UC Berkeley News


Democracy begins at home, chides George Soros
The billionaire philanthropist, in a Berkeley appearance, urges Bush’s defeat and a U.S. foreign policy based on ‘legitimacy’

| 10 March 2004


Prior to his March 3 address to a Zellerbach Hall audience, activist financier George Soros (right) engaged in a colloquy on U.S. foreign policy with Journalism dean Orville Schell. Soros expanded on that theme in his subsequent remarks, which were sharply critical of the Bush administration.
Bart Nagel photo

Might does not make right, and therefore the United States has committed a tremendous mistake in using its military supremacy to force democracy on Iraq. That was the blunt critique of the Bush Administration that billionaire financier and munificent philanthropist George Soros delivered to a packed audience at Berkeley on Wednesday, March 3.

The Hungarian-born Soros, whose personal experience with fascist and totalitarian regimes has informed his decades-long approach to promoting open societies around the world, has now turned his attention on his own adopted democracy. America’s recent foreign policy justifying preemptive strikes — but only those by America — has undermined the legitimacy of U.S. supremacy, Soros said, while the branding of American protesters as unpatriotic undermines the foundations of our democracy. He warned that unless President George W. Bush is defeated this November and the Bush doctrine is abandoned, America is doomed to lose its place in the world — and the world its best hope for becoming a global open society.

Soros spoke at the invitation of the Goldman Forum on the Press and Foreign Affairs, a continuing series of conversations about U.S. power hosted by the Graduate School of Journalism. Titled “The Bubble of American Supremacy” in reference to Soros’s book of the same name, the event was cosponsored by the Office of the Chancellor, the Commonwealth Club, and the World Affairs Council.

Following an opening Q&A with Journalism Dean Orville Schell, Soros, in his address, argued that President Bush and his small group of neoconservative advisers used the terrorist attacks of September 11 to advance a new definition of America’s position in the world. The Bush doctrine, he said, holds that the United States must do everything in its power to maintain its unquestioned military supremacy, and that it alone has the right to preemptive action. Soros said combining these two ideas creates two classes of sovereignty for nations — “the sovereignty of the United States, which takes precedence over international treaties and obligations, and the sovereignty of all other states, which is subject to the Bush doctrine. This is reminiscent of George Orwell’s Animal Farm: ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.’”

According to Soros, there is a contradiction between the Bush Administration’s articulated concepts of freedom and democracy and the true principles of an open society. Raised under Nazi and Communist repression, he says that perhaps he is more sensitive than other Americans to what is implied by Bush’s comment that “those who are not supporting the Iraq war are with the terrorists” or Attorney General John Ash-croft’s statement that those who oppose the Patriot Act are giving aid and comfort to terrorists.

“I get nervous, because it reminds me of this kind of ‘Either you are with us or you are against us’ mentality [that means] you’ve got to suspend your critical faculties,” Soros said. “That’s a threat to an open society, because an open society depends on open discussion and a critical attitude.”

The Bush administration, by acting unilaterally in Iraq — without either the support of the United Nations or a substantial coalition of democratic supporters — announced to the world that “international relations are relations of power and no law; that international law really serves to legitimize whatever power has accomplished,” Soros explained. “That I think is tremendously dangerous, because in fact we are very powerful. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the most powerful nation on earth is guided by this principle, that is the principle that’s going to prevail. And then we are really going back to a less civilized world.”

Might doesn’t make right — and the question of rightness aside, he argued, “power doesn’t give legitimacy. And without legitimacy you can’t lead.… If you want to be the dominant power, you must get enough supporters who accept your dominance, or else you’re going to lose it.”

Reversal of fortune
The end of American supremacy, un-done by terrorism and a world angered by U.S. high-handedness, is not a foregone conclusion, Soros believes. Rather than force democracy on other sovereign states using our military might, America should offer it through more of a carrot-and-stick approach, relying on help and support from other nations to increase the offering’s legitimacy, and using “soft power,” such as that employed by his Open Society Institute. (The OSI is the nonprofit Soros founded to manage some $475 million in annual disbursements to programs in more than 50 countries that attempt to shape government policy and support education, media, public health, and human and women’s rights, as well as social, legal, and economic reform.)

That is what Soros would have liked to see in Iraq. One of the central issues that he grapples with in his new book is how to deal with failed states and oppressive tyrants like Saddam Hussein. Soros believes that in an open society, rulers who abuse their people must be dealt with — either through the United Nations or, where the U.N. fails to act, through coalitions of like-minded democracies. “In the case of Iraq, if South Africa and Brazil and India and other democratic countries had supported intervention, it could have been justified,” he said — though in the absence of a justification for immediate invasion, that support never materialized.

Soros acknowledged that the Bush administration has softened its defiantly unilateralist approach to Iraq recently, by enlisting the help of the United Nations in drafting a constitution and formulating a government — but attributed the switch to “the looming elections and the need to … reduce the body bags.” And if Bush is reelected in November, the unreal “bubble of American supremacy,” which Soros has compared to the distorted misconceptions that fuel financial bubbles, will continue to inflate. As demonstrated by the collapse of the recent Internet bubble, he said, such bubbles always self-correct. The consequences of the bursting of the bubble of American supremacy will be dire, but the alternatives — “hostility and resentment toward the United States throughout the world,” as Soros sees it — are far worse.

That is why Soros has made unseating Bush his “project for this year.” Toward that end he has donated $15 million to 527 organizations — those not regulated by the Campaign Reform Act — such as America Coming Together, a voter-registration effort, and MoveOn.org’s Voter Fund. He has tirelessly exhorted other rich Democrats to do the same, but since such organizations do not offer influence or access — unlike the PACs and special-interest groups the reforms were aimed at regulating — he remains the most visible such donor.

Of deficits and delight
After responding to several written questions from the audience — such as what the Euro and the U.S. dollar will be worth in five years (“I know but I am not going to tell you,” said Soros) and what his hobbies are (tennis, reading, conversation) — Soros met with reporters backstage at Zellerbach Hall. There, the discussion focused on narrower political and financial issues. Asked whether the Bush Administration is truly aware of the long-term consequences of the mounting U.S. deficit, Soros echoed economist Paul Krugman’s “starve the beast” deficit theory when he said, “I think that the game plan is to create a deficit that then needs to be cut, and that can justify cutting services. One way to cut the social benefits is first to create a deficit and then try to reduce it — without reversing the tax cuts.”

The world’s 54th-richest person believes that the U.S. needs “to create jobs to offset the jobs that are going abroad, and I think that the tax cuts are no way to do it. By restoring the taxation of the rich, people over $300,000 of income, you could reduce the deficit, and that could give you more room for engaging in programs that create jobs.”

Soros said he was “delighted” with the likely nomination of Senator John Kerry as the Democratic presidential nominee. “A war hero whose formative experiences were in the Vietnam War, who as a result will engage in the use of military force only as a last resort, stacks up very well against a warmonger president who has avoided the personal experience of participating in a war.”

Kerry, of course, will be doing battle with the mammoth war chest of more than $150 million that the Bush campaign has accumulated. When asked how important that financial advantage would be in the coming election, Soros said, “It would be practically decisive if there weren’t some countervailing force to stand up to this media onslaught.”

He smiled, a devilish yet determined grin: “And that’s why I’ve taken the actions that I’ve taken.”

To view an archived webcast of George Soros’s March 3 address, visit webcast.berkeley.edu/events/details.html?event_id=129.

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