NS Essay - 'American culture is animated by a heresy: that human nature is not inherently flawed but essentially good'

The real danger of President Bush's plans for Iraq is that they are based on the belief that evil ca

According to Javier Solana, formerly secretary general of Nato and currently the European Union's high representative for foreign relations and security, US foreign policy - particularly towards terrorism - is increasingly shaped by a belief in evil. In Europe, we see terrorism as one of several threats to the world. They include poverty and climate change, and each has causes that can be alleviated. In America, by contrast, terrorism is seen as supremely evil, the work of dark forces that must be defeated and eliminated. This rift in transatlantic attitudes is not simply a reflection of diverging interests and priorities. It is a difference in culture. The perception of evil that drives current American foreign policy makes sense against the background of the intense religiosity that pervades American culture. It is only in this context that one can represent Saddam Hussein or the Palestine Liberation Organisation as expressions of sheer malignity. In secular, post-Christian Europe, Solana seems to be suggesting, we simply do not believe in evil in this way.

Solana - whose thoughts were reported in a recent newspaper interview - cannot be accused of venting anti-American prejudices. He is a lifelong Atlanticist, whose account of American policy is extremely well informed and squares with many of the signals emanating from Washington. Not only the infamous "axis of evil" speech, with its lumping together of quite different regimes into a single category of all-round turpitude, but also many other public statements indicate that powerful elements in the White House see the international system in terms of a stark conflict of good and evil.

In itself this is nothing new. Dividing the world into goodies and baddies is a recurrent feature of American thinking. President Ronald Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" in the 1980s. Much earlier in the 20th century, a similar view underpinned President Woodrow Wilson's belief that Europe's only salvation was in remaking itself on an American model of national self-determination. Today, the idea that the US embodies all that is good in the world is an article of faith in the "new strategic doctrine" presented to the US Congress last September, in which President Bush declared that there is "a single sustainable model for national success" - American democracy and free enterprise. This Wilsonian faith in universal democracy owes something to the European Enlightenment, but it is at bottom an indigenously American creed, rooted in the belief that the United States has been chosen by God to bring freedom and virtue into a benighted world.

With their repeated experience of devastating war, Europeans are rightly suspicious of attempts to turn diplomacy into a moral crusade. Solana deserves credit for speaking candidly about a transatlantic cultural divide that widens by the day. Even so, it seems to me that his analysis of US foreign policy is in one crucial respect misleading. The implication is that Americans believe in evil and Europeans do not. It is a diagnosis that US neo-conservatives - who delight in portraying Europeans as shifty, morally relativistic wimps - will heartily endorse. In fact the opposite is true. It is disbelief in evil that is today peculiarly American.

Writing on this subject in the New Statesman last March, Jennifer Szalai quoted Jean-Paul Sartre's comment after an encounter with a well-meaning American who believed that war could be abolished for ever if only international relations were in the hands of reasonable men: "I believe in the existence of evil and he does not." Sartre captured the real difference between American and European world-views as we find them today. For all its unremitting piety, American culture is far removed from the traditional Christian doctrine that human life is marked indelibly by sin. Rather, American culture is animated by what has always been seen as a heresy - the Pelagian doctrine that human nature is not inherently flawed but instead essentially good.

Born somewhere in Celtic Britain in the middle of the fourth century, Pelagius was a theologian who achieved fame by attacking the teaching of St Augustine, according to which evil is an intrinsic part of human nature. For Augustine, humans can and should strive for the good; but they can never fully realise it. Society and government will always be radically imperfect. Rejecting this eminently sensible Augustinian view, Pelagius initiated a tradition of thought that eventually gave birth to modern humanism.

When George W Bush uses the language of evil to describe the international system, he is doing more than transpose theological categories into the always morally ambivalent realm of diplomacy and war, where they plainly do not belong. He is endorsing the heretical faith that evil can be banished from the world by an act of human will. Bush is inordinately fond of talking up the threat posed to the world by evil forces; but he evinces not the slightest doubt that, given the right kind of moral resoluteness, they can be wholly destroyed. Far from being grounded in the Christian insight that humans have an ingrained predilection for evil, he is driven by a militant version of the Pelagian faith that human will can eradicate the evils we find in the world. In contrast, Europeans see the choices that have to be made in international relations as being unavoidably among evils. Long experience has taught them that in dangerous conflicts the best intentions can have the most horrific results. No doubt they continue to hope for a better world, but they are always conscious of the risks of too much enthusiasm. Even where Europeans seem entirely secular in outlook, history has made most of them instinctive Augustinians.

The danger of American foreign policy is not that it is obsessed with evil but that it is based on the belief that evil can be abolished. It is a conviction the British Prime Minister seems to share. Pledging support for the American "war on terror", Tony Blair declared: "We will not rest until this evil is driven from our world." Few diplomats or military men share his view that evil can be eradicated.

