An Orwellian Moment: The Myth of American Multilateralism: Bruce Harding Reflects on the State of US Foreign Policy, in Terms of Its Self-Interest and Imperial Anchoring, as This Relates to the Current Administration's New Security Strategy and the War on Terror

By Harding, Bruce | New Zealand International Review, May-June 2004 | Go to article overview

An Orwellian Moment: The Myth of American Multilateralism: Bruce Harding Reflects on the State of US Foreign Policy, in Terms of Its Self-Interest and Imperial Anchoring, as This Relates to the Current Administration's New Security Strategy and the War on Terror


Harding, Bruce, New Zealand International Review


   Bush burned down a haystack to
   try to find a couple of needles. He
   hasn't found the needles, but there
   have been thousands of innocent
   civilian deaths. (Ralph Nader) (1)

The War on Terror and, in particular, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 came just before an ironic anniversary for all students of modern diplomacy. For 25 June 2003 marked the centenary of the birth of one of last century's most astute analysts of the modern political dynamic: the British author 'George Orwell'.

On 25 June 1903 Eric Arthur Blair was born in Bengal, India. From working in the colonial service in Burma and gaining unhappy insights on the periphery of the British Empire, Orwell developed a burning hatred of British imperialism. His writings relating to power and democracy--notably Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (19,49)--have etched themselves into our conscious ness. At this moment, the Orwellian vision of an oppressive master state also resonates with the shadows cast by a neo-conservative regime under the United States' Patriot Act 2001 mad the Guantanamo Bay suspension of human rights by the second Bush administration.

Joe Klein has related the false report on Nigerian uranium and Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to President George W. Bush's problem with telling the truth. Klein suggests that this President, with his abundant talent for self-deception, 'seems to believe that wishing will make [things] so'. (2) It is perhaps significant that Bush was born in New Haven, and that, as Alan Simpson has observed, his Puritan/WASP forebears 'were elect spirits, segregated from the mass of mankind by an experience of conversion, fired by the sense that God was using them to revolutionize human history'. All of this clearly radiates from the core notion of English America as 'a wilderness Zion, a city set on a hill'. This phrase was first uttered by John Winthrop on the Arbella as it lay at anchor in Massachusetts Bay in 1630, in his sermon 'A Model of christian Charity', in which he urged his auditors, 'we must consider that we shall be like a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us'. Henry James, writing of the New England founders, once described 'that handful of half-starved fanatics' who laid 'the foundations of a mighty empire'.

Of course, as the weapons of mass destruction are undetected the President's advisers have George Orwell's maxims about 'doublethink' to fall back on. The narrator of 1984 explains that the essence of doublethink is 'to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them....' An alarming example of Orwellian doublethink was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's attempt in June 2003 to parse 'the known' for a gathering of NATO defence ministers in Brussels after the ousting of Saddam Hussein. 'There are no knowns', the Secretary warned.

   There are things we know that we
   know. There are known unknowns--that
   is to say, there are
   things that we know we don't
   know but there are also unknown
   unknowns. These are filings we do
   not know we don't know. So
   when we do the best we can and
   pull all this information together,
   and we then say 'Well that's basically
   what we see as the situation',
   that is really only the known
   knowns and the known unknowns.

Similarly, in Orwell's state of Oceania, war can be waged 'for purposes quite other than the declared ones' and people may be wiped out 'who might perhaps commit a crime at some time in the future'.

Alarming doctrine

David Luban and Benjamin Barber have recently sounded alarm-bells at the doctrine of pre-emption and the expedient 'not law but war' model of fighting terrorism. Human rights can be suspended and, writes Luban, 'Gone are the principles that people should never be punished for their thoughts, only for their deeds, and that innocent people must be protected rather than injured by their own government'. …

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