First Things First: Americans, or Ethics?

In explaining why he was abandoning the Kyoto accord on global warming, President Bush said: “We will not do anything that harms our economy, because first things first are the people who live in America.” Those remarks should not have surprised anyone who followed the American election. In the second presidential debate, George W. Bush was asked what how he would use America's global power and influence. He said that he would use it to benefit all Americans.

These remarks would not have surprised anyone who studied the speeches of the President's father. The first President Bush said much the same thing almost a decade ago, at the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro. When representatives of developing nations asked Bush senior to put the over-consumption of resources by the developed countries, especially the US, on the agenda he said that “the American life-style is not up for negotiation” - no matter what, or so it seemed to his audience, the costs to others might be.

But it is not only the Bush administrations that put the interests of Americans first. In the Balkans, the Clinton-Gore administration made it clear that it was not prepared to risk the life of a single American in order to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. Observing this, Timothy Garton Ash wrote: “It is a perverted moral code that will allow a million innocent civilians of another race to be made destitute because you are not prepared to risk the life of a single professional soldier of your own.” In Kosovo restricting intervention to aerial bombardment made this strategy a total success: NATO forces suffered not a single casualty in combat, but approximately 300 Kosovar, 209 Serb and 3 Chinese civilians were killed.

This approach to the duties of a national leader, stated bluntly and honestly, forces us to consider a fundamental ethical issue. To what extent should political leaders see their role narrowly, in terms of promoting the interests of their citizens, and to what extent should they be concerned with the welfare of people everywhere?