History suggests that opposing terrorism is a long haul in which peace can never be taken for granted. In Northern Ireland, a counter-terrorist campaign - which involved peace moves as well as security measures - has been in operation for decades. It has finally brought the chief protagonists into the political process; but terrorism has still not disappeared. The same is true in the Basque country. In neither case has the counter-terrorist strategy failed. On the contrary, it has succeeded: the threat has been subdued, contained and reduced to more tolerable levels.

The risks of imagining that evil can be conjured away are many, and they are nowhere more evident than in US policy on Iraq. With overwhelming force at their disposal, the confidence of American military planners that the present Iraqi regime can be destroyed without much difficulty may prove to be justified; but the bland optimism of America's civilian leadership regarding the costs and risks of reconstructing Iraq in the aftermath of war is desperately deluded. Even if it is quickly over, war will exact a terrible human price. Many thousands of people will be killed, hundreds of thousands subjected to extremes of suffering. Refugees could run into millions. These are not conditions conducive to a swift transition to stable democratic government, particularly in a state that has disparate ethnic and religious groupings, some of which have been deadly enemies in the recent past. A long period of occupation may be required. After all, UN forces have been in Cyprus for nearly 40 years, containing a nasty but far less dangerous conflict than we are likely to see in Iraq. Yet the White House talks of an occupation of Iraq lasting a mere 18 months.

This assessment exemplifies a more far-reaching lack of realism in US thinking. For the pro-war faction that seems to have prevailed in the internecine struggles of the Bush administration, toppling Saddam Hussein is only the first move in reshaping much of the Middle East. Not only Iraq, but also Saudi Arabia, Iran and a number of other countries appear to be candidates for "regime change". Tyranny is to be overthrown and democracy installed throughout the region. From one angle, this grandiose scheme is a rerun of Woodrow Wilson's plans for central and eastern Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. Wilson's dream of national self-determination foundered in the bloody realities of ethnic nationalism. If the US attempts anything similar in the Middle East the result can only be the same, if not worse. American power is hated implacably throughout the region. Indigenous tyrannies are likely to prove more popularly legitimate than US-backed democracies.

The knock-on effect of US military occupation of Iraq is unlikely to end in the Gulf. It could well be felt as far away as Pakistan, which could become the first failed state with nuclear capability, and in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country. To be sure, these are risks and not certainties; but they must be put in the reckoning along with the undoubted evil of war. The option of simply choosing the good does not exist.

It is true that, if the US does not go to war, great evil may also result. Saddam may get his hands on nuclear weapons; the Middle East could become the site of a nuclear arms race. On the other hand, the invasion of Iraq may not go as smoothly as planned. If Saddam attacks US forces or Israel with chemical or biological weapons, can we be sure that nuclear weapons will not be used in response? So far, despite proliferation to Stalinist Russia and to Maoist China, deterrence has worked. Nuclear weapons have not been used since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Will the world be better if they are deployed as part of an attempt to block their acquisition by an unpalatable regime?

The relentlessly upbeat moral outlook that underpins American foreign policy prevents a clear assessment of these risks, because it forbids us from admitting that in international relations we are commonly faced with choices among evils. It also inhibits honesty about more mundane interests - such as secure oil supplies and Bush's re-election prospects. The belief that evil can be driven from the world nourishes a false sense of moral purity. US policy, like that of any imperial power, is dictated largely by realpolitik. Morality, though it may constrain foreign policy, can never be the chief force in shaping it. This is a hard truth, but one long known to Augustinians. The result of denying it is that even when genuine moral concern appears in international affairs it is treated with cynicism.

America's critics condemn Bush's call to take up arms against evil as an expression of religious fundamentalism. And it is true that fundamentalism has an alarming hold on US government. But if Bush talks so insistently of evil, it is because he belongs in a tradition of American piety that does not finally believe in it. Like Woodrow Wilson before him, he does not doubt that once the world has accepted American values, it will enjoy everlasting peace and prosperity. This has not always been the American view of things. For the founding fathers, human beings were flawed creatures that no change in institutions could improve fundamentally. The purpose of government was not to conduct us to the promised land but to stave off the recurrent evils to which human life is naturally prone.

Today, this sane and realistic viewpoint is rare and politics is ruled by an unforgiving moral optimism. This is a curious state of affairs, as the truth of human imperfectibility that is preserved in religious myth has been confirmed in the most advanced reaches of modern thought. Freud and sociobiology are at one in setting definite limits to the possibilities of human progress. Without endorsing any theistic narrative of the fall of man, they vindicate the truth of original sin. The revival of the language of evil in the speeches of American leaders does not mean that this ancient truth has been rediscovered. On the contrary, it is a sign that we are in for another grandiose experiment in remaking the world, with all the farce and horror that invariably entails.

John Gray's next book, Al Qaeda and What It Means To Be Modern, is published by Faber and Faber in May

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