David Lange

Old Faiths, New World

7.30 pm Thursday 5 August 2004

St David Lecture Theatre

Otago University

Thank you for giving me this chance to talk to you.

I should tell you why I am here. Some time ago I was asked to speak here on the subject of peace. The organisers of the lecture, which include the Dunedin Jewish, Christian and Muslim Community Liaison Group, asked if I would talk about the way in which respect and understanding among people of different faiths might lead to lasting peace on earth.

I'm not the first to be asked to speak on such a subject, and I surely won't be the last. It's always been an issue, and for good reason. History is full of conflict between people of different faiths, and recent history is no different. There are too many recent examples of mass crime and genocide in which the participants have claimed a religious motive, or have been identified by their religious faith, or have used their religious faith to justify the most appalling atrocities.

The Dunedin community liaison group was formed after the terrible events of September 11, 2001. Since then, the relationship between people of different faiths has been tested over and over again.

I am going to speak tonight about a true test of human nature and human relationships.

The invasion of Iraq is in every way an extraordinary event in international affairs. It is cause to think deeply about international relations and what they mean to us. It has a religious colouring which cannot be avoided. I would like to talk to you tonight about the many difficulties the invasion has created, and the inability of international institutions to deal with them. Then we have to ask ourselves if there is any way in which people of good will can reach across the many divisions created by the crisis in international relations.

I should tell you the point of view I bring to all of this.

My values are the values of a secular society, where religious faith is a private matter. Religious belief is almost universal amongst humanity, but in my view the form it takes is the product of culture and society. My view is the product of my experience.

I was brought up to see the church as an agent of change and social reform. I belonged to the Methodist church. That church was founded in opposition to some of the practices of the established church. It has in its history been many times the champion of the poor and oppressed. It has a great deal in common with many political movements in the west, and was the product, in my view, of the same humanitarian and reforming impulses.

If organised religion can be a force for good, it can equally be an agent of unfairness and injustice. Its teaching has been used to uphold power and privilege. Again, I find it impossible to separate forms of religious belief from the structures of the existing economic and social order. Where those structures are oppressive, organised religion will in my view be oppressive. If it is not oppressive, it will be revolutionary.

I know that many people do not see their faith in the way that I do. I understand that my views of religious practice are at odds with the teaching of some forms of religious faith. I hope that in what I have to say tonight I respect the difference.

There is one more point I should make before I start. Although I was asked here to talk about peace, I am not what could be called a pacifist. I think that, like individuals, societies and nations have the right to defend themselves from attack. I think for example that the government of Kuwait was entitled to call for military assistance when it was invaded by Iraq in 1990. I think that this country, New Zealand, was right to identify itself with the victims of aggression as it did in 1939 when it declared war on Germany.

I am just as sure that there must be limits on the use of force. The use of force can only be justified if it is in proportion to the threat which is offered. Tomorrow is the anniversary of an attack which in my mind cannot be justified, and that is the bombing of Hiroshima. Like the bombing of Nagasaki, it was done to make a point, and the harm done was out of all proportion to the threat.

I see no justification for the terrorist attacks of September 2001. They are a crime against humanity. The Bali bombing was no less an outrage. There is no justification for the murder of the innocent.

The government of the United States, and the government of Indonesia, had a duty to pursue the people who were responsible for these terrorist crimes. The Indonesian government has had some success in bringing the murderers to account. The Americans had a harder task.

It is the American response I am going to talk about tonight.

What the United States has done in response to the terrorist attacks is so remarkable and radical that it amounts to a revolution in international affairs. It is a revolution which has made the world a much more dangerous place.

When it invaded Iraq, the United States set aside its military doctrines of containment and deterrence and adopted a radical new doctrine of preventive war. It acted unilaterally, and made it plain that multilateral processes were worth very little to it. It set aside all respect for national sovereignty and attempted to reconstruct Iraqi society by the use of military force. It showed contempt for the rules of international law and from its position of overwhelming military might it poured scorn on anyone who dared to object to the damage it has done to international institutions.

Let me put it like this. From the outset, President George W Bush adopted an overbearing approach to America's role in the world, relying upon military might and righteousness, insensitive to the concerns of traditional friends and allies, and disdainful of the United Nations. Instead of building upon America's great economic and moral strength to lead other nations in a co-ordinated campaign to address the causes of terrorism and stifle its resources, the administration, motivated more by ideology than by reasoned analysis, struck out on its own. It led the United States into an ill-planned and costly war from which exit is uncertain.

