Tag Archives: Politics

Nothing New in Israeli Politics

The Palestinian question cannot be shunned by Israel’s political class and by its Jewish electorate since it is part and parcel of Israel’s essence. No “new” coalition can change this fundamental fact.


israel flag gaza palestine hamas


Although almost two months have passed since Israeli citizens have cast their vote to elect the 19th Knesset, a government is yet to be formed.

In the meantime, there are three considerations to be made. The first one regards Netanyahu’s claim that the main issue on which his government will focus will be “socioeconomic”. In the summer of 2011 tens of thousands of Israelis protested against austerity measures and the rising price of housing. The opposition seized the opportunity and accused the Netanyahu government of mismanaging the economy and finance of the country. Therefore Netanyahu pledged to make it his priority to see to it that no Israeli will ever again have to suffer financial angst.

There are two hidden aspects to the “socioeconomic” agenda. Firstly, Netanyahu believes that by focusing on it he will be able to focus solely on “domestic” issues. That is, he will be able to cast aside, at least for a while, anything which is “foreign”. By “foreign” Netanyahu means one thing and one thing only: the stagnation of the peace process with the Palestinians due to settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. Thus it is not a sincere desire to ease Israeli citizens’ lives that drives the Netanyahu to focus on the “domestic socioeconomic” issue but rather a desire to to postpone the creation of a Palestinian state.

The second hidden aspect is the fact that the “socioeconomic” situation which needs to be ameliorated pertains to Jewish Israeli citizens and not to all Israeli citizens. Indeed, the “socioeconomic” status of the Arab population has been neglected up to the point of asking whether Israel is a democracy at all. No wonder less than half of the Arab population was expected to vote.

The second consideration concerns the fact that any “new” coalition will not be that new after all since it will either be constituted by political parties which are not sincere about peace or by political parties which, while professing to be part of the “peace camp,” have not won enough seats to make a real difference.

The two possible heavyweight candidates to join Netanyahu are Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), led by Naftali Bennet, a software tycoon, who has made explicit his intent of expanding settlement construction and to annex Area C of the West Bank, equivalent to 61% of the territory (indeed, Netanyahu himself pledged not to dismantle any settlements); and Yesh Atid, a centrist political party founded by Yair Lapid, a former journalist and TV presenter, who has delivered his main electoral speech at the University of Ariel, arguably the biggest and most controversial settlement in the West Bank. Mr. Lapid has also stated that Jerusalem must remain undivided (read: Israeli).

The political parties which seem genuinely interested in the peace process are Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah which won a mere 5% of the votes; Meretz also at 5% and Kadima at 2%. The three Arab-Israeli parties combined did not even make it to 10%.

Since settlement construction is deemed illegal under international law, it can be safely stated that the “new” government will be composed of criminal elements. The international community should condemn ferociously the policies of these political parties and make it clear that Netanyahu’s alliance with them is frowned upon. Alas, the only reaction seen so far was the usual hand tapping by the British Foreign secretary William Hague.

The previous two brief reflections lead me to the third and final one which perhaps is the most important: governments are not formed ex nihilo, they are elected by the people. Two things follow from this. Firstly, the policies which are implemented or which the elected parties pledge to implement reflect the values of the people voting for those same parties. Therefore the underlying problem is not so much that there are a few racist individuals in Israel’s political arena but that a great part, if not a majority, of the Israeli public shares these racist values and wishes for them to be implemented.

Secondly, and following the above remark, the Israeli public shares the responsibility for racist policies being implemented against the native Arab population. We are accustomed to aim criticisms at governments and other political institutions for injustices perpetrated by nations. The fact of the matter is, though, that in Israel people do elect governments and therefore share responsibility. Change will not come by putting pressure on the political establishment but only once the Israeli institutions will be reformed in such a way as to create a radical shift in the Jewish Israeli public’s values.

The Palestinian question cannot be shunned by Israel’s political class and by its Jewish electorate since it is part and parcel of Israel’s essence. No “new” coalition can change this fundamental fact.


Photo Credit: Lilachd

George On The Higgs: Can Politics Learn A Lesson From Science?

Introducing George, the opinionated beagle with a penchant for the provocative. He will be penning a weekly column on TRS bringing you a little light reading for your Sunday mornings.


Higgs Boson


[dropcap]P[/dropcap]olitics is overcrowded with problems of unimaginable scale – environmental degradation, the pensions timebomb, social care, corruption in Africa and revolution in the Middle East. In each case, timescales are measured in the decades and half-centuries – yet politicians rarely look beyond the next election.

Science, however, seems to work inexorably and cooperatively towards the solutions to the biggest questions of the age. The Higgs Boson was proposed before David Cameron was born, and proven to exist over two years after he became Prime Minister; yet he can’t even predict with confidence what his own legislative agenda will be in three short months.

Can politics learn from science about setting & achieving far-reaching goals, and ignoring the siren calls of short-termism?

The search for the Higgs boson is a saga surpassing that of a simple scientific discovery. It is a story of science, power, money, and politics. If even one of these was missing, we’d still be looking.

First, the science. No one tribe of scientists gave us the Higgs; it was instead a multitude of disciplines all converging with a common goal – a conductorless symphony of physicists, mathematicians, engineers, programmers, experimenters, theoreticians, and more. Even competing teams of scientists worked together to build a hoard of data which, when combined, proved the existence of the final particle to a near-bulletproof level of confidence.

Fundamental science seems to be lagging behind in the money game, and this is demonstrated in the Research Excellence Framework which puts a great deal of emphasis on “Impact” and “Applicability”. Considering that the last useful particle to be discovered was the neutron in 1920, fundamental science has taken quite a blow on the money front. But somehow, dedicated scientists pushed to ensure there was enough funding to last the whole journey.

The team was not based purely at CERN, but was a global collaboration, where scientists and engineers were required to plan 20 years into the future, even guessing at times, what new technology would exist. I am not sure about you, but I can hardly see past lunch time, so I am deeply impressed by the foresight demonstrated.

Next there’s the pure commitment and patience that has gone into the project. The search for the Higgs has literally outlived governments, unlike most government policies. Scientists planned into the future and were able to prepare for it, if only we could say the same for politics.

If there is indeed a lesson to be learned from the scientific method, and in particular the discovery of the Higgs, it is that only collaboration, foresight and planning will solve the world’s most pressing problems.

But what do I know, I’m a dog.

The Rise Of China: Peaceful Or Menacing?

Due to unprecedented economic growth, the actions of China have become increasingly scrutinised in recent years. With an expanding military, economy and population, is this rise peaceful or menacing? And to who?



[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he question whether the rise of China is peaceful or menacing is quite the quandary, and hardly a simple task. If anything, it spurs more questions for clarification. What is considered ‘peaceful’ or ‘menacing’? According to whom would China be considered a threat? In order to narrow the discussion, this article will assess how China’s unprecedented industrial growth is a threat in relevance to the United States, the seemingly gradually waning superpower. It would also look into how China may not be a real actual threat, but rather a fabricated fear produced by the US’s tendency to overly place importance on its national security, and consequently projects and campaigns its insecurity in a global fashion.

The perceived threat of China’s novel superpower status will be described through a number of factors: economic, military, ideological and national stability. Economically, the magnitude to which China stands as a threat to the US relies on the nationalistic belief that any potential challenge to US’s global economic dominance would be considered ominous.  According to a poll by CNN, about 58 percent of Americans presently see China as an economic superpower, and believe it is a threat to the United States. And rightfully so. Within the past three decades, China surged from a poor and stagnant country to one of the world’s major economic power states.  Between 1979 and 2006, China increased its gross domestic product (GDP) continuously on an average annual rate of nearly ten percent, resulting its economy to grow 11-fold, its per capita GDP to grow 9-fold, and move its world ranking as a trader from 27th place to 3rd. Presently, China overtook Japan’s second place and will probably become ranked first within the next decade.

