Wars on Terrorism and Iraq: Human Rights, Unilateralism, and U.S. Foreign Policy

By Thomas G. Weiss; Margaret E. Crahan et al. | Go to book overview

2

Pre-emption and exceptionalism in U.S. foreign policy

Precedent and example in the international arena

Judith Lichtenberg1

When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind—in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility . . . Everything happens to every man as though the whole human race had its eyes fixed upon what he is doing and regulated its conduct accordingly.

Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism Is a Humanism" 2

It is not in the American national interest to establish pre-emption as a universal principle available to every nation.

Henry Kissinger, August 11, 2002 3

What is most troubling about U.S. foreign policy today is the example that it holds up to the world and the precedent that it sets, conjoined with its disregard for the significance of both example and precedent. The United States legislates, dangerously, for the whole of humankind, while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge that role—thereby escaping, as Jean-Paul Sartre says one cannot do, from its "complete and profound responsibility." Of course, states and their governments are not in every way analogous to individual human beings. But in the most important respects, governments are agents whose actions and policies have just the kind of precedential and exemplary significance that individuals' actions do—even more so, I shall argue, because of their inescapably public nature.

Sartre's claim that every agent legislates for all humanity derives from the "Categorical Imperative, " Kant's fundamental principle of morality. According to Immanuel Kant, an agent ought to "act only according to that maxim by which . . . [one] can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." 4 This formulation of the Categorical Imperative (one of three that Kant offers) has been subjected to much scrutiny over the years. Contemporary philosophers have found it difficult to interpret it in a way that achieves everything Kant intended. Yet the germ of Kant's idea captures something that goes deep in our thinking about the moral requirements of conduct, and the same or

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