Every generation is vulnerable to imagining itself either uniquely blessed or uniquely cursed. And for an understandable reason. After all, it is simply human nature to attach more importance to the time in which one has been fated to live and die than to either the past or the remoter reaches of the future. Add to this the fact that, historically, the turning of a century, let alone the turning of a millennium, has usually been the occasion for extremes of both optimism and pessimism about the human condition, and it is hardly surprising that over the last decade or so, one school of writers and activists has suggested that the human race stands at the verge of a new era of justice while another gloomily discerns in our collective future chaos, war and environmental catastrophe.
About the pessimists, there is little of great interest to say. Of course, they may be right, though probably only in the narrow sense that all civilizations, including our own, are just as surely mortal as each of us is as an individual. But by and large, at least in their North American variant, such writers as Robert Kaplan, Samuel Huntington, and Thomas Homer-Dixon often come across as little more than updated, inferior versions of such pre-World War II conservative European "declinists" as Oswald Spengler and Jose Ortega y Gasset.
It is the stance of the optimists that is both more interesting and, at least for anyone who can attain a certain critical distance from both the secular millenarianism and what William Pfaff once described as the "vocabulary of optimism" that is the American national style, more perplexing. This belief in the radiant future has coalesced not around a religious faith--although there are elements of displaced religiosity in both its vocabulary and its intolerance for either criticism or self-criticism--but a secular one: the human-rights movement.
Anyone doubting that the Enlightenment project, and its American descendant, the Wilsonian approach to foreign policy, are alive and well at the millennium need only read the preface that Mary Robinson, formerly president of Ireland and now the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, wrote to "In Our Own Best Interest," the new book by William Schulz, the director of the American branch of Amnesty International. "All human rights for all," she writes, "this should be our common call to action. I am convinced that by combining our action and determination, by building partnerships between governments and civil society, international organizations, and the media, religious and academic communities, we will succeed in realizing the vision of the future which the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] first called for half a century ago."
This is stirring stuff, to be sure, but it does not--and this is putting the matter charitably--stand up to the most cursory intellectual examination. For who are these governments, religious groups, media outlets and international organizations in which Robinson puts so much faith? We know the answer, of course. She has in mind the international liberal good guys: the United Nations, the liberal Western democracies, environmental groups, "enlightened" religious denominations like the Unitarian Universalists of which William Schulz is past president, and foundations like Ford, Rockefeller or Lannan.
But much as Robinson would seem to want to pretend otherwise, civil society does not just consist of Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Doctors Without Borders (emblematically, Schulz includes a comprehensive list of such groups as an appendix to his book), but of the Pakistani religious schools in which the Taliban was shaped, the Israeli settlers' movement in the occupied West Bank, and thousands of business lobbyists from K Street in Washington to the halls of the European Commission in Brussels. And the views of a government like China's are surely at least as important as those of the governments of social-democratic Scandinavia. Indeed, if the benchmark of a civil society organization is to be the number of private citizens who actively support its cause then the National Rifle Assn., with its millions of members, has a far better claim to be taken as the model than Human Rights Watch. Perhaps even more important than these cognitive confusions--this egregiously virtuous brand of wishful thinking masquerading as thought--is the question of why Americans (or, for that matter, the citizens of other rich countries whose views, unfair as this may be, count for far more than those of the vast majority of the people of our world who live in the poor world) should care. It is this question, that, to his great credit, Schulz tries to address in "In Our Own Best Interest."