War and Empire: The Return of the Strange Angels (draft)

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

October 8, 2002

To read the fuller version available at a password-protected site, contact the author.

In the first account we heard about the strange angels, the angels agreed to take on a special task at the request of the Big Fellow. Their job was to design rules of justice that could be applied to the basic structure of human society. It wasn't made explicit at the time, but they were trying to create principles that could guide society at the level of the nation-state.

They were given as much general knowledge as possible about humans and their environment. They were each imbued with devotion to a single human being to ensure that they would aim at rules that enable humans to pursue their own happiness. So that the rules would be designed fairly, the precise identity of the single human beings to whose interests the individual angels were devoted was concealed from them. This limitation was to ensure that in their choices they would not privilege one type of person over another. If they had been inclined to privilege one kind of person over another, the rules they would have chosen would probably not have been fair.

After some deliberation, the angels arrived at two principles of justice. One principle, the liberty principle, went this way: “Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.” The entire second principle need not concern us today but part of it is important: “Social and economic inequalities must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”

After the angels agreed on the principles of justice, some returned to their usual angelic tasks but others continued to meet and seek further insight into rules of justice that might help humanity.

Now the issues that they took up next are similar to those that concern us in the present. This situation is characterized by the dominance of a single global superpower and a volatile international situation. We seem to lurch from the tragedies of September 11, 2001, to war in Afghanistan, to bloodbaths bordering on ethnic cleansing in Israel-Palestine, to a border war between India and Pakistan that threatens to go nuclear, to an ever more likely U. S. invasion of Iraq.

Let me warn you that the angels speak their own language and not English, and although I have translated it to the best of my ability, there will be lingering peculiarities. Given their condition, the angels are always concerned with possible situations. We are unlike them because we are stuck in time and history and necessarily concerned with actual events. Thus we must listen carefully to grasp how what they say applies to us. Pay attention to the similarity between Mesopotamia in their example and Iraq in our time; to the similarity between the Assembly of All Nations and our United Nations. Rome is not necessarily the ancient empire of which you read in history books. You may also notice a reference to those who are on the side of the angels. It is up to us to determine whether we wish to be on that side. (A final point: The angels have been given names based on the letters of the Greek alphabet. I have no idea what they actually call each other.)


“Humans need more guidance than we have given them so far,” said Rho. “They face problems associated with what are called states. For much of their history humans have been assembled into states, each of which has organized armed forces. The states sometimes use these military groups in defense but also sometimes to dominate and oppress other peoples. We need rules of justice governing relations between states, above all, those that permit or prohibit that violent and destructive activity called war.

“We ought to feel partly responsible for this ourselves,” he added.

“Why is that?” asked Beta.

“The very idea of justice with which we were concerned in our previous discussion forced humans to go in this direction, to set up a state.”

“What do you mean?” asked Gamma.

“Principles of justice,” said Rho, “are not merely about duties humans have to one another. Because they are meant to guide the basic social order of a society, they tell people what they may justly use force to protect. To enforce even the best principles of justice, political arrangements humans set up must be able to use applied coercion. And state coercion points in two directions: It is addressed not only at those who fail to play by the rules within the society but also at those external to the society who wish to interfere with the society or its members.”

The angels agreed that they ought to look into the problem of justice for the international order.

“Remember,” said Alpha, “how before we drew up our basic rules of justice we took a look at human history, trying to learn what was possible among human beings, both good and ill. Let us do so again, this time with greater focus on a particular period, before we try to decide upon rules for justice between states.”

So the angels asked the Big Fellow to supply them with representative pictures of human history involving states. Eventually they came to the possibility represented by our own time.

This is the period in which

* technology is highly advanced,

* there is a highly interconnected world economy thanks to communication, trade, and capital flow;

* the world is organized into many states, each with social machines able to use force

* some of the states seem fairly wealthy, formally democratic, and more or less politically stable, and the largest private economic organizations are headquartered there

* others are weak, with low levels of education, wealth, opportunity for political participation, freedom of the press, accountable political leadership, etc.

