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On Saving Sri Lanka

The moral dimension

| by Izeth Hussain

( June 14, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian ) It now seems to be generally agreed that Sri Lanka could enter into a collision course with India if the SL Government continues to shilly-shally over reaching a political solution to the ethnic problem on the basis of devolution. Adverse reactions from India and the Western powers could turn out to be seriously detrimental to Sri Lanka’s interests. What strategy should our Government follow in this situation? I concluded my last article On Collision Course with India? in the Island of June 7 – after pointing out that international relations are determined by power and morality – as follows: "Sri Lanka has no military or economic power worth talking about, and the only way it can come through unscathed is by occupying the moral high ground, in dealing with India and the international community, and above all in dealing with the ethnic problem,"

In this article I want to deal with the question of the moral dimension in international relations, why it counts, and why what might be called "moral power" could count for even more than the hard power of guns and the soft power of economic might or media control. This question can be addressed in many ways. I find it convenient to have recourse to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy which I had occasion to consult recently. He wrote, "Ever since men became capable of free speculation, their actions, in innumerable respects, have depended on their theories as to the world and human life, as to what is good and what is evil. This is as true in the present day as at any former time."

He pointed out that after the collapse of the Roman Empire there followed the dark ages from 500 AD to 1100 AD when power was exercised by kings and nobles in a brutal and chaotic world. Order was restored from around 1100 AD with the rising power of the Papacy. How was it possible for the Papacy to exercise control and impose order over the kings and nobles when the latter had all the weapons and the Papacy had none? Russell points to several factors to explain that paradox. Only the Catholic clergy had literacy at that time. The kings and the nobles were divided and quarrelling with each other while the Papacy was united. More important was that the Popes had the power of the keys: they could send the kings to heaven or to eternal perdition. The Pope could absolve people from the duty of obedience to the king and thereby foment rebellion. None of those factors are relevant now, but the last one mentioned by Russell remains relevant to this day – a point that I will return to later in this article: there was a rising mercantile class in Europe whose interests required law and order, exemplified by the Papacy, which they therefore supported against the kings whose uncontrolled power would lead to chaos. Russell thought that that factor was decisive in establishing Papal power over secular power, particularly in Italy.

Russell is explaining how the moral dimension came to constrict, control, and guide secular power during the Middle Ages in Europe. But what he is saying has a much wider relevance and can apply to other parts of the world as well. Before the rise of states, in the so-called acephalous societies, a sort of primitive communism reigned for the most part and power, the little there was of it, was exercised on a consensual basis. With the rise of the State power became coercive and it was exercised by a centralized authority. With that arose the problem of controlling power, which if left totally uncontrolled almost invariably became intolerably destructive. Another superb book by Russell, Power, has as its epigraph the story of the old Chinese woman who voluntarily lived alone in the tiger-infested wilderness. Her explanation, embodying the wisdom of the ages, was that in the city there was despotic government and despotic government was far worse than tigers. In the traditional societies secular power was limited by the religious order which imposed moral constraints on power. In modern societies power is not constrained by the religious order but by other means. However there is always a moral dimension to power or else there is barbarity and chaos.

I come now to the question of the moral dimension in contemporary international relations. The moral dimension is embodied in the UN Charter, in the Covenants and Declarations on human rights, in the Resolutions adopted by the UN organs and specialized agencies, and in all the action taken under UN aegis to bring about a peaceful and better world for the benefit of the peoples of the world. The UN is the consequence of the two world wars of the first half of this century, the two greatest blood-lettings in all human history, which took place within a brief span of just thirty one years. All that made Europe and the US determined to avoid a further World War, which indeed has been successfully avoided so far, partly at least because of the UN. All that led also to a desire to build a world that meets the aspirations of humanity all over the world. The struggle for that world is continuing.

I must now make an important clarification about the moral dimension in relation to the Second World. According to some the aspect of a moral crusade for democracy and human rights was an afterthought, something that was consequent to the post-War realization of the horror of the Holocaust against the Jews. The rationale for the War, according to that notion, was realpolitik, just raw power relations, and nothing else. Hitler only wanted to bring together the German-speaking peoples of Europe, making Germany a participant in an Aryan domination of the globe, and he never wanted a war against Britain or a World War. His fatal mistake was in failing to understand that his project required that Germany become the dominant power in Europe, which was something that Britain would never accept without a war in terms of a policy established over the centuries. It does seem plausible therefore to argue that the War was fought for reasons of realpolitik and had no moral dimension at all.

But if true, that was true only of the incipient stage of the War, and even that seems doubtful because the propaganda war started in Britain - the rest of Europe being under the heel of the Nazis - quickly after the war began, and what was the propaganda war but a moral crusade? It was meant to uphold Democracy against Fascism. Within Britain there was a movement to bring about a social transformation, of which George Orwell was an emblematic figure. His 1941 essay England Your England, written as a piece of war propaganda, has acquired the status of an enduring classic because it has behind it a deep love of England, and also his deepest political commitment: to bring about a socialist society through liberal democracy. That movement led to the downfall of Churchill and the coming to power of the Labour Party. There was therefore a moral dimension to the Second World War both externally and internally.

I wrote above that Russell thought that the aspirations of the rising mercantile class was the decisive factor in establishing the supremacy of the Church over the State after 1100 AD. In the decades following the Second World War there has arisen a comparable factor: the aspirations towards a better life of the peoples of the world. It is those aspirations, embodied in the UN, that fuel the moral dimension in contemporary international relations. The power of that moral dimension was shown most convincingly by the Vietnam War: the US had the power to blow up the whole of Vietnam to smithereens, but the international moral standards of the time would not allow that, and the American troops had to be withdrawn ignominiously. However, the moral dimension does not reign supreme in contemporary international relations, as shown most convincingly by the Iraq War. The US assisted by Britain ravaged that country, causing around a million deaths, after lying that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The miscreants responsible for that monstrous crime, Bush and Blair, have not been hanged. It remains however that, on the whole, the moral dimension does count in international relations.

Sri Lanka has no hard power or soft power worth talking about, and our only recourse therefore has to be to moral power. Certain steps practically dictate themselves as essential. The Government must stop duckspeak, such as on giving 13A plus which went on for almost five years, and stop blatantly reneging on commitments. It must disband the Parliamentary Select Committee on the ethnic problem as it is so obviously a nonsensical exercise. It must acknowledge that India has a legitimate say in our ethnic problem because of the fall-out in Tamil Nadu. Above all, it must do everything that is humanly possible to make the Northern Provincial Council a success. Those are some of the essential steps that should enable us to occupy the moral high ground in dealing with India and the international community. In the alternative, the consequences could be unpleasant.