As miraculous and grand this growth may be, US policymakers are wary of its rapid development. Some are concerned that China will surpass the US in the next few years as the world’s largest trade economy, and even become the world’s overall largest economy in the coming decades. With this thought, China’s rise translates to American’s decline by the American people.  In addition, the growing US trade deficits with China are worrisome as they have increased considerably within two decades, from $10.4 billion in 1990 to an astounding $232 billion in 2006. Some Members of Congress state that this indicates that China is employing unfair trade practices in terms of undervaluing the currency, subsidizing to domestic producers and failing to protect US intellectual property rights, flooding the US markets with low-cost goods. It is feared that this would restrict US exports and, in turn, drastically affect the US economy by limiting jobs and decreasing wages. Analysts caution that the scenario would worsen when China decides to lean towards manufacturing and exporting of more high-value products, such as electronics and automobiles.

The United States Trade Representative (USTR) stated in the 2006 China World Trade Organization (WTO) compliance report that most of the problems in China’s implementation of its WTO obligations comes from its reluctant transition to a free market economy. Recently, the attempts by the Chinese state-owned firms to merge and acquire US businesses and collecting of US Treasury securities are becoming alarming for the US government. As a result, the advancing apprehension projected pessimistic congressional outlooks of China’s economic practices and influenced the creation of many defensive bills. Such bills suggest imposing sanctions against China until it amends its industrial and foreign policies, like the currency policy that would allow countervailing laws on Chinese goods. Overall, it is clear to state that US views China as a foreboding figure that would threaten the US’s economic security.

On the contrary, the International Monetary Fund Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, stated last month that China’s economy is actually slowing. China has set a lower goal of 7.5% of growth instead of the usual 8% in the previous years. Even though the actual growth will be higher than the set goal, it is predicted it would still be below last year’s great reach of 9.2%.  Last year, China’s gross domestic product fell below 3%, a far cry from the 10% reported in 2007. Household disposable income fell from 65% of GDP in 2000 to less than 60% in 2010. Although IMF’s recent declaration of China’s currency being undervalued emphasized the debate by the American policymakers about how China continuously undervalues its currency in order to enjoy a trade advantage, the IMF also refer to the trade data by the World Bank that the Chinese government have made considerable progress to rebalance its economy away from exports and investment and more towards domestic consumption.

Due to China’s decline in external economic balance that reflects a weaker global demand (it posted a $31.5 billion trade deficit this past February), domestic consumption is now considered the alternative route that would help sustain China’s development. As China expressed interest in the stability of the global economy, the Chinese central bank published a three-step strategy that described the nation’s goal to loosen the government’s strict capita controls. In turn, this would allow foreign investors to become much bigger players in the Chinese stock and bond markets and make the currency, the renminbi, take on a bigger international role.  Although such reform would take a while to initiate, this could mark as China’s economic rise to be of a peaceful outlook, rather than an envisioned menacing one the US creates.

Militarily, much speculation spurred when China increased their military spending up into the double-digit range within in recent years. It is not doubtful that China is rapidly modernizing its armed forces. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported that the defense spending increased from $30 billion in 2000 to nearly $120 billion in 2010. The US’s defense budget still exceeds China’s budget by four and a half times more, but SIPRI noted that if China continues its trend of increasing its budget, China’s military budget would overtake the US’s in 2035.

The US government fears that the increased spending will change the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA is the largest army in the world, consisting of almost 2.3 million soldiers. Twenty years ago, China’s military primarily was consisted of numerous ground soldiers in arms. The traditional tactic was to combat an enemy in a face-to-face manner. But now, there is much suspicion in Washington that China is attempting to obtain jargon A2/AD, also known as “anti-access/area denial” capabilities. This tactic focuses on using targeted ground attack and anti-ship ballistic missiles, develop a fleet of more modernized submarines and cyber and anti-satellite arms to exterminate or disenable another state’s military bases from afar. In America’s eyes, this would pinpoint or jeopardize American aircraft-carrier groups and air force bases in the Western Pacific, such as in South Korea, Japan, and even Guam. It is then deemed that this would limit American military power in Asia considerably, as well as be more costly and riskier, hindering American allies’ faith in America’s capability to deter any hostility or fight against subtle forms of coercion. But such fear is exaggerated.

Overall, China is not a military threat to the United States. Unless Dr. Fu Manchu truly exists and is continuously plotting world domination with his army of hostile minions and chemical warfare, there is no real indication that China is a global threat by its military force alone.  There are three factors that limit China’s potential and interest in military domination. First, unlike its Russian neighbour during its Soviet Union days, China has expressed a genuine interest in the stability of the global economy. Many of its military leaders continuously state that the development of the nation that still resorts to median income and plagued with poverty is a more imperative matter than ambitions for military growth. If one takes out the defensive and emotional context placed by the US, the increase in military spending can simply reflect the growing Chinese economy, rather than solely to fulfil an interest in military world domination. China has always spent the same proportion of GDP on military and defense, using a little over 2% whereas the US spends approximately 4.7%.

The only real predicament of China’s intent to sustain a constant military budget will come when China’s economic growth begins to slow even further. In fact, Chinese officials are more concerned over internal threats rather than the external. For the first time, the internal security budget was higher than the military budget last year. With its huge senior population and impending health care complaints, focusing on the demand for better health care would probably become a higher priority than military spending. Like any other nation, China faces the “bread or guns” question, and it actually started to implement a new national health insurance system just last year. It is evident that China is finally unlocking its savings to more so uphold the plan to shift its economic outlook towards domestic consumption than concentrate fully on military expansion.

Second, the improvements to the PLA are not as threatening as it seems in the reports. Chinese military technology has deteriorated by the Western arms embargo imposed after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. China may be improving its military department, but it still remains unorganized, inefficient and too dependent on technological imports from Russia, who also exports to India and Vietnam, China’s local rivals. In terms of ground forces, the PLA does not have up-to-date combat experience. The last instance it faced a true military confrontation was during the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979. If anything, the US has the far advantage from the previous decade of wars by American forces that honed its military skill and performance. True, China holds 2.3 million personnel compared to US’s 1.4 million soldiers, but that is with the US holding less than a fourth of China’s population. China has approximately 8,000 miles of borders to patrol and oversee that also border Russia and India – not exactly the friendliest neighbours to have, especially considering their past history – compared to the American neighbours, Canada and Mexico.

Third, it is simply not surprising that a nation with such importance and influential history could possibly want a good standing in the world, thus create a worthy army to reflect this opinion. Its desire for a bigger army was very much guided and developed by past events.  The idea of China becoming an emerging power was unfathomed a decade ago. As any country without a strong world footing, numerous international factors fed into the fears of insecurity. Nationalistic resentment was naturally spurred when the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was deliberately bombed by US and NATO in 1999. In its own backyard, heavy American forces are planted throughout the region with strong alliances with its Asian rivals. It was in this apprehensive environment that China is interested in improving its military capabilities to uphold any sort of global strategic interests it may have.

The distinct differences in ideological and cultural factors of China compared to the West make it a threat. For neo-conservatives like President George Bush, the fact that China still retains remnants of a communist perspective makes other democratic states instantly view it as an adversary. China’s ideology includes Marxist-Leninist and Maoist components that are against democratic values. This includes: a belief that conflict and competition are inevitable, the opposition to imperialism, a motivation to spread communism through the Chinese model, and the potential revival of the concept of Maoist insurgency in the 21st century.

An example of an unfavourable outcome due to Chinese ideological influence would be the Nepali civil war. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) managed to overthrow the monarchy of Nepal and establish the Federal Republic of Nepal. Some scholars consider this as a sign of a “revival” of Mao in correlation of China’s growing power. Currently throughout central India, many armed Maoist groups have considerably control over a broad range of territory, violently fighting against the Indian government’s endeavours to make the resource-rich forests area safe for mining and other commercial affairs. Even domestically within China, there have been reports of some citizens proudly rekindling the Maoist concept by parents sending their children to universities in the countryside to decrease foreign influence, texting to each other Mao Zedong quotes via mobile devices, and broadcasting the eerily familiar “Red” songs on the state-owned television and radio channels.