* besides states, the large private economic organizations themselves are important.

* there is constant exchange of leaders between the most powerful states and these economic organizations.

These entities are internally undemocratic. So the angels called them UPEO's, undemocratic private economic organizations.
* Some UPEO's are not only larger than many states and wealthier, they also operate with great freedom in a global legal framework created by the stronger states with the advice of the UPEO's themselves.

* Complicating matters still further, one nation-state is in the position of global dominance and no other nation-state is a close competitor.


When the angels reconvened in the celestial conference room to discuss rules of justice for international society, they once more accepted the limitation of special ignorance that qualified them to be considered, as they ironically called themselves, strange angels: they were once again ignorant of specifics about the individual humans for whose interests they were responsible.

None of them knew whether their humans were male or female, highly talented or not, ambitious or not, members of societies with weakened states and little capital, members of societies with wide rich-poor gaps, etc. They did not know the religion of their humans, or even exactly when their humans were born and would die. Because of this ignorance they were acutely aware that any human could be the one whose good they were commanded to protect and promote.

“Remember,” said Alpha, “how we concluded that a social order promoting individual liberties insofar as they were compatible with one another was the best way to ensure that our humans, whoever they might be, were not short-changed.

“Let us consider raising this principle onto the international scale, with this difference: Let us replace individual humans with nation-states. Remember, we decided individual humans should be guaranteed liberty or self-determination if they do not interfere with the similar rights of others. Thus, similarly, states should enjoy freedom from interference so long as they do not interfere with similar rights of other states.”

“I see advantages in Alpha's suggestion,” said Beta. “It would prohibit one nation from imposing its will upon a second in a way that would violate that second nation's liberties. Any violation by one nation of another's right to self-determination would likely result in violation of the liberties of individuals in the second nation. Under such circumstances, it is easy to imagine occupying armies or UPEO's from the first country dispossessing individuals and groups in the second country. If my person happened to be in the subordinated or conquered nation, her capacity to pursue a satisfactory life would likely be harmed. Thus I am inclined to endorse a principle of national self-determination.”

“Let us consider,” said Delta, “what would follow from this approach. First, we would affirm that one nation does not normally have the right to dictate who may govern a second nation or prevent it from reasonably defending itself against external attack. Next, we would affirm that one nation does not have the right to dictate the laws of a second nation. When one nation is subjected to another in this way, its population and resources will be prey to plunder by the foreign nation or by its UPEO's operating in the subordinate nation.”

“The self-determination approach also,” said Gamma, “implies that an unprovoked assault by one nation upon another is wrong. For two reasons: First, unprovoked assaults tend to harm the individuals that make up the state, and we would not wish that to happen to the persons about whom we care. Next, a first assault typically provokes counter-violence and the escalation of violence that results will likely be harmful for almost everybody affected, including our persons.”

“Not to mention,” added Beta, “that humans have a tendency to imitate one another. An preemptive attack tolerated in one part of the world will increase the probability of other preemptive assaults elsewhere.”

* * *

Kappa had been quiet up till now. Taking advantage of a break in the discussion, he interjected, “Note that an injury performed by one nation upon another in the distant past could not be a justification for war, especially if that injury imposed no lasting disadvantages. That's for two reasons: First, it could easily become an excuse for wars of conquest because any state seeking an excuse for war could reach back indefinitely into the past for a supposed just cause. If nations were allowed to do that, there would be no end to wars and destruction and no secure beginning of peace. Two, wars themselves are generally destructive for all non-elite populations involved. Our persons could easily be among these less advantaged people.”

“But we must not ignore,” said Beta, “that sometimes unjust state actions do produce lasting disadvantages to whole populations. These inequalities continue to be basis for hostilities. The injuries are real quite apart from the feverish imaginations of demagogues trying to win elections.”

“For such cases,” replied Kappa, “human statesmen should be enjoined to arrange avenues for the offering of profound apologies and payment of reparations so as to correct for those past injuries, even if they were created generations ago.”

