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April 14, 2011

Politics of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde

Reuel S. Amdur

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Why do liberals at home act like despots abroad? We can look at some examples from the United States but also one from France. Here goes.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president promoted a raft of social legislation–the Social Security Act, legislation that encouraged labor organizing, and various programs to alleviate suffering during the Great Depression. 

Yet when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson after a US intervention in Haiti, he took credit for writing the Haitian constitution (falsely, it appears).  Woodrow Wilson, another liberal, was involved in many interventions in Central and Latin America.

As president, Roosevelt’s behavior during and after World War II disregarded the rights of other nations.  Harry Hopkins, his right-hand man, made notes of Roosevelt’s meeting with Britain’s Anthony Eden in 1943: “The President said that, after all, the big powers would have to decide what Poland should have and that he, the President, did not intend to go to the Peace Conference and bargain with Poland or the other small states.”

President Lyndon Johnson is known as the civil rights president.  Yet, in 1965 he sent troops to the Dominican Republic to prevent Juan Bosch, the elected president, from returning to power after a coup d’état that had ousted him was in its turn overthrown. 

Jules Ferry was a French liberal, or as the French version of Wikipedia describes him, center-left.  He was militant in his opposition to the second Bonapartist dictatorship and was responsible for the establishment of France’s system of universal primary education free of Catholic control.  However, he was also in considerable measure responsible for France’s colonialism, conquering lands in Africa and Asia. 

What were the reasons for these differences between domestic and foreign policy?  There are several explanations.  One is reason of state.  Those in power look after what they perceive to be the interests of the state, regardless of what the application of the policy arising does to others.  The principle was clearly enunciated by the Italian revolutionary Cavour: “What cads we be were we to do for ourselves what we do for Italy.”

Next we need to consider the nature of international relations and of the kind of strain that it puts on decision-makers.  The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes described the state of nature as “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  While the state of nature generally is more theoretical than actual or historical, “in all times, kings, and persons of sovereign authority, because of this independency, are in actual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their forts, garrisons, and guns upon the frontiers of their kingdoms; and continual spies upon their neighbours; which is a posture of war.

“To this war of every man against every man, this also is a consequent, that nothing can be unjust.”

This Hobbesian world is the world of international relations.  In his terms, there is no overweening power to “keep them all in awe,” so it is left to every “person of sovereign authority” to act as he deems most advantageous, as “nothing can be unjust” in international relations.

These are principles that apply to international relations.  How do our examples apply to them?  In the instance of Haiti, Roosevelt and Wilson were simply treating Haitians as untutored people needing guidance. Wilson intervened in Haiti and other countries in the region to stabilize them.  He was the Big Brother under the Monroe Doctrine.  As well, Germany was showing an interest in Haiti, something that he did not countenance.  There were considerable economic interests involved in this and other military interventions.  General Smedley Butler explained:

“I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914.  I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in.  I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street.  The record of racketeering is long.  I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912.  I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916.  In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

“During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket.  Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints.  The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

Roosevelt behaved as he did in relation to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe because he envisioned a Soviet-American partnership to establish a peace under their hegemony, a peace that would be in American interest.  The United Nations was envisioned to be an instrument of that domination through the control by the Big Five in the Security Council.  The scheme fell apart when Stalin did not agree to play Number Two and chose to expand his influence beyond the agreed-upon limits. 

Lyndon Johnson sent troops to the Dominican Republic because he feared that Bosch, a leftist, would be another Castro. 

Jules Ferry was a colonialist because he quite openly wanted to exploit colonies for economic benefit for France.  A secondary justification was to “civilize” the savages.

Reason of state, fear of opponents impelling a leader to act first, and theft.  These are the motives.  However, there is one further word to be said on the subject.  Again we turn to a philosopher, this time to a more contemporary Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber.

Buber distinguished two kinds of relationship between people, I-Thou and I-it.  The I-Thou relationship is a close, intimate, soul-to-soul connection. The I-it relationship is a relationship of domination, in which the other is not a person but an it.

In addition to what we have already said about what these examples have in common, another is that in the way in which they treat others they act out an I-it relationship. 

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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