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Against despairing detachment

Rules for the world stage

Martha Nussbaum

There once was a noble vision of what the world of international relations can be. In recent weeks this vision, once nearly realised, has receded from view, so much so that we might forget that human beings ever had such a dream. The idea I have in mind is Hugo Grotius' concept of "international society": the notion that all human beings form part of a single moral community, regulated by binding ethical norms that constrain the actions of nations in pursuit of their own advantage.

Grotius (or Hugo de Groot), the founding father of international law, lived between 1583 and 1645. A child prodigy, he played a leading role in Dutch trade negotiations at the age of 15, and published books from that time onward. But he was also a man who stuck his neck out. Prevailing religious doctrine in the Netherlands held that human beings were not free to alter the course of their salvation by their own choices. Closely linked to this idea was a political belief that people had no right to give themselves laws, deciding how to conduct their own affairs.

Grotius was a great believer in choice and human freedom, and in the freedom of each state to make its own laws. For both of these beliefs, he was convicted of heresy and sent to prison in a gloomy castle. But he was permitted to receive books, which his wife would deliver and cart away in a large trunk. One day the outgoing trunk had an extra occupant: Grotius himself. He managed to get on a boat to France, where he spent the next five years in exile and wrote his great work, "On the Law of War and Peace."

The book has been hugely influential for many reasons: for its insistence that war is just only if it responds to a conspicuous and serious act of aggression; for its insistence that even then, the party in the wrong must be treated in accordance with strict moral laws; for its insistence that killing of innocent civilians is morally wrong, even though the formal international law of that time did permit it; for its insistence that a stable and moral peace should be the long-term goal of international relations.

But the work's greatest contribution lies in its conception of relations among states. For Grotius, each state has sovereignty: the right to give itself laws and control its destiny. This is not just a fact, but a moral norm that expresses something deep about human freedom, something for which Grotius himself was prepared to risk imprisonment and worse.

Second, however, the world contains interactions between nations, which are mediated not just by concerns for expediency and safety but by moral considerations. Moral laws bind all nations in their dealings with one another, whether these laws have been turned into enforceable international law or not. Why should this be? Because, third, the world contains, most fundamentally, individual human beings, who are needy and trying to flourish. The moral duties to support human well-being bind us all into what Grotius calls "international society."

The norms of this society begin with the idea of humans as creatures who are both rational and social, and who need to find a way to live together. Certain ways of behaving support that conception (for example, abiding by treaties that one has made), and others do not (killing civilians in wartime).

According to Grotius, then, when international law limits America in some of its plans, Americans are not wrong to feel constrained. But Grotius would insist that the more fundamental identity we have is as members of a moral world of human beings.

National sovereignty also is limited internally by morality. If a nation commits certain very bad acts against its own population, such as torture and mass murder, another nation may intervene - what we now call "humanitarian intervention" - to help the people. National sovereignty's importance derives from its value to people and their freedom; it cannot be invoked to justify genocide and torture.

Grotius was also a radical in his thought about material need. He saw that a lasting peace among nations requires thinking about how all citizens of the world can get the things they need to live. He held that when any person anywhere is in extreme need, that person has a right to food and other necessities of life (he explicitly mentions medical care). He even says that the needy person owns the surplus that the rich are squandering, if he needs it and they don't.

Grotius' vision was not the way the world was seen in his own day. But by insisting on the power of this vision he created a climate of opinion in which that vision increasingly became real. Although his contemporary, Thomas Hobbes, influentially developed the pre-Grotian idea that the realm between nations is one of force and interest only, Immanuel Kant in the 18th century sided with Grotius, envisaging a world that achieved lasting peace through a federation of nations. Such ideas eventually led to the United Nations and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although the UN treats nations as the major actors in international affairs, the human rights movement moves us closer to Grotius' picture of a world in which national boundaries are porous, and international agreements have at least some power to constrain nations.

Are these ideas still alive? The Bush administration treats such moralized visions with utter scorn, casting the United States as the Hobbesian sovereign needed to bring order to an amoral realm. This stance is deeply alien to America's founding traditions: Thomas Paine and other founders were steeped in the continental human rights tradition that had grown out of Grotius' ideas.

In the Grotian/Kantian vision, alliances among republican nations are crucial to lasting peace. In our current foreign policy, by contrast, even once-stable alliances are treated with contempt. The duty of wealthy nations to ensure that all humans have urgent needs met does not rank high on the agenda of any major politician or political party.

We shall see how effectively humanitarian aid is given in Iraq; the example of Afghanistan gives reason for scepticism. But the more important issue is that the United States has long lagged behind wealthy nations in the proportion of gross domestic product it designates for foreign aid, giving, for example, about one-tenth of Norway's share. The Grotian vision entails support for all urgent needs, not just those of a nation one has invaded.

For me, the events of the past weeks engender a powerful grief, grief for a hope that is dying. And yet, moral norms are not docile, submissive things. They do not quit the scene when people treat them with contempt. Instead, they call us to outrage and protest. Just as the leaders of the Civil Rights movement did not abandon their vision of human equality in the face of the contempt and scorn of white society, so those of us who care about the vision of international society that Grotius bequeathed to us should insist on that vision.

People in power may say that we are dealing with "rogue states" and must shape our thinking accordingly. Grotius had seen a side of human conduct that he called "bestial." He argued that in such a world it is all the more important to proclaim and abide by principles of which a decent society can be proud and to work tirelessly to produce a world in which such principles increasingly hold sway. He warned people in power that if they imitate wild beasts they may forget to be human.

Grotius' own life also takes its stand against the course of despairing detachment, a great temptation in this time as in his own. He conspicuously does not say, "These times are bestial, so we right-thinking people had better check out." Instead, living in exile, he created a norm of co-operation and moral order that continues to inspire, and to determine the course of some world events, even if not all.

Those of us who feel a deep moral sadness about the current conduct of the United States, as our leadership shows contempt for this vision of a multilateral world, could do worse than to follow Grotius' example. Moral norms do not cease to exist because current leaders do not believe in them. We may refine them and further develop them, in the hope that once again, sooner or later, their day will dawn.


Martha Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. Her most recent books are Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 2001). This article was originally published in Newsday (New York) on 20 April 2003 and is reproduced with kind permission of the author.


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