But those are events of conflict occurring outside of China in destitute regions and limited reports of innocent nostalgia of the past by elder citizens. Indeed, it is true that concepts of Maoism may exist in China’s foreign policy, but China’s overall perspective seems to have changed. Dr. Kang Ziaoguang, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, argues that Confucianism is becoming China’s new state religion. As enthusiasm for communism is gradually waning, movements for the return of Confucianism – the ethical and philosophical system of humanism – is widely present throughout China, from political ideas to personal ethics. Study of Confucian ideas has increased in the Chinese education system, ranging from kindergarten to universities. What is more evident is the adaptation to Confucian ideas by the Communist Party. President Hu Jintao has always promoted his campaign with slogans that ring with Confucian undertones of balance, harmony, and order since 2002. The party may be more inclined to accept Confucianism that dictates to respect authority and not to challenge its rule. Also, unlike communism, Confucianism is a home grown religion.

Samuel Huntington gives a concise illustration of the perceived threat. He says the “unholy alliance between Islamic and Confucian civilizations” is the most feared “clash of civilizations” and is perceived as a great crucial threat to the West. For nations that follow this belief – such as the US – a short-term, predictable and immediate response to this would be a containment policy with the possibility of confrontation, if needed. With the many conflicts between the US and the Middle East and now anticipating China’s power in its weakened state, it is no surprise that US’s fear is thriving. A long term aim would be an attempt to spread a peaceful transformation within China.

China has shown many signs of moving its rise towards a peaceful route. The incredible economic growth and sudden political governance caused sincere concerns over China throughout the world. As intense global attention increased, Chinese leaders are well aware that they have to quickly attempt to calm these concerns and prepare an amicable environment within the international community for its ascendancy. To appease the concerns of its rise, the Chinese government has sponsored many PR events, which includes holding exhibitions abroad, promoting the Chinese language through numerous programs and making official public announcements about China’s reformations to its policies.

In December 2003, the current Chinese head, Wen Jiabao, made a speech with the thesis of “China’s peaceful rise” at Harvard University. During this speech, Premier Jiabao addressed a couple of points.  The first main point stated that the maintenance of China’s successful development depends on peaceful world relations. Secondly, China will utilize peaceful and fair methods for its development. Third, China will turn to more domestic consumption, relying more on its own resources and market. Fourth, China is willing to work hard in a long-term process, which could last for several generations, to sustain its newly gained economic prosperity. The last point was directed more towards the West where it stated that although China has risen to the near top within these past few decades, China does not have any interest in seeking a hegemonic status or stand as a threat to any nation in the world.

To provide evidence to these claims of “China’s peaceful rise,” the Chinese government has been active at the diplomatic level in many ways. The first step the government took was to form “strategic partnerships with the second-tier powers.” China has reportedly signed treaties with Russia, India, and even the EU, in order to strengthen their diplomatic relationships. The Chinese government has also made it a priority to seek cooperation with the international community and avoid any confrontation with the United States. Chinese officials were sent to Washington to directly pass on a clear message that China is a conservative power and holds no interest to disrupt the status quo (US being the sole worldly hegemonic power). Not forgetting its Asian counterparts, China dedicated itself to promote a “good neighbour policy” in the Asian Pacific region. The policy helped China become an important trader within the region by increasing friendly trade and also allowed the surrounding Asian states to appreciate trade surplus with China. But it is important to recognize that China already initiated friendly relationships with its neighbouring Asian countries through various mechanisms of regional cooperation in the past. During the 1997 financial crisis in the Asia, China received positive praise for refraining from devaluing its currency and contributing to stabilize the regional economy by using its foreign currency reserve.

In the past decade of the US-led “War on Terror,” China has always been careful (and successful) in handling internal nationalism and American unilateralism. But there are some indications that show this temporary peaceful relation could end. As the US shifts its policy to focus from the Middle East to now China, a slight conflict may soon surface in the Sino-American relationship. Noting America’s past to immediately react to challenges and exert a coercive policy; such defensive and aggressive attitude could disrupt China’s intent for a peaceful rise. This week, a study ordered by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission reported that the US has miscalculated China’s military growth and grossly underestimated its development of anti-ship missiles and stealth fighter jets. This could entice the American government to react, as the Obama administration – like the Bush administration – already adopted a policy of containment against China’s economic and politic influence, such as creating broad outlines of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement with eight Asian nations.

Indeed, the US tends to label any distasteful nation it clashed with in the past as a serious threat if it feels challenged in any sort of way. The hegemony has always shifted from demonization to romanticization of China, from containment to engagement, by still retaining a dualistic and militaristic Cold War thinking patterns. The relationship between these two countries has always led to confrontation, to competition and then back to conflict, without any real effort to cooperate with one another. The reason for this “sweet and sour” Sino-American relationship is described by Leon Sigal, who states such relations truly reveal the fundamental nature of America’s foreign policy. Sigal analyzed and interpreted US diplomacy and noted that US foreign policy discouraged cooperation with its strong deterrent stance and has always promoted a “crime and punishment approach,” continuously naming unfavourable nations as “threats.” As General Yao Yunzhu of the Academy of Military Science stated, “We are criticized if we do more and criticized if we do less. The West should decide what it wants. The international military order is US-led—NATO and Asian bilateral alliances—there is nothing like the WTO for China to get into.”

Despite China’s reassurances to the world that the new and improved China would like to create friendly diplomatic relationships based on mutual trust and support, the world is not entirely convinced. Its concern is not about China’s rising, but rather apprehension about what happens after China has risen. The Chinese had faced major criticisms in regards to its policies towards Myanmar and Darfur. As China gains an unfamiliar broad audience, the close attention brought many of its domestic problems to light, such as its problem with Tibet and human rights.

China’s military build-up and great additional defense spending strike as a contradiction to China’s international message of peace. Critics argue that China will eventually become increasingly opportunistic and shed its multilateral approach with global engagement. Thus, its publicized “goodwill” will probably only remain as long as its interests are not jeopardized. China’s confidence levels transformed from insecurity to assertiveness as it continuously participates in international politics power play as an equal and recognize it can actually create the rules of the politics game. Its international interests are legitimized by the international community, and only time would tell if it remains on a diplomatic route or will derail to a more egotistical behaviour.  If China ever wants the world to fully accept its plan for a peaceful rise, China still has to allow greater transparency so it can directly prove its intentions. Without it, no matter how diplomatically charming China may behave, it would be difficult to truly convince its audience otherwise.

There is also the fall of China to take into consideration. Contrary to the previous illustrations of China’s rise to power, some scholars are concerned that China would not be able to handle the sharp rise in power and would be a great global disaster waiting to happen if it suddenly collapses into a sudden Soviet-style death. If so, several crises would unfold. The population of China alone – making up nearly 20 percent of the world – would create an incredible refuge problem. Furthermore, the failure of the country and other concerns – such as internal conflicts, rise in crime, and nuclear proliferation – would be a bag of complexities the world is not equipped to manage simultaneously.
It is possible to view the “rise of China” in these recent years as a quintessentially political process.

After the Cultural Revolution irrevocably changed the country and produced three exigencies of ideological belief, faith in the Communist Party of China (CPC), and uncertainty for the future, the CPC looked to underscore their legitimacy as a nation. As the world became increasingly globalized and integrated as an international community, the CPC recognized that performance-based legitimacy was the last resort to perpetuate its rule, and focused on economic development as its highest priority. As a result, the success of its economic development ensued political assumptions, China being cautiously monitored by its neighbouring states and particularly, the United States. So far, China is deemed as a peaceful rise, and the US is criticized of being overly defensive. But the maintenance of this declared peaceful rise is yet to be determined as the situation settles after the storm.

American-Afghan Enmity

The Hermeneutic Failures of Forgiveness in Afghanistan.
{School of International Relations, University of St. Andrews}



[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n describing the international political environment prior to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Archbishop Desmond Tutu stated, “forgiveness, reconciliation and reparation are not the normal currency in political discourse.  There it is more normal to demand satisfaction, to pay back in the same coin, to give as good as you got, to believe it’s a dog-eat-dog world  … forgiveness, confession and reconciliation were far more at home in the religious sphere.”[1]  In just a few lines, Tutu summarized realpolitik and touched upon the predicament of a world characterized by the notion that “amongst masterless [nations], there is perpetual war of every [nation] against his neighbor.”[2]  He aptly described that a world void of compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation is one that is trapped in the unproductive, hostile and oftentimes violent vicious circle of the realist tradition.

Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness, also suggests that a political realm infused with compassion and forgiveness can serve to transform enmity between groups, mend social relationships, foster the growth of civic bonds and heal the wounds of past injustices.  By providing an optimistic alternative to the realist notions of retributive justice (the prime example being the Nuremburg Trials), the TRC became the flagship of “political forgiveness,” and the leader of the “profusion of examples of what may be termed the ‘politics of apology,’ where many individuals, agencies and governments offered expressions of regret, said ‘sorry’ or apologized for a variety of both recent and long-past actions.”[3]  In this sense, the 1990s saw forgiveness become more prevalent in the international realm, and “in an accelerated fashion, one saw not only individuals, but also entire communities, professional corporations, the representatives of ecclesiastical hierarchies, sovereigns and heads of state ask for ‘forgiveness.”[4]  Since then, the language of forgiveness has become a more deeply embedded, and the idea of forgiving is now a part of peacebuilding processes around the world.

The United States has largely embraced this language, and the American government has come to rely on the political apology in conflicts throughout the Middle East, especially Afghanistan.  As the “War on Terror” rages on and the United States fights to maintain its presence in the region, the US military and government have consistently relied on the political apology to help salvage the waning bonds with the Afghan people.  In light of the continued deaths of civilians, the destruction of property and desecration of religious symbols, the United States has turned to pleas of forgiveness in order to help overcome enmity.  For example, in February, General John Allen, the US commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), broadcasted an apology and asked for forgiveness from the Afghan people for the “accidental” burning of Qur’ans at Bagram air force base.  He stated: “I assure you, I promise you, this was not intentional in any way, and I offer my sincere apologies for any offense this may have caused – my apologies to the President of Afghanistan, my apologies to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and most importantly, my apologizes to the people of Afghanistan.”[5]  General Allen attempted to initiate the forgiveness process, but rather than helping his cause, Afghans rejected Allen’s apology, demanded local justice for the criminals (the destruction of the Qur’an is a crime under Sharia law), and violently protested the continued American presence in the region.  Clearly, forgiveness was not given.  In short, the American political apologies have been ineffective, enmity has not been overcome, and the US has failed to create, renew and strengthen their bonds with the Afghan people.

Although the quest for reconciliation and forgiveness have become important parts of international relations, the American experience demonstrates that forgiveness can only be achieved if the perpetrating party and the victims can a have a “fusion of horizons”[6] within the forgiving process.  Apologies may be offered, but this does not mean that the two parties have truly overcome the “hermeneutic gap”[7] that exists within acts of communication, especially those associated with forgiveness.  As General Allen’s apology and the ensuing Afghan response demonstrate, the hermeneutic gap between the United States and the Afghan people is vast, and forgiveness will remain elusive unless this divide is minimized.  The following explores the nature of this divide and uses a narrative methodology, as well as a Ricœurian conception of hermeneutics, to better understand the failures of the forgiveness process in Afghanistan.  I contend that in order to have better success with political forgiveness, the United States will first have to overcome three different, yet complementary, types of hermeneutic failures – (1) the dilemma created by opposing narratives, (2) the misinterpretation of symbols, and (3) a lack of reflective judgment.

Forgiveness: A Definition

 Since forgiveness is a pillar in all the major world religions and a large part of history’s moral discourse, there are copious amounts of literature on the topic and a wide array of definitions for the term.  However, many sources engage and reference Hannah Arendt’s account of forgiveness as found in her well-known book, The Human Condition.  Arendt’s definition states that: “Forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance, which acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing … forgiving is the only reaction that does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore from its consequences.”[8]  As Arendt points out, forgiveness is about overcoming past wrongs by removing oneself from the vicious cycle of vengeance and retribution.  Rather than simply continuing the predictable “eye for an eye” paradigm, forgiveness entails stepping out of this destructive dialectic in order to curtail the cycle of resentment, hate, pain and enmity.  Although “retribution, the prevalent state practice in confronting wrongdoing, is an effective strategy for implementing legal justice, it does not necessarily contribute to the healing of victims, or the restoration of community life.”[9]  In other words, forgiveness bypasses retributive logic, and choosing to forgive means to “value the justice that restores political community above the justice that destroys it.”[10]

Although I largely agree with Arendt’s notion of forgiveness, she falls a bit short by placing the onus of forgiveness entirely within the victim’s sphere.  In essence, the idea of forgiveness implies that an offense has occurred against a victim, and thus it also assumes the existence of an offending party.  As Jacques Derrida states, “forgiveness must engage tow singularities: the victim and the guilty (my emphasis).”[11]  So in addition to Arendt’s contribution, our conception of forgiveness should not only focus on the victim, but also acknowledge and consider the role played by the offender; thus, the “classical theory” of forgiveness seems most appropriate when attempting to understand the interaction between both the victim and the guilty parties.  Mark Amstutz argues that the classical theory of forgiveness is the theoretical perspective most concerned with the interaction “between offenders and victims in which the two parties confront past wrongdoings and move toward the restoration of broken relationships.”[12]  In describing this interaction, Amstutz writes: “In order for forgiveness to occur, offenders must acknowledge wrongdoing and express remorse for the injuries they have unjustly inflicted on victims.  They may do this through words (public acknowledgement, apologies or repentance) and through tangible reparations.  Victims, for their part, refrain from acts of vengeance, express empathy toward offenders, and release offenders from part or all of their deserved debts.”[13]  The classical theory of forgiveness is structured so that the interaction between the two parties only leads to forgiveness if both parties can take the necessary steps throughout the course of the process.  By expanding Arendt’s understanding to encompass the victim and offender in the same scope, we come to see the bigger picture as well as set the scene for a more in depth discussion of the hermeneutic failures inherent to the process of forgiving.  It is only by recognizing the role and presence of both parties that we can even begin discussing the idea of opposing narratives, symbolic misinterpretations or reflective judgment.

Exploring the Hermeneutic Gap of Forgiveness

The interaction within the forgiveness process is an inherently communicative matter; consequently, an analysis of forgiveness requires a methodology that is dedicated to assessing and interpreting a communication between two parties, or the horizons of interpretation.  I contend that narratology is ideally suited to do just that.  Narratology is the “discipline dedicated to the study of the logic, principles and practices of narrative representation … its concepts and models are widely used as heuristic tools, and narratological theorems play a central role in the explanation and modeling of our ability to produce and process narratives in a multitude of forms.”[14]   In viewing forgiveness through the lens of narratology, it becomes clear that the forgiveness and narrative processes have a common structure.  Both processes “share the common function of someone telling something to someone about something.  In each case there is a teller, a tale, something told about and a recipient of the tale.[15]  Looking more closely at forgiveness, one can see that its process is determined by the success of the individual parties communicating their stories back and forth between each other.  For example, Gen. Allen’s apology to the Afghan people was a matter of the offending party communicating its story (the story that the Qur’an burnings were accidental) to the Afghan victims.  In this sense, forgiveness, like narrative is “distinguished by the presence of a story, a storyteller and an audience.”[16]  Consequently, narratology provides a system of well developed and accepted theoretical concepts that are highly useful and pertinent to understanding the forgiveness process and the hermeneutic problem inherent to it.

Charles Griswold suggests a similar tactic in his book, Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, and he uses a narrative methodology to “help make sense of how both parties to the scene of forgiveness (victims and offenders) may fulfill the certain requirements”[17] implicit to the overall process of forgiving.   Griswold demonstrates that the structure of the narrative process is dependent on the difference between the various “narrations” (created by the different parties) and the actual “story.”  He asserts that the “story refers to the bare facts – say, that X injured Y in manner Z at time T” – and he argues that the “narrative” is the act of telling or relaying that incident from one party to the other.[18]  In describing the two ideas, he states, “notionally story is content abstracted from viewpoint.  Normally there will be different ways of trying to convey the story, the content; but notionally, just one content to be conveyed.”[19]  This observation is important because it highlights the subjective nature of the narrative process.  Although there may be only one set of “bare facts,” there are countless narrations, or endless ways of telling the story of these facts.  Nietzsche took this idea even further when he said that life is not characterized by the “facts” of daily life, but rather “facts are precisely what there is not, only interpretations.  We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself’ … in so far as the world ‘knowledge’ has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings (my emphasis) – Perspectivism.”[20]  Nietzsche recognized that there could not be any “facts” because everyone imposes his or her own perspective and interpretation upon the world.  Consequently, the narratives of any given event, or offense, can, and will probably, vary greatly between parties – that is between victim and offender.

