America Impugns World's Ethics

One day, historians will take one of two recent and almost-unnoticed events and use them to mark the end of the “”Pax Americana,”” the prominence of the United States in the international arena that characterized at least half of the 20th century.

The two events are almost trivial: In the last three weeks the United States has been excluded, for the first time ever, from the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and from the U.N. Commission on Illegal Drugs.

The immediate and conscious reason for these decisions is probably just to send a signal to the Bush administration. During his first 100 days in office, President George W. Bush has shown that his consideration for the international community is minimal, that his concept of alliances is hierarchical, with the United States at the top, and that he is willing to do anything to favor the penetration of U.S. business in willing or unwilling markets.

The first signal has been sent strongly through the rejection of the Kyoto Protocol. The second came through the decision to go on with his defense initiative in the face of serious doubts from allies. The third came in his use of the World Trade Organization to bypass international legislation aimed at protecting small and local businesses, and to impose an American economic model on other countries.

These immediate reasons could be dismissed as a fight for political territory; normal at a time when one of the most influential administrations in the world has changed, but the U.N. decisions reveal a more serious and long-term distancing between the United States and the rest of the Western world.

The decision to exclude the United States from the human rights commission, for instance, comes after years of concerns about our nation’s human rights record.

The rest of the Western world considers the death penalty a violation of human rights, especially when applied to minors, a practice used only by the United States and Iran.

Lack of prosecution of police abuses, relatively common in the United States, is also widely regarded as a violation of human rights. Police abuse is considered normal criminal activity, but it is a violation of human rights when it systematically goes unpunished.

The decision to exclude the United States from the commission on illegal drugs comes from an increasing divergence of the “”zero tolerance”” policies, the “”war on drugs,”” and policies in the rest of the West, which are more inclined toward partial legalization and social intervention, and opposed to jailing drug users.

There is, in other words, the impression that during the last 20 years, the social and political paths of the United States and the rest of the West have diverged considerably.

During the Reagan years, the threat of the Soviet Union kept the West together, but during the last 10 years, the differences have been more evident. Further, Europe has been less willing to follow the United States and has been more prone to finding its own political identity.

Ultimately, the divergence is about the ethical foundation of government. The ultraliberal position of the U.S. economy has replaced the value system on which Western democracies are based, with an economic absolutism in which freedom of economic forces is the only surviving value. Other rights that were considered necessary for a human society are now subject to the domination of economic necessities.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have been scaled down from inalienable rights to common goods. The new mantra of keeping government small and out of one’s life effectively transfers power from a democratically elected body to large international financial holdings whose operation are in large measure hidden from view and out of the public control.

The ironic aspect of the situation is that the pre-eminence of the market is supported by the same conservative forces that show a greater propensity for nationalism, without noticing that their economic views are generating global financial powers that are reducing nations to an empty shell. I will not be the one to cry the end of nationalism, but the shift from a democratic entity to an essentially undemocratic supernational power worries me. After all, the idea of democracy is that Bill Gates and I have the same power — one man, one vote — while the idea of financial trading is that power goes with the largest pile of money.

Europe is trying to answer the need to conciliate markets and democracy with two principles. First, there are values that are considered too important to be subject to the market and that qualify as “”common goods.”” Education and health care, to name only two, fall into this category. Second, the government should exert a proactive and strong action to guarantee that the market mechanisms work to the benefit of society at large and do not degenerate into large concentrations of power that is out of democratic control. This is the fundamental difference that is dividing the West in two.

Additionally, a fundamentalist view of religion that Western Europe is slowly abandoning after the bitter lessons of centuries of war, is having a comeback in the United States, united to a radicalization of the Calvinist aspects of reformed Christianity. The appeals of the pope against unrestricted capitalism, against the death penalty, and on the use of human dignity as an ethical measure of a society, would be unthinkable coming from the mouth of any religious leader in the United States.

Even more fundamentally, many cultural differences in the West appear to derive from a single point: The United States is adopting the free market as an ethical model not only in economy but in politics, sociology and religion, and is trying to impose it on the rest of the world.

Europe is taking a more restricted approach, endorsing the free market as an useful instrument for certain aspects of production but shying away from it as a model for other aspects of society. That is, Europe is not taking the market as an ethical model, but is trying, sometimes unsuccessfully, to base it on pre-existing values.

The difference is deep, and two political circumstances make it difficult to open a debate about it: the divisiveness and weakness of Europe as a political entity, and the new isolationism and delirium of omnipotence of the United States.

Western civilization is certainly changing. Only time will tell what direction it will go and whether it will still exist as a unique concept.

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