Those are not my words. They are taken from a statement made less than two months ago by a group of retired American diplomats and senior military commanders.

There is a certain wistfulness about some American criticism of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Americans of all political opinions are used to seeing the United States as a benign influence in world affairs. The United States was in this view a nation which was distinguished by its idealism. It respected the rule of law. It helped build the international institutions which have been trampled over by the Bush administration. Among American critics of the Iraqi adventure, there is deep dismay that the foreign policy of the United States is now so widely seen as reckless and unprincipled.

There is no simple explanation of the Bush administration's actions.

The administration told the American public that the invasion was part of what the president called the war on terror.

It is not surprising that the Bush administration should respond to the terrorist attacks by getting ready for war. Just after the attacks, public opinion in the United States might not have settled for less. The cruelty of the attacks called out for a decisive response. The problem, of course, is that the enemy is not obvious. The enemy is not a government which has declared war on the United States. The enemy is hidden. Its numbers can't be counted. Because its numbers can't be counted, its numbers are limitless. The war on terror can be won only when the United States believes that the invisible army of its enemies is no longer a threat.

The war on terror is a war without end.

Anyone who has travelled to the United States or done business with the United States will know the remarkable security measures which have been put in place. I have friends who live on a pleasant street in Washington which runs down to the Potomac river. Not long after the terror attacks, the river bank became a building site. Very soon the end of the street was home to a gun emplacement. Security measures like this may be necessary, but they also add to uncertainty. By placing the country on a war footing, they give weight to the view that war is inevitable.

A continuing state of readiness for war does not in itself explain the invasion of Iraq.

The invasion was not an attempt to bring to justice the people responsible for the terrorist attacks. Nobody in the United States administration could seriously claim that the regime in Iraq had any direct involvement in the attacks. As we know now, there was never any evidence of Iraqi involvement. One American critic of the war compares the invasion of Iraq to the behaviour of the drunk who dropped his keys on one side of the street. He looked for them on the other side, because there was more light on that side. Iraq became a target, but not because the Iraqi regime had given comfort to the people who attacked the United States.

In fact, the Bush administration had to work hard to find a justification for its invasion of Iraq. That is hardly surprising. The administration asked a lot when it asked the world to believe that a superpower like the United States was in any way threatened by a country like Iraq.

The administration could not persuade the United Nations to give it a mandate for military action. According to the UN's weapons inspectors, the Iraqi regime made a reasonable effort to comply with Security Council resolutions. That made no difference. The world continued to hear from the United States about the regime's weapons of mass destruction and the threat they posed to vital American interests.

We know now that when the United States and its allies invaded, the Iraqi regime had no weapons which were capable of doing serious harm to any vital American interest. We also know, as a result of inquiries held in Great Britain and the United States, that the intelligence services of both countries told their governments that the weapons existed.

The evidence was not conclusive. I don't suppose it ever is. Voters in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia are entitled to be interested in the credibility of the evidence, and in the credibility of the politicians who acted on the evidence. In terms of international law and international institutions, the existence of the weapons is not the critical point.

Real or imagined, the weapons were used to justify what the Bush administration calls preventive war. It's a phrase which goes beyond rationality and well into absurdity. You cannot prevent a war by starting one. If the authors of the doctrine actually believe in it, they are in the grip of an extraordinary delusion. If they don't, they have made a cynical attempt to provide some tattered justification for the unilateral exercise of military force.

The new doctrine of preventive war has no standing in international law as it used to be understood. When it was put into practice in Iraq, there was no hiding what it was. It was, simply, unprovoked aggression.

Now we have to ask ourselves why the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, three countries which publicly pride themselves on their democratic traditions and humanitarian values, should start a war in such a doubtful cause.

It's hard to find a convincing reason why a country like Australia should take part in an adventure which can't be justified, legally or morally, and which serves no obvious Australian interest. The free trade deal with the United States, whatever it might actually be worth, and it doesn't seem like much, is a very low return for the loss of reputation Australia has suffered.

To me as an observer, there seems to be an emotional element in Australian identification with the United States and American interests. It's the best explanation, or rather it's the only explanation I can find for Australian participation in the invasion of Iraq.

When I heard that the United Kingdom was going to invade Iraq, my reaction was to think that Tony Blair wanted to go down in history as a war leader. I still think that personality was a critical issue in British involvement.