Referring back to the American experience in the Middle East, one can see this sentiment play out.  In apologizing to the Afghan people, Gen. Allen insisted upon the accidental burning of the Qur’ans at Bagram air force base.  This version of the narrative is told from the perspective that “the decision to burn had nothing to do with the material being religious in nature or related to Islam … it was an error.”[21]  However, Allen’s narrative is different than the Afghan one, and the offended party viewed the incident as a malicious act against Islam.  As imam Inayatullah Baleegh said, “burning the Qur’an at Bagram is an unforgivable crime and sin.”[22]  Although one set of “facts” does exist, the perspectivism inherent to the narrative process ultimately led to the creation of entirely different stories by the Afghan and American camps.  In short, each horizon provided its own narrative.

It is at this point that problems arise and the hermeneutic gap becomes evident.  Since the storyteller and audience (the victim and offender, or vice versa) each bring their own narratives into the forgiveness process, their respective perspectival spheres immediately serve to create a divide.  They each have their own narratives, and thus understanding between the parties is limited.  Although these narratives develop in tandem, they nevertheless remain asymmetrical, and the stories “each side offers express different conditions.”[23]  Paul Ricœur argues that the two parties will never converge, that is there will never be a “fusion of horizons,” until both the victim and the offender can come together within one narrative.  This means that the victim and offender will be on the way to understanding one another and finding forgiveness, but they will not get there until they both come to “live together within the mode of the imaginary”[24] – that is to say within the world of the communicative act (such as the apology).  According to Ricœur: “The process of composition, of configuration, is not completed in the text but in the reader, and under this condition, makes possible the reconfiguration of life by narrative.  I should say, more precisely: the sense or the significance of narrative stems from the intersection of the world of the text and the world of the reader … To appropriate a work through reading is to unfold the world horizon implicit in it which includes the actions, the characters and the events of the story told.  As a result, the reader belongs at once to the work’s horizon of experience.”[25]  As the narrative process only becomes complete within the imaginary world of the story, the “hermeneutical problem begins, then, where linguistics leaves off.”[26]  Upon hearing or reading a story, it is up to the members of the audience to interpret the message.  From a hermeneutical point of view, this means the audience must unravel, decode and find the meaning within the story.  In communicating, victims and offenders become interpreters, and interpretation is  “the work of thought which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning, in unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning.”[27]  In other words, the fusion of horizons and the success of the forgiveness process depend on whether or not both parties can move from interpretation to understanding within the same story.

Since forgiveness is about overcoming a past wrong, this coming together within the story requires each party to agree upon the offense in question.  In other words, the mode of the imaginary, or the story where the victim and the offender’s horizons meet, must be based upon a level of truth acceptable to both parties.  If the narratives told by each party are entirely their own and in opposition to one another, no level of interpretation will allow the parties to proceed beyond the hermeneutic gap.  In the classical theory of forgiveness, this is understood as finding a “consensus of truth,” and it “is an agreement about the nature, causes and responsibility for the wrongdoing.  Since forgiveness is a means for healing the injuries resulting from past wrongs and injustices, it presupposes knowledge about the offense.”[28]  In the case of South Africa, the TRC was based upon the idea of finding a consensus of truth, and their program’s mission of fostering forgiveness revolved around acknowledging and uncovering the crimes of Apartheid.  The TRC only granted amnesty “to individuals in exchange for a full disclosure relating to the crime which amnesty was being sought.  It was the carrot of possible freedom in exchange for truth.”[29]  Although the TRC had limited powers to fully uncover the truth and corroborate the stories of every case, their efforts highlight the importance of truth within the forgiveness process.  In forgiving, parties are not merely coming together and trying to have a fusion of horizons for purely recreational purposes (as one might do when picking up a Harry Potter book); but rather forgiveness is an interaction that needs a level of understanding based upon the “bare facts.”  As Donald Shriver stated succinctly, “absent a preliminary agreement between two or more parties that there is something from the past to be forgiven, forgiveness stalls at the starting gate.”[30]  In this sense, the forgiveness process that actually provides forgiveness is the one in which the story between the two parties is based in truth.  If this element is lacking, the interaction goes nowhere and each party remains trapped within the confines of their own horizon.

In addition to finding a consensus of truth, the United States and the Afghan people are also faced with another hermeneutical challenge, the symbol.  Since political forgiveness is a matter of healing a wrong between groups and not just between individuals, it is forced to lean on the symbolic gesture in order to convey intentions, remorse and apologetic sentiments to large groups of people.  When dealing with forgiveness on a large scale, forgiving “will take a thoroughly symbolic form.  The moral exchange is somehow to be accomplished primarily, if not entirely through that medium.”[31]  For example, the United States has a history of offering monetary reparations to the families of civilian casualties throughout the conflicts in the Middle East.  When US Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales murdered 17 Afghan civilians in early March, the US government paid 50,000 dollars to each of the victimized families.[32]  These monetary gifts were symbolic because there is no form of apology or gesture that can make up for such a tragedy to every victimized party.  Archbishop Tutu describes the TRC’s use of a similar reparation payment (albeit much more modest one), and he too recognized that this gesture “was really meant to be symbolic rather than substantial.”[33] He wrote: “The nation said in effect, to victims: ‘We acknowledge that you suffered a gross violation of your rights.  Nothing can ever replace your loved one.  But as a nation we are saying, we are sorry, we have opened the wounds of your suffering and sought to cleanse them; this reparation is a balm, an ointment, being poured over the wounds to assist in their healing.”[34]  Since forgiveness was offered from a government to an entire population, it was the symbol that bore the burden of communication within the forgiveness process in both South Africa and the Middle East.  In both cases, forgiveness relied on the symbol to convey a message of apology and remorse for the injustices of the past.

The difficulty with the symbolic gesture is that it adds an additional dimension of complexity and interpretation above and beyond finding a consensus on truth.  Symbolism requires another interpretation because the symbol is essentially a part of another language.  As defined by Ricœur, a “symbol is any structure of significance in which direct, primary, literal meaning designates, in addition, another meaning which is indirect, secondary, and figurative and which can be apprehended only through the first.”[35]  A symbol requires a knowledge of the opposite party and the meanings of their symbols.  Theses symbols may derive their meaning from culture, religion, language, history or a plethora of other sources; thus, a thorough knowledge is not likely to be found within the confines of the interaction between the two parties.  This is to say that the interpreter must recognize and know how to identify and read a symbolic gesture from a group with an entirely different understanding of the world.  In discussing the hermeneutics of symbols, Ricœur writes, “symbolism requires an interpretation because it is based upon a specific semantic structure, the structure of double-meaning expression … there is a hermeneutical problem because there is an indirect language.”[36]  So when two parties enter into the forgiveness process, understanding does not only occur within the verbal or written communication, but also on the symbolic level where an entirely new interpretation must take place in a language that is not always obvious or discernable for a party unfamiliar with the other’s symbols.  In short, both parties must have a fusion of horizons within the symbol, as well as in the larger narrative, and the indirect, ambiguity of symbolism only serves to widen the hermeneutic gap even further.

Although decoding and interpreting the indirect language of symbolism is no simple task, forgiveness is also characterized by a third hermeneutic dilemma that requires one to broaden their perspective beyond both the confines of one’s own horizon.  This hermeneutic dilemma is that of reflective judgment, or as Arendt would say the act of “forming an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent.”[37]  This ability to think outside oneself and from an alternative viewpoint is critical to the forgiveness process because forgiving requires “transgressors and victims to cultivate empathy and compassion toward the ‘other,’ viewing each as human beings worthy of respect.”[38]  Although empathy and compassion are not typically associated with narratology or hermeneutics, they nevertheless contribute to the hermeneutic gap within the forgiveness process because victims must step beyond their own horizon in order to view the narrative, as well as the transgressor, in a new light.  Empathy requires an interpretation not from the perspective of one’s own horizon, which could be clouded by painful memories and emotions, but rather from a place of compassion for other human beings.  St. Augustine described this as acting “with due love for the person and hatred of the sin.”[39]  Since hating the sin and not the sinner is rarely the typical response to an injustice, forgiveness requires a level of reflective judgment in order to elevate one’s perspective beyond the confines of one’s own horizon.

