Speaking on what appears to have been the accidental downing of a Malaysian passenger jet over the Ukraine by Russian separatists that had skipped over the part in their mobile missile launcher’s manual where it said that all large aircraft look alike on the target acquisition radar, President Obama outlined general U.S. policy thus:
The United States of America is gonna continue to stand for the basic principle that people have the right to live as they choose, that nations have the right to determine their own destiny, and that when terrible events like this occur, the international community stands on the side of justice and on the side of truth.”
The president, of course, omitted to append to this basic principle the qualifiers “within reason” and “as long as U.S. interests are served.”
Pointing out that Mr Obama’s affirmation of the universal right to self-determination was obviously intended as a lopsided dig against the Russian separatists in Ukraine—and by extension against their suspected ringleader in the Kremlin—is not meant as a dig against Mr Obama. All nations and all individuals, be they loyal conformists or unruly separatists, have a rooting interest in clearing the path to their own chosen destiny; an interest that, alas, frequently collides with the interest of others to the exact same thing from their perspective.
Everyone strives to live as they choose and determine their own fate. And everyone will point to their right to do precisely that as the justification for their actions, non-violent or otherwise.
Enlightened as it sounds when enunciated by Mr Obama’s euphonious baritone, assigning an all-embracing right to self-governance has conflict written all over the very concept itself.
Burger King might function in this manner, but in the world at large, if everyone has perfect moral standing to have it their own way, clashes are inevitable. All too often, alas, one man’s freedom redounds to another man’s perceived encroachment on his.
Your right to live as you choose may include the right to smoke whenever or wherever you want. My right to live as I choose most certainly includes my right to breathe smoke-free air without having to constantly adjust my daily routines so as to circumvent smokers that may materialize in my path at any moment.
It is not difficult to extrapolate from seemingly trivial tiffs over personal freedoms the mechanism by which such tiffery may eventually escalate into the taking up of arms against those we regard as a fundamental threat to our right to live as we choose, or that a nation regards as a fundamental threat to their right to determine their own destiny, or that various factions within a given nation regard as a fundamental threat to the freedoms they feel entitled to.
The unnamed author of a most insightful essay on the vexing difficulty of assigning the moral high ground in any given conflict situation, titled Reflections on an Unforgiving Day, reaches the following conclusion:
There is nothing easier and cheaper than advising others to get along.”
Likewise, nothing rings more hollow—and provides a more powerful recipe for perennial disharmony—than to proclaim that every person has the right to live as they choose, and that every nation has the right to shape their own destiny.
Sounds great, but nobody ever truly means it.