The fact of it is that Britain, like Australia, would not have invaded Iraq if it hadn't been for the Americans. The answer to Iraq lies in what prompted the Americans to act the way they did.

The easy explanation is oil. It has to be taken into account. The West's long-standing interest in that part of the world is driven by concern about the control of oil resources. The redevelopment of the Iraqi oil industry, in a benign political environment, if this proves possible, would have obvious benefits for Western energy consumers. The Bush administration is close to oil interests. It is next to impossible for American policy makers to exclude oil from their strategic thinking. And American strategists have for a long time seen Iraq as a key to the stability of the region.

But equally American strategists have not chosen in the past to set out on such a risky venture as the conquest of Iraq. They didn't take the chance when it was offered to them after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

It was the first president Bush who chose to leave the Iraqi regime in office. He gave a number of reasons for his choice. He did not want to see the Iraqi state broken up. The human and political costs of conquering Iraq would be too great. American occupation of Iraq would alienate governments in the region. An occupation would have gone beyond the UN mandate. It would make a multilateral response to aggression less likely in the future. According to the first Bush administration, the best that could be hoped for in Iraq was a popular uprising which would topple the regime.

President George W Bush has rejected his father's reasoning. There is extensive and convincing evidence that his administration saw Iraq as a potential target well before the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Members of the administration wished to follow a more assertive policy in the region and make greater use of America's military power as a means of promoting American interests.

The terrorist attacks created a climate in which the use of force became possible. They may in fact have created a climate in which the use of force became inevitable.

Americans responded to the attacks with heartfelt patriotism. The country united behind the president. President Bush became the object of extraordinary popular enthusiasm. There was little tolerance for opinion which did not support the president and little room for critical examination of American policy, at home or abroad. The demands of security were allowed at times, and are still allowed, to override civil liberties. Some elements of the news media were hardly more than cheerleaders for the administration. Political opposition was subdued. No leading Democrat spoke out against the invasion of Iraq until Howard Dean, whose chance of the Democratic nomination was snuffed out early in the primaries, dared to make it an issue.

Much of what the world admires about America vanished in the fire and smoke of the war on terror.

There was enormous sympathy for the United States after the attacks. It melted away in face of the arrogance and overbearing righteousness of the response.

I can't help but use the word crusade when I think about the American invasion of Iraq. I mean by that to say that the invasion was made possible by a popular belief in the justice of the American cause which goes beyond reason and cannot be understood by those who do not share it, let alone by those who have been the victims of it.

The new crusaders carry, not a cross, but a ballot box. Democracy is the name they give to their faith, and their battle cry is freedom. Opponents of the invasion who questioned the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were brushed off with the argument that the regime was evil and should be replaced by a democratic government. Now that the weapons are known not to exist, the replacement of the regime, and the establishment of democracy in Iraq, have been claimed as justification for the whole adventure.

This argument is as spurious as any other justification for the invasion.

There is no doubt that the Iraqi regime was a brutal murderous dictatorship. The people of Iraq would have been justified in rising up in revolution against it. That is the point. The right of revolution belongs to the people of Iraq, and not to anyone else. No outsider has a right to impose a revolution on them. No outsider has the right to make a judgment about the risks they face and the costs they might have to carry. Those decisions belong to the people of Iraq and to nobody else.

International law allows for uninvited outside intervention in very limited circumstances. There may be a humanitarian crisis of such size that it demands a response. In such cases the international community may decide that intervention is needed to resolve that crisis. The intervention must be no more than is needed to deal with the crisis. The United Nations had already imposed sanctions on Iraq in an attempt to limit the regime's murderous capabilities. There was no justification in international law for any further action.

To make the point that international law protected the Iraqi regime from outside intervention is not to be an apologist for Saddam Hussein. The law protects governments we like as well as governments we don't like. If the law is broken, governments we like are as much at risk as governments we don't like.

Something else should be said. It is a lesson the United States has only begun to learn. There is almost no chance of the American invasion of Iraq having a happy ending for anyone. Iraq today is unstable and close to ungovernable. The lives of many Iraqis are a continuing tragedy. And if the American action has allowed the United States to rid itself of some of its enemies, it has created countless new ones. In Iraq, it has created an environment in which terrorism can flourish. In the region, and around the world, the image of America as a nation to be feared, rather than admired and respected, has given new heart to terrorism.