The difficulty of altering one’s viewpoint and subsequently one’s interpretation is that this requires an “understanding stemming from the creative.”[40]  Entering the interpretation process from a view of empathy and compassion requires “enlarged thinking” (to borrow Kant’s phrase), and it means having the reflective judgment to step outside one’s own horizon.  Since retribution is a natural response in an attack or when an injustice has been committed, it takes an act of enlarged thinking and reflective judgment to overcome retaliatory temptations and to move to a place of compassion.  Naomi Head describes enlarged thinking and reflective judgment together as the ability to “imagine what it would be like to be somewhere else … in other words, ‘the liberation from one’s own private interests,’ or ‘self-interest.’  For Arendt, to think with an enlarged mentality means ‘that one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.”[41]  If victims can “go visiting” and view their perpetrators from an empathetic vantage point, there is a much greater chance that they will have the ability to forgive.  In the process of changing one’s view of an offender’s narrative, it becomes possible to recognize their humanity and consequently understand their fallibility.  In the case of the Qur’an burning incident, the Afghan people did not enlarge their thinking and they were unable to empathize with the offending American party.  The Afghans remained locked within the confines of a horizon limited by Islamic religious law and the emotions of the moment.  As the Afghan/American example demonstrates, cultivating reflective judgment and enlarged thinking is not easy, and one’s personal narrative, which may be filled with bad memories and painful emotions, can serve to prevent parties from viewing others with greater compassion.  With an inability to shift the perspective away from one’s own horizon, there will be no forgiveness, and self-interested notions of retributive justice will guide people to continue hurting and hating one another.  In short, realpolitik will continue to reign supreme.


Although the continued “War on Terror” has undoubtedly perpetuated hostilities between Americans and Afghans, there will be relentless enmity if the hermeneutic gap is not minimized.  At the moment, one can clearly see that the United States and Afghan people are failing on all three hermeneutic levels, and they are not meeting in the mode of the imaginary (within the same narrative), neither party is correctly interpreting the other’s symbols, and reflective judgment is lacking.  This gap is not a recent development, and divisions between secular countries from the West and non-secular nations from the Middle East and North Africa have roots deep in history.  Reaching back to the Crusades, western societies have clashed with Islamic ones, and enmity between the secular and non-secular is common.  In his book, The West and the Rest, Roger Scruton maintains that this tension are the result of the incommensurability between Western societies that are based on the “social contract” and the “rest” (countries with Islamic roots and predominately Islamic populations) that are founded on the word of God.  From the view of the Islamic “rest,” the Koran alone gives legitimacy to the political order and all those sociopolitical organizations that are not derivatives of God’s word are inherently illegitimate.”[42]   Thus, the US’s presence in the Middle East feeds this tension, and the American foreign policy of promoting democracy, the free market and abstract human rights is “a secular mentality separate from religiously based ethics; and thus it is something many Muslim societies view as alien ideology that competes directly with Islamic moral and religious values. Democracy and the promotion of secular human rights have become for many Muslims an anti-religious ‘other.”[43]  Since secularism bunds heads with non-secularism, differences will continue to pose problems for the United States, and issues such as the Qur’an burning will continue to cause outrage.  Consequently, the need to overcome the hermeneutic dilemmas inherent to the forgiveness process is an important part of building a more peaceful world and less hostile international environment.  People are dying and cultural boundaries are being broken everyday; thus, it will require a forgiving mindset to chose compassion over retribution and a movement to a higher ethical plane in order to curtail a realist tradition that is characterized by self-interested acts of vengeance.  Rather than perpetuate the destructive cycle of realpolitik, it is time that forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation move more fully out of the religious sphere and come to be permanent and lasting tenets within the realm of international politics.

[toggle title=”Citations”]

[1] Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (London: Rider Books, 1999), 71.

[2] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. by Rod Hay for the McMaster University Archive of the History of Economic Thought, 132.

[3] Michael Cunningham, “Saying Sorry: The Politics of Apology,” The Political Quarterly 70 (2002), 285.  In this article, Cunningham goes on to discuss twenty-five examples where individuals, professional and commercial organizations, religious organizations, governments and heads of state apologize for a bevy of past wrong doings.  His assessment includes but is not limited to a discussion about South African citizens apologies for apartheid, the Vatican’s apology for the crusades, DC Comics apology for omitting the Jews from Holocaust era publications of Superman, Canada’s apology to the country’s native population for past treatment, and the Queen of England’s apology for British crimes committed against the Maori people of New Zealand. (Ibid.)

[4] Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. by Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (London: Routledge, 2001), 28.

[5] John Allen, “NATO apologize for Afghan Qur’an burning” [VIDEO], The Guardian, February 21, 2012. Accessed April 20, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/21/us-nato-apologise-afghan-quran-burning?intcmp=239.

[6] Referring to Hans-Georg Gadamer, a “fusion of horizons” describes the achievement of understanding between an interpreter and a text, or an interpreter and a story.  For Gadamer, the interpreter and the text/story exist within separate “horizons” – the context of interpretation of which the text or interpreter is a part of – and understanding is only achieved if the two sides can become one.   [Wesley Wildman, “Hermeneutics and Phenomenology,” Boston University, accessed April 27, 2012, http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/WeirdWildWeb/courses/wphil/lectures/wphil_theme19.htm#Phenomenology].

[7] A hermeneutic gap refers to the divide that exists between the two horizons of experience; and in terms of the forgiveness process, it is the state that precedes understanding between the victim and the offender.

[8] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 240-241.

[9] Mark R. Amstutz, “Restorative Justice, Political Forgiveness, and the Possibility of Political Reconciliation,” in The Politics of Past Evils: Religion, Reconciliation, and the Dilemmas of Transitional Justice, ed. Daniel Philpott (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 153.

[10] Donald W. Shriver, An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995), 9.

[11] Derrida, 42.

[12] Mark R. Amstutz, The Healing of Nations: The Promise and Limits of Political Forgiveness (London: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2005), 53-54.  The classical theory of forgiveness is not the only theory Amstutz discusses, and he also assesses the unilateral and virtue ethics perspectives.  However, the classical theory is the one most relevant to my discussion of the political forgiveness practiced by the United States in the Middle East.  It is also the theoretical perspective most helpful in understanding the hermeneutical gap prevalent in the American/Afghan dynamic.

[13] Ibid., 54.

[14] Jan Christoph Meister, “Narratolgy,” The living handbook of narratology – Interdisciplinary Study of Narratology, University of Hamburg, accessed on April 25, 2011, http://hup.sub.uni-hamburg.de/lhn/index.php/Narratology.

[15] Richard Kearny, On Stories (London: Routledge, 2002), 5.

[16] Robert Kellogg and Robert Scholles, The Nature of Narrative (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), 4.

[17] Charles Griswold, Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007), 98.

[18] Ibid., 99.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, translated by Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1967), 267.

[21] Emma Graham-Harrison, NATO apologize for Afghan Qur’an burning,” The Guardian, February 21, 2012, accessed April 20, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/21/us-nato-apologise-afghan-quran-burning?intcmp=239.

[22] Laura King, “Afghan anger over Koran burning an emblem of a nation’s culture war,” Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2012, accessed April 20, 2012. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/25/world/la-fg-afghanistan-koran-20120226.

[23] Griswold, 105.

[24] Paul Ricœur, “Life in the quest of narrative,” in On Paul Ricœur: Narrative and Interpretation, ed. David Wood (London: Routledge, 1991), 27.

[25] Ibid., 26.  Paul Ricœur typically discusses narrative in terms of a written text.  However, narrative has taken many forms throughout history, and our views should not be limited to written narrative.  Instead we should also include the oral, written and visual story as equal members in the narrative family.

[26] Ibid., 27.

[27] Paul Ricœur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” in The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics (Evanston, IL: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1974), 98.

