Global care, imperialism or something else?

October 31, 2011

Political Theory


A few weeks ago, I encountered an article in The New York Times informing me that President Obama had ordered the deployment of “a hundred armed military advisers” into Uganda to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army.  The LRA is a resistance group led by Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed spokesperson of God who believes he must instate a theocratic regime in Central Africa.  Since he set these goals in the 1980’s, Kony has led the LRA into countless villages and murdered an estimated 30,000 people.

Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army

Congress approved the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 in May 2010, an act that allowed for further U.S. “efforts to help mitigate and eliminate the threat posed by the LRA to civilians and regional stability.” President Obama is now just following up on this act by deploying these advisers to Africa.

At this point, the first question arises: are we entitled to make these kinds of grand interferences into other nations?

Earlier on in the semester, we discussed cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah, who appeared in the video “Appiah on Cosmopolitanism” where he expressed our need for cosmopolitanism today.  A cosmopolitan approach would entail accepting that there are differences between people or viewpoints, but then also striving for a general framework that can be applied everywhere.  There may be points of agreement, but there is also still some room for judgment between people.  Appiah believes that as citizens, we have a responsibility to each other and must begin to think as global citizens.  One might therefore say that it is our duty as Americans to assist those in need, in this case the villagers of central Africa.

However, where is the line between global care versus imperialism? Doesn’t going into Africa with guns and whatnot bear resemblance to days of imperialism in the 19th and 20th century?  If America can launch itself into another country because the LRA is running lose, what else entitles us to enter a nation?

If we are thinking about imperialism, another way of framing the situation would be through the lens of universalism.  Rather than tolerating or accepting the viewpoints of others, by way of universalism one might view a situation as “you’re with me or you’re against me.”  While human rights activists globally are applauding Obama’s initiative, not everyone is so pleased.  American radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh says that Obama is “targeting Christians,” since technically Kony is fighting for a theocracy, by sending troops to fight the LRA.  He argues that because the  “[LRA] are Christians” and  “they are fighting the Muslims in Sudan,” that Obama should not be allowed to “remove them from the battlefield as it would create “a new war.”

An image used on Rushlimbaugh.com to perpetuate Limbaugh's apparently anti-war views

Now, upon first hearing Limbaugh’s words I thought they were absurd.  Yet from the perspective of a devout Catholic, perhaps Limbaugh really did find this to be an example of Obama’s universalism as Obama attacked those not living in the American way.  America has developed as a secular country in which there is clear separation between church and state, which is quite contrary to Joseph Kony’s aspirations for a Ugandan theocracy.  So, maybe Limbaugh really did feel threatened and believe that Obama saw this situation as “you’re with me  or you’re against me,” in a scenario of secular America versus a branch of theocratic Africa.  Ultimately, I would argue that Limbaugh was grossly uninformed of the extent of Kony’s depravity, and this was not an example of Obama’s universalism.  He may have been interfering, but it was as a global citizen who cared, and held cosmopolitan views.  When thousands of innocent people are involved, something must be done.

Obama decided to act, but one other alternative might have been to remain uninvolved.  The situation could have been handled by way of cultural relativism, in which we come to value something by particular experiences in the past and there is no room for judgment, just difference.  So, maybe Obama should have accepted that there is just difference between life in America and life in central Africa right now.  But then where is the line between not judging another country versus allowing crimes against humanity?

Was Obama wrong to send our troops into another country?  Where is the line that allows one to chose when intervention is appropriate?  Is this instance an example of cosmopolitanism or universalism, or should Obama have embraced cultural relativism, instead?  What do you think?

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About elyssashea

University of Michigan student

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3 Comments on “Global care, imperialism or something else?”

  1. roshray Says:

    I don’t think that the U.S is being un-cosmopolitan by sending troops to Africa to stop Kony and the LRA. There is a vast difference between cosmopolitanism and social relativism. The problem is not even wholly international. Would somebody tolerate a murderer in society in the United States? Upon seeing this wrong, the government in the form of a policing body would work to fix the solution by removing the murderer from the society in order to protect the life, liberty, and property of the general public. This is the role of the government (as proposed by Locke), and is correctly so, as there is no reason for people to enter a society if they were not being protected by a government. The situation here shows a native government’s failure to fulfill its duties, and an insurgent group’s attempts to rob the people of Uganda’s rights to freedom of life, liberty, and property. The conflict here, therefore, lies in the legitimacy of the United States’s actions in taking some of the responsibilities of the Ugandan government – this is the morally ambiguous area. In my own opinion, these things need to be considered case by case. In this particular instance, I believe that the United States should help Uganda, as tens of thousands of lives have already been lost, the government of Uganda is too weak to fulfill its duties as an authoritative body, the cost to the U.S is relatively small compared to the benefits of acting, and acting would prevent a violent regime from wresting control from the current one. Hesitations I would have about the issue is the dependence that might be developed from the aid, as well as increasing involvement over time. I could understand why others would see these cons as reasons to not send troops, but I personally believe the benefits outweigh the negatives. I think that it is important to realize however, that by acting, we are not being intolerant to Catholics or a particular political party, but to the act of mass murder, something that governments should not be accepting of in any situation.

  2. springsteen1 Says:

    The post above, yet again, fails to distinguish between party lines / partisan behavior, and the facts. Involvement and intervention are going to be debated by all generations, until we stop it. Why not start now?

    Correct to the comment above – There is a vast difference between cosmopolitanism and social relativism. The problem is not even wholly international; if I shoot you, what should my punishment be? This sounds absurd, but it happens every day. The issue here, while it involves foreign affairs / goes deeper, is not dissimilar on the surface as the death penalty / prison / life sentence debate which we continue to have each and every day here and abroad.

    People love to complain, but this relates to Libya as well. How’s Libya doing now? What happened to Quaddafi? I understand the two are different – save your comments – but fact: Obama sent troops into Libya. Fact: Many people agree / agreed it was too early / too much. Fact: People complained that there was not an imminent threat / nothing would be accomplished. Fact: Quadaffi is dead. Fact: (I relent); Obama did not have direct involvement.

    Sometimes a circular approach to a perspective on a complex problem is better than a spatial one; that is a nonlinear dynamic is better than a linear one much of the time.

  3. blogger32 Says:

    I think this is a really cool post and I definitely have some thoughts about it that I would like to share. First, when addressing the question of whether some of the world super powers such as the United States should be allowed to enter other countries, I think that the answer is yes. The reason I feel this way, is that I think it’s the job of our world leaders to step in and stop madmen like Joseph Kony from murdering innocent people. How could anyone possibly suggest that we should just watch this man kill people and simply say “it isn’t our problem.” Kony is deliberately breaking numerous international laws on genocide that we have vowed to protect. For these reasons, I see it as our duty to help the endangered people in Africa.

    One example you provide in your post, that I think helps to make my point is what Kwame Anthony Appaih said. I definitely agree with his opinion that there are times where we can not look at ourselves as citizens of one country or believers in one religion, we must view ourselves as citizens of the world as a whole. Additionally, I think that if people in our world were to take this stance more often, we would find that there would be a whole lot less war and mass genocide.

    Lastly, in response to Rush Limbaugh’s point about Obama targeting Christians, I simply think that this man is a fool. If he honestly thinks that Obama sent American soldiers simply to fight and kill Catholics, he is crazy. I have no doubt that our intentions as a country were simply to help protect innocent and defenseless people from the wrath of a tyrant. Lastly, I do not think the United States’ actions were in any way un-cosmopolitan, in fact I think that they should be applauded because they serve as a great example of global care that we should all hope to see more often in the future.

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