Rebirth of Reason

War for Men's Minds

The Omnipotence Premise
by Joseph Rowlands

Philosophy is a powerful tool for developing an integrated understanding of the world.  It sheds an enormous amount of light on most topics.  You learn to see connections, to think in fundamentals, and to recognize principles.  Philosophy enables you to see past the specifics of a single situation in order to see the bigger picture and the principles involved.  Foreign policy is an excellent example.

Philosophy can provide many insights to help evaluate a foreign policy.  Through a theory of rights, you can identify the moral limits and purpose of a foreign policy.  You can decide when war is appropriate.  You can determine which other countries should be considered friendly.  You can understand the contradictions involved in choosing allies who violate rights.  There's much you can learn by seeing any particular act in the wider context of a policy aimed at protecting rights.

Unfortunately, philosophy is often abused when it's applied to real life situations.  The problem is that philosophy can give you some amount of guidance and understanding, but you still need to understand and act in the concrete situations of the day.  Like all sciences, philosophy can provide a foundation, but you still need to go out and identify the specifics.  You can't simply make decisions from an armchair.  You need to gather information, evaluate them with reference to your principles, and than decide upon an appropriate action.

The abuse happens when people want to approach foreign policy, or any other science, by remaining on their armchair.  They want to take their philosophical principles and derive the appropriate actions from them.  They want their choices to be philosophically pure and clean.  They want an easy answer, easily derived from their philosophical principles.

I offer two examples of this error.  In both examples, the promoters of a foreign policy make a simplification of the real world in order for their philosophically pure policies to be applicable.

The first foreign policy example is isolationism.  The policy is to never go outside of our borders, and only to wage war when our nation is attacked directly.  There are a lot of unanswered questions in this policy, but we'll leave most of them for now.  Instead, let's look at the results.  First, assisting friends or allies, or jointly opposing a likely enemy, would be ruled out.  If a belligerent country like the old Soviet Union or Nazi Germany started conquering the rest of the world, we should sit idly by until they attack us directly.  There's no possibility of ever joining forces.

The second example of foreign policy comes from the "nuke them all" camp.  The idea is whenever there is a threat to the US, we should simply wipe them out.  This view of foreign policy amounts to not worrying about diplomacy or supporting allies.  It simply says we'll leave you alone unless you threaten our citizens, and then we'll use overwhelming force to crush you.  So don't try it!

The two polices are significantly different in practice.  The isolationists would bunker down unless an invasion force came out.  The "nuke them all" camp would aggressively attack any country that threatened us.  In today's climate, the isolationists would ignore Iran and hope that our peaceful withdrawal from the world would make them not want to attack us.  The "nuke them all" camp would attack aggressively with overwhelming force not caring about any consequences except whether they get crushed.

So in practice, we see major differences.  But both policies are based on a single important premise.  The premise is that our country is omnipotent, and will win in any conflict that presents itself.  The isolationists are assured that no matter what happens in the world, we need not interfere because if they ever attacked us, we'd crush them.  The "nuke them all" camp is assured that we can crush anyone who gets in our way.  Both assume that at the end of the day, we can crush anything thrown against us. 

But these positions are used to discuss the past as well.  The premise of omnipotence guides their evaluations of the first and second World War, and the cold war with the Soviet Union.  If we had waited for the Germans to conquer every nation, including Mexico and Canada, and build up massive forces on our border (but they haven't attacked yet!), there'd be nothing to fear.  We'd just crush them.  Or on the other side, we should have just crushed the Soviets when they threatened us.

The omnipotence principle makes things philosophically clean.  No longer do you have to worry about pesky problems of real life.  You can decide what would be the ideal action based on your philosophical principles, and you can execute it exactly that way.  Instead of the difficulty of applying principles to complex situations, you can simply state the ideal.

In real foreign policy, issues are complex.  Take for instance the idea of alliances.  Under the omnipotence premise, there's absolutely no need for one, and there's never an advantage of being in one.  They can only hurt by drawing you into unnecessary wars.  And for support, they'll quote George Washington and his "no entangling alliances" from his farewell speech.

But of course, Washington was happy to have an alliance with France during the Revolutionary War.  And the reason was because we weren't omnipotent.  Alliances can save a nation.  You have to be careful not to have an alliance that drags you into wars that aren't in your interests, or violate your principles.

Similarly, when you're omnipotent, you don't need arms embargoes, trade embargoes, peace treaties, any other form of treaty.  You don't need diplomacy at all.  Persuasion isn't necessary at all, since you can always force anyone to do as you ask.  You don't need to make any trade-offs.  You can always pick the 'pure' solution.

The omnipotence premise makes everything simple.  Anyone will know precisely how to handle any policy decision.  You don't need think-tanks.  You can define your policy in a one page pamphlet.  You certainly don't need to understand any of the details about what's going on in the world.  Every philosopher can be an expert.

And that's the point of the omnipotence premise, isn't it?  By making one assumption about the world,  it lets them make important choices without research or thought.  They are able to understand and make importance policy decisions on a topic that they only heard of 30 seconds before.  And more, the promoters can declare any other policy as immoral and pragmatic.  They can say that only they are brave enough and consistent enough to promote a foreign policy so ethically pure.

I'm all for using philosophy to guide our understanding of a proper foreign policy.  It would be a serious mistake not to.  But we must always make sure that we don't try to substitute philosophical ideals for critical thinking.
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