A short time ago (but it feels very much longer than that), I wrote an essay for a journal called Global Dialogue about the African Union, the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and Thabo Mbeki’s “African renaissance”. One of the things I argued in the essay is that Mbeki and NEPAD’s ostensible willingness to concede the failures of postcolonial African leadership can’t be taken too seriously because Mbeki continues to see the African state as unconstrained in its power. It isn’t clear what Mbeki or his fellow AU leaders think structurally caused “bad leadership” after independence, or what has systematically changed to make “good leadership” possible.
My argument, in part, was that if the AU really wants to change things, it needs to move towards a conception of the limited state along the lines of the U.S. Constitution, that universal human rights precede and trump the potential authority of the state, and that the state may not claim other than those powers which are not specifically given to the state and defined in constrained terms.
For years, one of the most powerful arguments you could make about a lot of misguided, failed or actively dictatorial regimes and political actions would be to point to some of the guiding political ideals and official practices of the United States. When the Soviet Union or other adversaries might point to alleged abuses of human rights within the United States (say, in U.S. prisons), a lot of us could take observe in reply that the abuses described were unofficial, or in spite of the law.
That’s all changed now.
When I say in the future, “Government which bows to the universal rights of human beings”, I can’t really say any longer, “Like in the United States”.
When I say in the future, “Nations of laws, not men; power granted will eventually be abused if it is not constrained, because that is how human beings are,” I can’t say any longer, “A founding insight and guiding principle of the United States”.
When I protest in the future against another government which holds prisoners in secret, does not permit them to see the evidence against them, denies them a right to a fair trial, and tortures them to obtain confessions which will then be used to justify their imprisonment, I won’t have an answer when that government says, “But your government does that, too.”
If I criticize when an authoritarian ruler attempts to exempt himself from all future consequences of his misdeeds by changing the laws or constitutions of his nation, he will be able to say, “But your President did that, too.”
The only thing that our official representatives will be able to say at these and many other such moments in the future will be, “It is ok for us to do these things, or reject these ideals, but not you. We are allowed to torture. You are not. We are allowed to hold people in secret, you are not. We are allowed to give the executive unrestrained authority not subject to judicial or legislative overview. You are not.”
Our answer to a variety of injustices and failures in the world is now hopelessly parochial rather than resolutely principled. It’s the new American exceptionalism. Other states from Kazakhstan to Zimbabwe, from China to Iran, often say they must do what they do, whether beatings or political imprisonment or censorship, to ensure their own integrity and security. Our only reply now: but you’re not us.