* * *

“I'd like us to consider a case of a special type,” said Pi. “Sometimes the government of a middle-sized country (let us call it Mesopotamia) violates the liberty of a small country (let us call it Palmyra). Palmyra happens to be allied with a large country (call it Rome) because Palmyra has a resource Rome wants at its disposal and will provide it to Rome cheaply.

“Now,” Pi continued, “suppose Rome comes to the aid of Palmyra, apparently in keeping with the principle of national liberty as it applies to Palmyra. Mesopotamia is defeated and forced to relinquish its hold on Palmyra. But now it is marked out as an enemy by Rome. Time passes, and various Roman political leaders insist on continuously harassing and punishing Mesopotamia.

“Finally, Rome's leaders convince themselves that it is only a matter of time before Mesopotamia, which it has repeatedly injured since it drove Mesopotamia from Palymra, will strike at Rome, even though Mesopotamia is currently weak and far away from Rome. So Rome prepares to strike Mesopotamia first, intending this time to occupy it directly. What would our rules say?”

“On the approach I have been suggesting,” said Alpha, “the only situation where self-determination would permit a first strike is one in which the threat is imminent and delay would call into question the basic liberty or survival of the first state.”

“Otherwise,” added Kappa, “Rome could manufacture justification for attacking unfriendly weaker countries whenever it had sufficient power.”


“What we have been saying so far about the principle of self-determination is plausible,” said Rho, “but here is a problem. Suppose we have two types of states, and some of them are internally more unjust than others. Suppose that a less just state is one where there are several ethnic or religious groups and the toleration of diverse groups is not firmly established by tradition, law, and courts devoted to upholding it.

“Advocates of an unlimited right of self-determination would say that the dominant group in the unjust state should be allowed to do whatever it wants so long as it does not interfere with the liberties of another state. It may do what it wants even to the point of genocide of its minority members. Well, I am concerned that my person might be a member of a minority group in an unjust state but the strange angels have denied the more just states the right to intervene to protect his group from genocide.

“We must assume,” Rho continued, “that there will be unjust states. If we suppose that all states are just, we will be proposing rules for a world so far removed from the real world that they will be of no use.”

After some discussion the angels agreed that principles of national self-determination would have to be limited by clauses like the following:

Self-determination does not guarantee a national elite the right to commit genocide with impunity within its own country.


“I too have a concern,” said Kappa, “which requires us to focus on a special situation. We have seen that sometimes one country, with the greatest combination of wealth and military power, effectively dominates almost all others. This stretches the picture of national self-determination (the projection of personal liberty onto the global stage) almost to the breaking point.”

“Explain please,” said Beta.

“What I mean,” said Kappa, “is something like this. The dominant power, like Rome in Pi's example, can use apparently neutral global bodies such as an Assembly of All Nations to impose its will upon any country that steps out of line with its interests, real or perceived. It achieves this by economic and political levers that it has put into place over several decades with the connivance of its allies.

“Economically,” Kappa continued, “this new Rome controls international lending institutions through which it can favor nations that comply with its wishes or threaten economic or financial retaliation if nations are too slow to go along.

“Politically it uses an apparently democratic Assembly of Nations by a series of organizational levers. The Assembly seems democratic because all nations are members of it. But in fact the chief decisions are made by a Supreme Council, which consists of a small number of nations. The Supreme Council is dominated by a handful of so-called eternal members who were allies of our new Rome when the Assembly was set up. The so-called eternal members usually follow the lead of the new Rome on political matters. This partly results from the interconnected economies of the new Rome and its chief allies but also partly from the new Rome's military supremacy.

“Occasionally it may even happen that the new Rome simply does what it wants, regardless of whether can obtain approval of the Supreme Council, confident that the Council without the dominant power is powerless to stop it.

“Let me get this straight,” said Beta. “The new Rome controls its allies, the allies and Rome control the Supreme Council, the Supreme Council makes the only politically decisive choices of the Assembly of all Nations, and the Assembly is the only international body that is supposedly universally representative.”

“Yes, that's what I was trying to say,” said Kappa.

“What about our idea of the self-determination of nations in the global community?” asked Alpha. “Is it meaningless? If the situation is as you describe, then the idea of national self-determination may no longer make sense.”

