Nothing is more human than discontent with the human condition. And few aspects of human life inspire more discontent than politics. The longing to withdraw from, escape, or transcend the vicissitudes of political life in favor of a more perfect world permeates Western culture from ancient times to our own, though the responses to it have taken many forms. For Plato, the philosophical life enables a man to leave behind the imperfections of politics—with its harsh necessities, imperatives of self-defense, worldly ambition, violence, and craving for power—to pursue the higher justice supposedly embodied in rational reflection. Similarly, the Stoics believed that heroic acts of virtue could protect the virtuous man from the nastiness that so often prevails in political life. Others, by contrast, have denied the possibility of transcendence altogether. For these Epicureans, sophists, and skeptics, our only option is reconciliation to worldly limitations.
Things are different still for believing Jews and Christians, who offer yet another interpretation of human discontent. On the one hand, the world is a “vale of tears.” On the other, there is a promise of redemption from, and even the redemption of, the world by a Messiah who will “wipe away every tear” from our eyes. Transcendence, then, is possible, but it awaits us in a future we lack the power to make present. The Judeo-Christian tradition thus synthesizes apocalyptic yearn ing with stark realism about the obstacles to its satis faction. If recurring Gnostic and messianic heresies testify to the precariousness of this synthesis, its relative stability and persistence over the millennia demonstrates, equally well, its remarkable resilience.
Not that the Judeo-Christian interpretation hasn’t faced its share of hostile challenges over the centuries. Among the most potent was the one launched by the mad sophists of the modern age—those radicals who promised, at long last, to make us at home in the world, not by reconciling us to its imperfections, as their ancient counterparts had proposed to do, but by transforming the world into a post-political paradise. In the act of total revolution we would, in the words of Karl Marx, purge ourselves of “all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” Whatever else might await us after the deluge, Marx made it abundantly clear that he expected his new world to be one in which “public power” had lost its “political character,” by which he meant the “organized power” of “oppression.” In the cataclysm of revolutionary violence, we would learn to wipe away our own tears, once and for all.
With the demise of communism as a viable anti political option, it sometimes seems that such eschatological hopes have been rejected by almost everyone. Yet the antipolitical temptation hasn’t disappeared. On the contrary, it has metastasized. The relentless drive to negate our political natures through revolutionary destruction has been displaced by the quieter, but far more widespread, call to redeem the world in slow motion, using the powers of supra national organizations and institutions. Ours is an age of antipolitical humanitarianism.
Some humanitarian organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have undoubtedly done good over the years, drawing needed attention to startling abuses of power in renegade regimes from Asia to the Americas. But more often than not, they have acted as gadflies on the backs of the world’s merely imperfect governments no less than its truly sinister ones. In the name of an abstract and otherworldly “humanity,” they claim the moral high ground by virtue of their lack of attachment to any actual human community. From this enlightened perspective, they then pronounce virtually all military actions, regardless of what provoked them and no matter their ultimate aims, to be “humanitarian disasters.” Thus do they reduce morals to the counting of corpses. It is precisely this kind of logic that leads to such trouble for Israel in the “international community,” where the fact that more Palestinians than Israelis have died in the past eighteen months has come to be seen as definitive proof that the latter are guilty of everything from recklessness to genocide.
But such reasoning is morally obtuse. As military historian Victor Davis Hanson has noted, “Hitler, Tojo, Kim Il Sung, and Ho Chi Minh . . . all lost more soldiers—and civilians—in their wars against us than we did.” And yet no one with a functioning sense of moral proportion believes that this fact implies their ethical superiority to us. Likewise, the Palestinians “suffer more casualties than Israelis not because . . . they are somehow more moral” but because they are not as adept in fighting real soldiers in the full-fledged war that is growing out of their own intifada.” Looking down on the conflict from the transpolitical stratosphere staked out by humanitarian organizations, the motives, causes, and methods of warfare might appear to be irrelevant compared to brute quantities of human suffering. But for those concerned with rendering nuanced and informed—that is to say, accurate—moral judgments, considerations beyond mere numbers will always be at least as important.
As disconcerting as the influence of the non governmental human rights establishment might be, it possesses little power to do real harm, beyond in fluencing public opinion within free societies. Much more troubling are the supranational antipolitical institutions that now aspire to police the world, doling out punishment to moral transgressors. The UN has a long history of such pretensions, but its well-known incapacity to enforce its resolutions has rendered it largely impotent. Things might very well be different, however, with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which on April 11 was empowered, on a permanent basis and over strenuous American objections, to try individuals—including sitting heads-of-state—for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
While the ICC’s mandate might sound innocuous and even admirable”after all, whose heart bleeds for Slobodan Milosevic, currently on trial as a war criminal at an ad hoc Balkans tribunal?”many of those behind the Court are motivated by a far more ambitious agenda. As the Cato Institute’s Gary Dempsey has pointed out, some have advocated amendments to the Court that would empower it to prosecute environ mental crimes, cyber-crimes, and drug trafficking, while others have gone even further, to propose the criminalization of “aggression” as such. This ominously vague and open-ended crime could include “the bombardment of the armed forces of a state against the territory of another state” and ‘the blockade of the ports or coasts of a state by the armed forces of another state.”
The problems with such proposals are legion. If enacted and enforced, they would make military deterrence impossible, and preemptive actions, such as the blockade President Kennedy employed as a tactic during the Cuban Missile Crisis, illegal. They would treat all hostility between nations as unambiguously evil, despite the fact that, for all the pain they cause, wars are sometimes required by justice itself. Then there is the fact that, like so many UN programs, the ICC will almost certainly become a tool of Third World thugocracies. Lastly, and most absurdly, in order to put these or any other proposals into effect, the Court will have to rely on the use, or at least the threat of the use, of force. Which is, of course, precisely the political power it would deny to those over whom it presides.
Some of the ICC’s more sympathetic critics have warned of the danger of allowing it to become “politicized.” But that’s not the half of it. Such a Court cannot help but be, in its essence, a political institution. “Humanity” might be a useful transpolitical ideal, but as soon as it is transformed into an actually existing institution, it becomes, like all things concretely human, something partial, something partisan, something political.
But we were political animals already. Just as communism was supposed to redeem us from politics and wound up producing an unprecedentedly vicious form of political tyranny, so today’s prophets of global humanitarianism would trick us into believing that we can bureaucratize our way out of the human condition. And once again the results are liable to be pernicious. Superimposing a second layer of political institutions—run by lawyers and judges from Nowhere—onto those we already have will not save us from ourselves, like positive and negative integers canceling each other out, leaving behind only the equilibrium of universal peace and brotherhood. It will, more likely, increase our attachment to the ways of the City of Man, as well as enslave us to the rule of moralizing “experts” operating at multiple removes from popular accountability. This side of the Eschaton, there’ll be no crawling out of our political skins.