[28] Amstutz, The Healing of Nations, 55.

[29] Tutu, 34.

[30] Shriver, 7.

[31] Griswold, 140.

[32] Vogt, Hiedi and Mirwais Khan. “Afghans: US paid $50K per shooting spree death.” YAHOO! News.  Accessed March 27, 2012. http://news.yahoo.com/afghans-us-paid-50k-per-shooting-spree-death-160404824.html.

[33] Tutu, 57.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ricœur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” 12.

[36] Ricœur, “From Existentialism to the Philosophy of Language,” The Philosophy of Paul Ricœur: An Anthology, edited by Charles E. Reagan & David Stewart (Boston: Beach Press, 1978), 88.

[37] Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, edited by Jerome Kohn (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), 237.

[38] Amstutz, 78.

[39] Augustine of Hippo, Letter CCXI, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series; Vol. 1 The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustine, edited by Philip Schaff (New York: Cosimo, 2007), 566.

[40] Paul Ricœur, “Life in the quest of narrative,” 24.

[41] Naomi Head, “Bringing Reflective Judgment into International Relations: exploring the Rwandan Genocide,” Journal of Global Ethics 6 (2010), 194.

[42] Roger Scruton, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat (London: Continuum, 2002), 15.

[43] Prisco R. Hernandez, “Dealing with Absolutes: Religion, the Operational Environment, and the Art of Design,” Military Review (2010), 28.



Morality & Caring For Nature

Do the strongest moral and political grounds for caring for nature lie in our concern for future generations?
{School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh}



[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n facing up to the fact that we live in a world of finite resources and yet are driven by a seemingly infinite appetite for consumption, there has been a growing discourse in green political thought which regards a concern for future generations as the overriding moral and political grounds for caring for nature. With it increasingly recognised that, ‘human economic activity is exceeding the ‘carrying capacity’ of the biosphere, leading to degradation in its many forms’. [1] The discourse otherwise termed sustainable development has dominated discussions of environmental politics. It has become, to quote Dryzek, ‘arguably the dominant global discourse of ecological concern’ [2] over the last thirty years. However, while sustainable development with its emphasis on intergenerational justice has proven a popular justification for caring for nature, there have been some who dispute whether a concern for future generations is the strongest political and moral imperative. With radical critics taking offence at the prominence given to anthropocentric concerns coupled with the increasing popularisation of ecological modernisation, the supremacy of sustainable development and a concern for future generations is under threat. By looking at the paradigms of sustainable development and ecological modernization alongside a discussion of environmental ethics, this essay attempts to put forward the case that a concern for future generations is not the strongest political grounds for caring for nature. Despite seemingly satisfying the requirements for effective policy implementation it will be shown that it is not the most popular political validation for preserving nature and is in fact a rather narrow and one-sided moral justification.

In trying to elucidate that a concern for future generations is not the strongest political grounds for caring for nature, it makes sense to start by looking at the predominant political approaches advocating environmental preservation. Therefore we are led to a discussion of sustainable development and its chief interpretation, ecological modernization. As the well-known and oft-quoted definition from the Brundtland Report Our Common Future suggests, sustainable development is ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. [3] It is an ‘umbrella concept’ [4] that attempts to tie together concern for the carrying capacity of natural systems with the social challenges facing humanity. By including an awareness of future generations or ‘futurity’ [5] in its definition, it posits a technologically optimistic account that encourages both intra and inter-generational equity and regards a concern for future generations as the paramount and overriding motivation for caring for nature. However, despite explicitly emphasising a concern for future generations and for checking the environmental impact of current generations, it can be argued that the idea of sustainable development is misleading. This is because the definition is extremely broad and seems to presuppose ‘the answer to a range of questions which arise at the intersection of the natural world, human well-being, intragenerational and intergenerational considerations’. [6] The problem with sustainable development is that it emphasises a concern for future generations as a justification for political actions in the present but doesn’t explain how to weigh the importance of the different principles that constitute it. In other words, it highlights the overall goal which is sustainability but doesn’t explain how to get there leaving itself open to interpretation.

One particular interpretation that has become extremely popular is ecological modernization, and yet this brings about serious repercussions for the thought that the strongest political ground for caring for nature lies in a concern for future generations. Positing a scenario in which advanced societies can have their cake and eat it, ‘ecological modernization, it is claimed, offers a ‘win-win’ scenario whereby economic growth and environmental protection can be reconciled.’ [7] It is an attempt by optimistic political theorists to show that, ‘economic development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive’ [8] and therefore that economic growth can be environmentally efficient. Nevertheless if this is the case, then it seems that the idea diverges from sustainable development. It challenges, ‘the fundamental assumption of the conventional wisdom, namely that there was a zero-sum trade off between economic prosperity and environmental concern’. [9] By decoupling the link between technocratic economic development and environmental degradation, it legitimises a continuation of the existing institutional order. Therefore it in effect, suggests that the strongest political grounds for caring for nature lie, not in a concern for future generations or a concern for the non-human world, but in the increased efficiency and profit that can be garnered from behaving environmentally.

While sustainable development in general attempts to incorporate the demands of intra-generational equity and intergenerational equity into a development framework, ecological modernisation does not and this is problematic. Considered to be the dominant interpretation of sustainable development and yet also an interpretation which overtly fails to place an obligation to future generations at the epicentre of its political thought. Ecological modernization appears to focus on intragenerational concerns at the expense of intergenerational concerns. It ‘ignores the core story-line of sustainable development, global ecological interdependence and ecological limits and neglects the linkages between global environmental problems and social justice.’ [10] Indeed rather than accept that we must emphasise the obligations of the future and are therefore obliged to change our patterns of behaviour to compensate. Ecological modernization stresses the importance, first and foremost, of our responsibility to the present and maintaining existing patterns of production. While an obligation to future generations is considered, it is not the primary political justification for caring for nature and correspondingly seems to echo a particularly contentious point from classical political theory which is that humans are naturally self-interested. [11] By placing the emphasis on pre-existing behaviour patterns, sustainable development and an obligation to future generations becomes analogous to an afterthought. Sustainability becomes the desirable but not imperative offshoot of a self interested political grounding. Therefore the popularisation of ecological modernization dictates that a concern for future generations is not the strongest political grounds for preserving nature. As Weiss poignantly articulates, ‘if rights cannot be attributed to an unborn child’, which conceivably they can’t because the child is non-existent, ‘can they [really] be attributed to unborn generations?’ [12] If we follow the thoughts of ecological modernization and consider it to be the dominant environmental political discourse, it seems not.

In considering the challenge set out by ecological modernization, it is clear that justifying a reorientation with nature on the grounds of ‘ecoefficiency’ [13] is contentious. By adopting principally anthropocentric or even technocentric concerns, ecological modernization suggests that technical and managerial approaches can solve the environmental crisis. [14] It proposes that there is no need to radically change the present patterns of development and for that reason, the theory is perfectly suited to the ‘limited opportunities available, desired or permitted by political leaders and the business community’. [15] With the realities of the environmental crisis becoming increasingly stark, ecological modernization has proven popular because it provides the perfect platform for politicians and companies to be seen to be doing something. As such, it has been lambasted as a strategy of political accommodation and ‘a rhetorical ploy that tries to reconcile the irreconcilable (environment and development) only to take the wind out of the sails of ‘real’ environmentalists’. [16] Whilst a concern for future generations may be morally superior and have more political integrity as a ground for caring for nature, the fact of the matter is that it unavoidably takes a backseat in the face of more immediate political and business interests. Although ecological modernization can include a concern for future generations in its justification for preserving nature, it is primarily interested in the present and so is utilised to erect a political smokescreen that legitimises the implementation of the bare minimum. It can perhaps best be described as a pseudo ‘environmental’ discourse which justifies maintaining the status quo.

