Spain, Appeasement and Multilateralism

Eugene Volokh wonders if we should ignore the decisions of other countries when we think they might be influenced by terrorism:

The foreign countries’ decisions may simply be probative of their own desire not to be attacked, not of what’s the morally right thing to do in the abstract, or what’s the practically right thing to do for us (or even what’s in the aggregate interests of humanity generally). And I don’t see why we should ascribe to a view of legitimacy that makes our actions illegitimate whenever the terrorists are able to force other countries to oppose us.

Assume for the sake of argument that the Spanish elections were influenced by the Madrid bombings, as everyone suddenly decided to vote for the party least likely to get them blown to bits, rather than the party that would be good for the economy, or implement the best environmental regulations, or whatever. This isn’t much different from voting for Bush because you think he’s good on national security (and bad on lots of other things), but there’s lots of people planning to do this and no one’s calling them cowards or terrorist-appeasers – why not?

  1. “Al Qaeda wuvs you!” is a legitimate and astoundingly devastating critique of foreign policy.
  2. Reasonable individuals never disagree on the best way to prevent future terrorist attacks. God Bless America and her Glorious Leader, ‘cuz everyone else is unreasonable.
  3. These people aren’t cowards, they’re bloodthirsty cowboys!

What the Spanish voters are doing (we assumed) is rejecting a strategy of elevated short-term risks with a possible long-term safety payoff if everything works out as planned, and voting in favor of a strategy with a short-term payoff but a possible long-term increase in terrorist attacks if killing people becomes seen as an effective path to change.* Spanish decisions still have probative value in considering the relative merits of these strategies (particularly the chance that everything will work out as planned in Iraq, cough cough).**

If we’re living in a fantasyland where everyone agrees that Strategy X will cause a long-term decline in global terrorism, while the countries responsible for it will suffer a short term spike in attacks, then Eugene has a point. There’s an obvious free rider problem, and foreign policy shouldn’t be run like a public radio pledge drive.*** So should we ascribe to a view of legitimacy that allows us to toss out the objections of free riders? Or should we err on the side of caution when weighing a nation’s objection to self-sacrifice?

I favor multinationalism mainly for its pragmatic and probative values, and not out of belief in some scheme of internationally-derived moral legitimacy, so I’ll give that one a pass. Per Curiam addresses the issue, though as an apparently non-multilateralist pre-emptively countering possible arguments rather than a genuine multilateralist.

*”But killing people is already seen as an effective path to change,” says the peacenik. “Stand on your head and meditate upon change, Grasshopper, because that’s not a part of this argument,” says I.

**Unless, of course, one assumes that Spaniards voted with an irrational emphasis on short-term risks, rather than an irrational emphasis on national security issues that were otherwise rationally considered. Much of the Spanish population was firmly against the war in Iraq even before Madrid; also, an American vote shortly after 9/11 would likely have gone to a platform of “we’ll bomb until we fall down and we won’t give in no matter what!” which is probably irrational but definitely not reductive of short-term risk. So I’m not inclined to make this assumption.

I do realize that I’ve relegated the crux of the argument to a footnote, but this isn’t a serious blog, it’s a snarky one, so them’s the breaks.

***We just received a challenge pledge from an anonymous donor in Colombia. The next three callers from South or Central America will have their contributions doubled by this generous generous listener, so if you listen to American economic advisors on your way to work, or maybe you enjoy American military hegemony every day in office, now’s the time to pick up the phone and become a supporter.


  1. ester wrote:

    it’s hard to stay away from politics these days. i made a vow to do it ages ago and it’s essentially a joke now. at any rate, i prefer your analysis of the situation to cnn’s (which runs a banner headline, “DID THE TERRORISTS WIN IN SPAIN?”)
    somebody should tell cnn that nobody wins in spain cuz nobody cares about winning cuz it’s so durn pretty. and if they want to elect socialists then by god, that’s their pretty, democratic choice and we should support it.

  2. yami wrote:

    I agree! Places with architecture and scenery should be exempt from politics.

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