The most powerful nations have always been able to set aside the rights of smaller countries. It has happened many times. What is revolutionary here is not that the world's most powerful country has broken the rules. It has changed the rules.

What happens from now on is uncertain. In the short term, the American presidential election may make a difference. There is a chance, and it is only a chance, that the United States will reconsider its position if the Democrat is elected, and none if the Bush administration stays in office. Unlike the prime minister, I'm perfectly free to say that I hope George W Bush is sent back to his ranch as soon as possible.

I think that this country is wise to tread carefully while the Bush administration is in office, but I don't see any advantage for us in trying to appease the United States. We have a group of army engineers in Iraq. They are there in the name of a dubious mandate from the United Nations which was cobbled together to give the UN some appearance of relevance while letting the United States do exactly what it wanted. No good can come of the engineers being there. They're targets. Their presence can't help but identify us with Iraq's military occupiers. We have limited resources and they should not be used for such a doubtful purpose.

It is better for a country like New Zealand to seek the company of the like-minded and make agreements which balance our interests with those of our chosen partners.

We have entered an age of instability. International institutions are discredited. Since the end of the cold war, the United Nations has stumbled from crisis to crisis. The authority of national governments is weakening as globalisation makes it harder for governments to meet the expectations of voters. The west, after the invasion of Iraq, is divided and demoralised.

As has happened at other times in history when secular authority weakens, religious authority may take its place.

Religion attracts not simply because of the reassuring qualities of religious belief. It may also attract because it reinforces traditional social structures. If it is conservative, it may offer protection against the destructive change which has been imposed on many societies by outside agencies. As soon as it does that, it becomes a political force.

Religion may be, as it often has been, a champion of economic and social good. It may be, as it often has been, a justification for brutality and aggression.

Today, matters of religious faith have taken on world-wide significance.

Terrorism and the response to terrorism have inevitably coloured our ideas of religious belief. Because of the religious affiliation of the terrorists, their religion itself is seen as a threat. The response to terrorism in turn is seen as an affront to religious belief. Against the background of war and terror, religious belief becomes a marker for intolerance and prejudice.

I do not see faith itself as the issue. My view is that society shapes the form of religious belief, and not the other way around. For all their religious colouring, I do not see what has happened in Iraq, or what happens every day in Israel and Palestine, or what happens in the minds of terrorists who kill the innocent in the name of their faith, as matters of religion. I see them as political problems which need political solutions.

At their heart is a contest for resources. It is a contest carried on by the most extreme methods. It is a contest which is made all the more dangerous if the participants are seized by a belief in the justice of their cause, and a belief in the error, or indeed the evil, of their opponents. The issues behind the contest will never be settled as long as the parties are consumed by righteousness.

I don't suggest that, faced with these appalling conflicts, people of religious faith should try to stand apart from politics. I don't see that as possible. Religious belief can't in my view be separated from politics and from action in political causes. I do think that people of religious belief have a critical part to play in the resolution of issues which have taken on a religious colouring. Where conflict takes place between people of different faiths, people who practise those faiths, and particularly people who lead in those faiths, should not allow followers of the faith to arm themselves with a false or misguided sense of religious purpose.

Here I come to the question the organisers of the lecture asked me to answer, which is, essentially, how people of good will might make a difference. My answer will be short, because, in the end, it is very simple.

I think that we all as human beings have a duty to respect the beliefs of others. I think that we should also try to understand the faith of others, even though we have to acknowledge that there are limits to our understanding. We may understand the outward forms of faith, although it is not always easy to do that. We may understand the impulse which leads to belief. But in matters of faith there is always something which is beyond understanding. What matters is that we don't let our differences become a barrier between us.

We must above all understand our own faith and be true to our beliefs. I don't load that burden on to those of religious faith alone. Secular society may be proud of its values, but quick to betray them when it suits. People who share those values and understand them should not let the betrayal go unmarked.

People of faith should not be silent when that faith is misused to achieve political purposes. They should not allow the blessings of their faith to be bestowed on an unjust purpose. It matters, when faith has become an issue, that people of faith say very plainly what that faith is.

One teaching is found in every religious faith. A great deal follows from it, in the secular as well as the religious world. It is the rule of behaviour which tells us that we must treat other people the way we would like to be treated ourselves.

I commend all of you in the Dunedin community liaison group for the practical effort you are making to live according to that rule. I said at the beginning that the questions you asked about peace had been asked forever. That rule has always been the answer, and it is the only answer I can give.