Column on Universal Values

“Supposed Universal Values”
Tibor R. Machan
Professor of history Sean Pollock at Wright State University, in Dayton,
Ohio, recently wrote about Senator John McCain’s foreign policy views in a
letter to the Sunday New York Times Magazine. He asked, I think
rhetorically, “Does McCain not see that by intervening militarily in
foreign countries and by justifying such intervention in terms of supposed
universal values, America stands in the tradition of imperial powers whose
policies and practices have tended to engender the kinds of insurgent
movements he fears?” I focus on this here because the question raises some
important issues.
One is whether when people like Senator McCain support military
intervention, do they in fact invoke “supposed universal values” in
support of their position? I don’t know but if former Federal Reserve
chief Alan Greenspan–certainly familiar with the Bush administration–is
to be believed, the war in Iraq has little to do with any such values. It
has to do with oil. Or perhaps with some obscure UN resolution. Or maybe
the support for McCain’s position comes from the United Nation’s covenant
of “the responsibility of protect” against tyrants and/or natural
Certainly if there are universal values, ones all people ought to embrace
and governments in any country should protect, it does not follow that
foreign governments must intervene when they are being violated. These
governments are, let’s remember, public servants of their own citizenry,
not of the populations of foreign countries. Nothing at all about there
being universal values requires intervention of any kind. If I believe
that my neighbor ought to show tenderness toward his children and he
doesn’t, I am not authorized to meddle in his family life. Perhaps I am
justified in thinking badly of him, even of trying to encourage him in
various civilized ways to change his ways. But no intervention is
supported by such universal values.
Professor Pollock shows disdainfulness toward universal values, otherwise
why did he say “supposed.” Maybe he wants to guard against the tendency he
ascribes to Senator McCain by his skepticism. Yet, this tendency to
intervene by someone who holds such universal values does not follow from
holding such values. This is especially true of liberal democratic
countries that are committed to the principle of freedom of choice. Unless
another country is aggressing against its neighbors–or there is strong
reason that it will do so imminently–no justification exists to
intervene. Furthermore, not all intervention in support of such values,
when justified on the grounds that apply–not merely that there are such
universal values–amounts to imperialism. But I’ll leave that point aside
When, for example, a country is ruled by brutal thugs and the bulk of the
citizenry is desirous of outside help intervention is not at all
imperialistic. But even then the help must come only if the citizens of
the country capable of giving it approve. Otherwise help must come from
volunteers since the legal duty of a country’s government and military is
to provide protection to its citizenry, not to citizens of other
A liberal country’s foreign policy must not amount to aggression, not even
to humanitarian intervention. Force must only be used in defense of the
country itself, or of a friendly ally. That is what the government
officials of a liberal country swear to when taking office, to protect the
constitution of the country, meaning, to protect its integrity and
citizenry from those who would attack or seriously threaten them.
None of this denies that there are some, perhaps just a few, essential,
universal values every society should follow, ones that all governments
should protect in their society. Senator McCain’s belief in military
intervention need have nothing at all to do with his embrace of universal
values such as human rights for all. As a senator in a free society he is
sworn to secure rights for those who elected him not for people abroad.
But this does not mean those people abroad do not possess those rights
just as citizens at home do.
It is a logical fallacy, which has some very deleterious results when
committed, to think that the existence of universal values implies that
one must become the police that should provide the protection of those
values. Something else is needed for this to happen, namely, to become
properly authorized to give that protection.

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