After showing that the strongest political grounds for caring for nature are inevitably bound up in the present and as such do not lie in a concern for future generations. It comes the time to move furtively into a discussion of environmental ethics, in order to see whether a concern for future generations is a particularly cogent moral argument. In enunciating the political reasons for caring for nature, Connolly and Smith suggest that, ‘the obligation to present and future generations is complemented by a third obligation: to non-human nature’. [17] Their distinction highlights a most important division in environmental ethics, namely the juxtaposition of anthropocentric concerns and eco-centric concerns.  Whereas, ‘anthropocentrism is based exclusively on human-related values, and considers the welfare of mankind [to be] the ultimate drive for defining policies related to the environment.’ [18] Eco-centrism argues that there is an equality of intrinsic value across human and non-human nature and therefore that the ‘failure to extend moral considerability to nonhuman species is symptomatic of speciesism or human chauvinism – an unwarranted prejudice against nonhuman others just because they are not human’. [19] This debate termed environmental ethics, is the cornerstone of green poltical philosophy and has clear implications with regards to the claim that the strongest moral and political ground for preserving for nature lies in our concern for future generations.

In articulating the difference between political and moral grounds, Jacobs asserts that within sustainable development, there tends to be four separate types of value motivating a concern for environmental degradation:

‘Two are varieties of justice: intergenerational (concern for the impact on future generations), and intragenerational (concern for the impact that current patterns of economic activity, particularly consumption in industrialized countries, is already having on poor people, particularly in the South).The other two might loosely be described as ‘environmental ethics’ [and those who are appalled at environmental degradation]… For some, this is because the environment has ‘intrinsic’ value: it is wrong to destroy it. For others the value is more ‘cultural’: they believe that society and human nature are impoverished and diminished by the destruction of the non-human world.’ [20]

While a concern for future generations is essentially intergenerational and therefore fits with Jacobs’ political categories denoting varieties of justice, it can be stated that from an ethical standpoint it seems much harder to categorise. This is because, by claiming that a concern for future generations is the preeminent moral motivation for caring for nature, it acclaims the primacy of humans and consequently adopts a thoroughly one-sided ethical justification. It leans toward an anthropocentric viewpoint which regards humans as intrinsically valuable and nature as instrumental to achieving the aim of sustaining humanity. However by focusing on the value of humans, ecologists and radicals have critiqued what they see as the unwarranted ascendency of humanity over nature. As Barry emotes, ‘it is inappropriate – cosmically unfitting, in some sense – to regard nature as nothing more than something to be exploited for the benefit of human beings’. [21] If a concern for future generations is seen as the strongest moral ground for caring for nature, then nature becomes instrumental to the needs of humans. It treats nature as a means to an end and in turn relegates nature to the role of a tool, something which seems inherently unethical and wrong.

In conclusion, despite being prioritised within sustainable development discourse, a concern for future generations is not the strongest moral and political grounds for caring for nature for three reasons. Firstly from a political perspective, the rise and popularisation of ecological modernization, a particularly ‘weak expression of sustainable development’, [22] suggests that a concern for future generations development lacks cogency in that it is clear what the outcome is but is not at all clear how to get there. It is liable to be misinterpreted. Secondly, a concern for future generations manifested in sustainable development has been relatively ineffectual when compared to the success and implementation of the win-win scenario proffered by ecological modernization. The more immediately pressing political motives in the present influenced by self interest have unavoidably usurped the long term concerns of the future. Thirdly and finally from an ethical perspective, a concern for future generations is a distinctly anthropocentric concern and can consequently be considered to be a narrow and one-sided justification which falls someway short of being a particularly persuasive moral argument.

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]

[1] Michael Jacobs. Sustainable Development as a Contested Concept. (Oxford University Press, 1999) p.39
[2] John Dryzek. The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses. (Oxford University Press,2005) p.146[3] WECD. Our Common Future. (Brundtland Report, 1987) p.8
[4]  James Connolly and Graham Smith. Politics and the Environment: From Theory to Practice (Routledge, 1999) p.6
[5] Dobson (1999)
[6] James Connolly and Graham Smith. Politics and the Environment: From Theory to Practice (Routledge, 1999) p.40
[7] James Connolly and Graham Smith. Politics and the Environment: From Theory to Practice (Routledge, 1999) p.66
[8] James Connolly and Graham Smith. Politics and the Environment: From Theory to Practice (Routledge, 1999) (1999) p.5
[9] Albert Weale. The New Politics of Pollution. (Manchester University Press, 1992) p.31
[10] Oluf Langhelle. Why ecological modernization and sustainable development should not be conflated. (Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, 2010) p.313
[11] Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan. (Cambridge University Press, 2006)
[12] Edith Brown Weiss Environmental change and international law: New challenges and dimensions (1992)
[13] James Connolly and Graham Smith. Politics and the Environment: From Theory to Practice (Routledge, 1999) p.70
[14] Lucas Seghezzo. The five dimensions of sustainability. (Environmental Politics, 2009) p.541
[15] Maarten, Hajer. (Oxford University Press, 1995) p.33
[16] James Connolly and Graham Smith. Politics and the Environment: From Theory to Practice (Routledge, 1999) p.4
[17] Lucas Seghezzo. The five dimensions of sustainability. (Environmental Politics, 2005) p.541
[18] Robyn Eckersley. Ecocentric Discourses: Problems and Future Prospects for Nature Advocacy. (Oxford University Press, 2005) p.368
[19] Michael Jacobs. Sustainable Development as a Contested Concept. (Oxford University Press, 1999) p.38
[20] Brian Barry. Sustainability and Intergenerational Equity. (Oxford University Press, 1999) p.114
[21] Wilfred Beckerman. Sustainable Development and Our Obligations to Future Generations. (Oxford University Press, 1999) p.87
[22] Oluf Langhelle. Why ecological modernization and sustainable development should not be conflated. (Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, 2000) p.318

Barry, Brian. (1999) Sustainability and Intergenerational Equity. In: Dobson Andrew (ed.) Fairness and Futurity: Essays on Environmental Sustainability and Social Justice. (Oxford, Oxford University Press), pp.93-117

Beckerman, Wilfred. (1999) Sustainable Development and Our Obligations to Future Generations. In: Dobson Andrew (ed.)Fairness and Futurity: Essays on Environmental Sustainability and Social Justice. (Oxford, Oxford University Press), pp.71-92.

Connolly, James and Smith, Graham. (1999)Politics and the Environment: From Theory to Practice. (London, Routledge)

Dobson, Andrew, (ed.) (1999) Fairness and Futurity: Essays on Environmental Sustainability and Sustainable Development. (Oxford, Oxford University Press)

Dryzek, John, S. (2005) The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses. 2nd Edition (Oxford, Oxford University Press)

Eckersley, Robyn. (2005)Ecocentric Discourses: Problems and Future Prospects for Nature Advocacy. In: Dryzek, John, S and Schlosberg, David. (eds.) Debating the Earth: The Environmental Politics Reader (Oxford, Oxford University Press) pp.364-381

Hajer, Maarten, A. (1995) The Politics of Environmental Discourse: Ecological Modernisation and the Policy Process. (Oxford,Oxford University Press)

Hobbes, Thomas. (2006) Leviathan. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)

Jacobs, Michael. (1999) Sustainable Development as a Contested Concept. In: Dobson Andrew (ed.) Fairness and Futurity: Essays on Environmental Sustainability and Social Justice. (Oxford, Oxford University Press), pp.21-45.

Langhelle, Oluf. (2000) Why ecological modernization and sustainable development should not be conflated. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning. 2(4) pp.303-322. [online] Available at: <http://blackboard.soton.ac.uk/courses/1/INTR3010-15120-10-11/content/_1431320_1/embedded/Why%20ecological%20modernization%20and%20sustainable%20development%20should%20not%20be%20conflated.pdf?bsession=24728418&bsession_str=session_id=24728418,user_id_pk1=119899,user_id_sos_id_pk2=1,one_time_token= > [Accessed 15 March 2011].

Martell, Luke. (1994) Ecology and Society: An Introduction.2nd Edition (Oxford, Polity Press)

Weale, Albert. (1992). The New Politics of Pollution.  (Manchester, Manchester University Press)

Weiss, Edith, Brown. (1992) Environmental change and international law: New challenges and dimensions [e-book] Tokyo: United Nations University Press. Available at: <http://unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/uu25ee/uu25ee00.htm#Contents> [Accessed 15 March 2011].

World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) (1987) Our Common Future (Brundtland Report). [online] Available at : <http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm> [Accessed 15 March 2011].