor anti-political impulsewhich really drives the Vision. Etzioni's "responsive communitarianism" shows the connection very clearly.
There is nothing inherently sentimental or visionary about "communitarian" politics. Prior to the Enlightenment, almost all political thinkers were in some sense "communitarian." Political philosophy, after all, derives its first name from the poliswhich is, one could say, the Greek word for community. But what made the Greek city state a community, in the fullest sense, is that it demanded utter loyaltyor as we might say, complete identificationfrom its citizens. When Aristotle says that the polis is self-sufficient, he means that its citizens do not need to be distracted by outside loyalties or concerns. And that means, in turn, that each city rightfully rules by trying to shape citizens into the human pattern approved by the rulers.
Enlightenment theories of constitutional government, such as those embraced by the American Founders, were far less ambitious about shaping citizens to an approved pattern. To cite the most obvious examples, they rejected the notion that all citizens had to worship in the same way or orient most of their concerns around the shared concerns of the community. The idea of limited governmentand a constitution which fixes limits on the reach of governmentreflects an underlying acceptance of disagreement among citizens. We can have fundamental disagreements in private life if we agree, at least, to accept a common public authority for our mutual protection.
Etzioni, like many contemporary liberals, thinks too many people are behaving badly in private lifewhich is no doubt true. He also worries that too many people are too selfish or too unconcerned about the pain and deprivation of otherswhich may also be true. But instead of saying simply that those who know better must exert more extensive controls over those who are heedless or selfish, Eztioni wants to promote shared values. He wants to claim that, with only a bit more coaxing and exhortation, we will discover that we already do share a whole range of important values. In other words, he wants to change the subject from coercion to consensus. And he seems to believe that with enough abstract talk about "balance," we might stop worrying about the boundary between state coercion and private choice. Because then we could all agree.
The ancient Greeks spoke of "rule" more than consensus and took for granted, not only that the ruling part of the city would have to coerce others, but that each polis would have to remain in constant readiness for war with other city-states. For modern liberals like Etzioni, the idea of enduring discord is intolerable. Since we can find consensus at home, we must be able to find consensus in the world. And then, just as the boundary between government and private life at home can be erased, the boundary between one state and another in the world can be transcendedbecause we can all agree. At least we might agree if our differences were compromised in an acceptable balance of competing concerns.
One might wonder whether this vision is at all attractive, even if it were in any way feasible. Americans would move half-way toward European social democracy, perhaps, even as Europeans move half-way toward the Arab culture of resentment and fatalism. Americans could then embrace Global Authority sitting above our own government and stop fretting about whether that Authority actually did operate within the constraints of our own Constitution. We might accept that Global Authority as a higher authority and our European dependents would accept that Global Authority must be powered by American leadership or resources in the background. American exertions would then be expressions of Global Authority and so not disturbingeither to us or to others on this globe.
Or maybe not. Perhaps it is worth mentioning, since every Etzoini book mentions it, that Etzioni served as a White House counselor in the Carter Administration. Despite its best efforts, that administration did not manage to work out all the kinks in this entrancing vision of universal peace through American embrace of universal standards. But then it didn't do well in defeating inflation or gasoline shortages by moralizing about community. President Carter's most visionary speech was aptly characterized, in the unforgettable headline of a New York tabloid, as "More Mush from the Wimp."
If one accepts discord in the world, it is easier to accept discord at homeso long as we remember that we are governed by a common constitution at home, while the world at large is not subject to a common law. That might be sobering, even disturbing. But a grown-up might prefer the sober challenges of independence to childish hankering for underlying consensus. The thinkers who most directly influenced the American Founders looked at the jealous rivalries of sovereign states as the model for the claims of individuals in the state of naturethat is, quite insistent about their independence and their rights.
Disagreement does not mean there are no better or worse answers. But no sane person should believe that the best answer is some balanceor averageof all the various mistakes on offer. That's a good reason to care more about freedom than Prof. Etzioni's "responsive communitarians" do.