America’s fatal mistakeFormer CIA employee and NSA contractor Edward Snowden has disclosed classified details on the U.S. government’s surveillance programs. The revelations, which include eavesdropping on leaders of friendly states, has created an even greater stir than Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks. The two cases demand a deep philosophical and political retrospective over human civilization, state ethics, the modern world and democracy.
First of all, modern civilization is facing new situations due to technological advancements and the concentration of information. The process of gathering information using advanced technology suggests that a collection of confidential information for an extended period of time and a fatal crisis caused by a single disclosure by a single person can co-exist. The strongest capability of a nation can be its weakest link. The ambiguity resulting from the concentration of information and technology has become a common phenomenon in the corporate sector as well as various organizations.
Since such situations cannot be avoided in all areas, we need to prepare more detailed standards on personal ethics, organizational interests, information capacity and state administration. The fundamental question has always been how to integrate humanity and technology, conscience and organizational ethics, personal liberty and interests of the whole. If public areas in addition to public conversations and actions are under surveillance, then all personal liberties would be destroyed, and the human community would collapse.
Secondly, if we focus on the internal affairs of the United States, the latest cases reflect a regression of American democracy. Max Weber emphasized the importance of parliament and democracy in response to bureaucracies and corporatization, the two main currents of a modern state. While bureaucrats and corporations lead bureaucratic states and corporate nations, parliamentary states and democratic nations bring back the roles of representation and politics.
The United States has long been a leader in liberty, equality, democratization, parliamentary politics, liberalism, totalitarianism opposition, poverty relief and international assistance. However, as the role of politics is reduced and the United States becomes a bureaucratic and corporate state, today’s America is struggling with extreme conservatism, a disappearance of politics and national crises such as the “end of history” thesis, a clash of civilizations, neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, polarization, twin deficits and moral hazards. Theodore Lowi, an expert in American politics, diagnosed that the United States has lost its authority in legalism and the public sector as the country became a Congress-led, president-led receivership state. Moreover, the extensive role of intelligence agencies and prosecutors added the character of an “information state” on the bureaucratic receivership state, further undermining democracy and national capacity. Can the United States overcome its crisis of democracy?
Lastly, let’s discuss the illusion of a world government and world surveillance. World peace and human rights, responses to terrorism, military attacks and weapons of mass destruction are challenges to the international community. The world has to rely on the United States for the most part. However, world peace and security should be pursued through values and means of liberty, human rights, state ethics and democracy.
As world history has proven, it is more effective and ethically respectable when these responses are implemented through trust, dialogue, cooperation and diplomacy with other countries. That has been the strength of democracy over dictatorships and totalitarianism. Even with the most powerful intelligence capacity in the world, the United States has failed to prevent serious physical threats in the imperialist era, the cold war era and the post-cold war period, namely the Pearl Harbor attack, China’s entry into the 1950-53 Korean War and the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The latest case shows that when communications, control and management of information turn into dictatorships and totalitarianism, they can boomerang. Many empires collapsed at the height of their power, civilization, economy, military, surveillance, intelligence and control capacity. Just like Mongolia, Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union, hard-line empires that focused on police, military, intelligence, physical strength, surveillance and oppression did not last long. Meanwhile, the soft powers that integrated coercion and consent, physical strength and flexibility, prospered for a long time: Rome, China, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Humanity has paid a high price for ambitions in world domination. Communism and Nazism pursued world hegemony. Global surveillance by a single state is unacceptable. The world requires multiple people, values and states. Let’s hope that the imperial United States returns to democracy and a conscience.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor at Yonsei University and visiting professor of the Free University of Berlin.
by Park Myung-rim