“Whatever the case,” said Kappa, “I could not endorse a principle of justice that permitted this global domination. I would not wish my person to be, as she could very well turn out to be, a person born into a subordinate country, for then neither her voice nor interests would be taken into consideration.”

“So perhaps,” said Alpha, “we ought to adopt a principle of self-restraint applicable to the dominant power in such situations. The new Rome ought to exercise great self-control and not flaunt the overwhelming force it has just because it has it.”

“How likely do you suppose that would be,” asked Kappa, “given our general knowledge about human beings? We know that possession of tyrannical power in the state tends to corrupt the best of persons. So also nearly absolute power (or even the delusion of it) in the international sphere will sooner or later produce corruption in the elite of the dominant power.”


“What, then, shall be told to those who are on the side of the angels?” asked Alpha.

“We must tell them up front,” said Kappa, “that this is not a favorable development for those who wish to promote social justice.”

“I suspect you are right,” said Beta, “but I am not exactly sure why.”

“Well, for one thing,” said Sigma, “in an interconnected world the liberties and just treatment of people in one country are not entirely independent of liberty and justice in other countries. It is easier for national elites in a powerful country to mistreat peoples in a less powerful country if international and domestic communication is tightly controlled. The injustices can then be hidden rather easily.”

“What tends to happen in a situation such as the one I have described,” added Kappa, “is that the new Rome, even if it once practiced a principle of equal liberty within its own borders, gradually abandons it as it moves toward becoming an international tyrant.

“Tyranny abroad is not compatible with liberty and justice at home, as Sigma said. The liberties are not equally distributed in a formally democratic country if a few media monopolies control all or most sources of information and the terms of debate. Nor are liberties equally distributed if working people are exhausted from their tasks or sick from not having access to affordable medical care. In that condition they have little energy left to hold their leaders accountable and ensure their at least approximate devotion to justice, either domestically or globally.”

“But is there nothing that those who see a little of what we see can do?” asked Beta.

“I think,” said Kappa, “that those who are on the side of the angels and who care deeply about liberty and justice will recognize that national borders must not prevent them from staying connected with persons on the angels' side in other lands. I think they will follow each other's sometimes inspiring struggles and sometimes horrendous experiences even as they try to protect and extend liberty and justice within their own nations. I think they will make use of their liberties to discover and tell the truth about global events.

“Perhaps they will do this even when those liberties are under attack, even when in countries like the new Rome many people are entranced by myths about good and evil purveyed by political elites and media monopolies. Perhaps they will discover how to educate each other and support each other for the long haul. Maybe they will discover creative ways to pierce the collective trance so that broader groups can break free from the dominant mythologies, until with their help a new, more just day dawns.”

Informal Bibliography and Further Reading

The inspiration for the concept of the strange angels is John Rawls, from whose Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press 1993) the principles of justice about which the angels agreed at the end of the original story were taken. . . . I am also indebted to philosophers working in the Rawlsian tradition, broadly understood, such as Darrel Moellendorf, . . . , economists such as Amartya Sen . . . , and philosophers like Martha Nussbaum . . .

My thinking in this dialogue is indebted to articles cited in . . . remarks made at a recent panel on the Iraq War at WKU and the accompanying notes.

Some friends and students have tried to guess what philosophers the names of the angels represent. Although I have made some effort to give the angels personalities for purposes of enlivening the dialogue, the conditions of the thought-experiment involved in the story made it impossible to correlate the angels' names too closely with viewpoints of specific individuals. However, in using the name “Rho” I was of course thinking of Rawls and Kappa's radicalism is partially inspired by Noam Chomsky. Alpha does not represent anybody in particular. She is the point of linkage with the results of the first Strange Angels dialogue and provides a starting point for the angels' deliberation in this story. I don't believe Pi was inspired by anybody in particular, but now that I have read John Pilger's powerful new book The New Rulers of the World (Verso), which I urge everyone concerned with global justice to read, perhaps the presence of Pi among the angels is serendipitous.