'Lone' American in Paris

George talks bioethics with Chirac amid U.S.-French tensions

By Eric Quiñones

Princeton NJ -- As a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, Robert George is helping to shape the Bush administration's stance on one of the most controversial topics being debated in Washington -- human cloning. Adding to this already delicate task, the Princeton politics professor traveled to Paris last month for an international bioethics conference, serving as the lone U.S. representative amid tensions between America and his host, French President Jacques Chirac, over the crisis in Iraq.

Robert George
George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, spoke with the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about his participation in the Feb. 23 meeting, which marked the 20th anniversary of the French Consultative Committee on Ethics.

What issues did you address in your speech in Paris?

My remarks had to do with the relationship between the public and private sectors in the development and regulation of biotechnology. I made reference to the Human Genome Project and how government and private researchers worked together to map the human genome more quickly than many people had anticipated. On the regulation front, I discussed the way in which the debate in the United States on issues such as embryonic stem cell research has technically been about whether it should be paid for with taxpayer money. But I observed that this debate is understood by everybody to be a proxy for the real debate about whether this is ethical or unethical research.

Were there any interesting outcomes from the conference?

President Chirac gave the keynote address at our conference, and he came out very strongly in opposition to all human cloning and, indeed, to the creation of human embryos for research purposes by any method. In those respects, his position was actually very close to President Bush's, which is interesting in view of the way in which these two statesmen are now depicted as archenemies.

Chirac also called for the creation of a global bioethics agreement. Do you think that will become a reality?

Biotechnology is an area where some measure of international regulation is going to be necessary. Some things simply cannot be handled on a nation-by-nation basis. So Chirac's proposal was received very warmly at the meeting. Now, of course, the devil's going to be in the details. What will the international agreement say? What enforcement mechanisms will be in it? Who is going to be given what authority?

As an adviser to President Bush, how were you received at the meeting by some of your international colleagues?

They received me extremely graciously. I had the feeling that people, including President Chirac, were going more than the extra mile to make me feel very welcome and to avoid any hint of slight or insult.

Did you spend any time with Chirac?

We were able to speak for a few minutes. He stressed the importance of American representation at the meeting. I told him that I felt our American bioethics council and everyone in bioethics had a good deal to learn from the Europeans, and we also had some reflections to share with them that might be helpful to their deliberations.

I do feel, quite honestly, laying aside all diplomatic niceties or politeness, that this is an area in which cooperation is possible and necessary. Cooperation, whether or not it manifests itself in an international document or treaty, can take the form of sharing of ideas and arguments and work product. I think we're all agreed that biotechnology is and will continue to be an enormous blessing to mankind. The spirit of the Paris meeting was a pro-technology spirit and, at the same time, very sober about the ethical issues that biotechnology will raise and also about the inevitable need for these issues to be addressed politically.

Did the topic of Iraq come up during the conference?

Certainly it did in the sidebar conversations, but there was no mention of it from the podium, either by Chirac or by myself. In my remarks, I did refer to the French as our historic allies, and I made reference to our history of friendship and mutual assistance -- having come to each other's aid in key moments in our national histories to defend liberty.

One could detect in some of what was said both privately and publicly a bit of diplomatic code. Certainly my reference to our historic alliance and to our friendship was meant to send a signal that these differences of opinion between the French government and the United States government over how to deal with Saddam Hussein ought not to undermine our historically good working relationship. My sense is that in his graciousness to me and to my family, President Chirac was trying to send the same signal.

In private conversations with others at the meeting, I encountered a range of opinion on U.S. policy toward Iraq. I was a little surprised that it was as diverse as it was, because the indications I had gotten from the media here were that the French people were pretty much united against U.S. policy in Iraq.

In a previous conversation with the Weekly Bulletin, you discussed how the theory of "just war" applied to the war in Afghanistan. How might it apply to the potential war in Iraq?

The just war tradition addresses two major sets of questions: first, questions of justice as to whether to use military means; and second, the justice of the means used. With the issue of whether to go to war still being debated in this country, let me focus on the first consideration, which raises three interesting problems.

Since a just war must be defensive in nature, can a preventive military strike be justified as defensive? Some people say no. I can see the argument, but I don't think it's successful. I myself think there can be conditions under which a preventive war is defensive -- where we have good reason to believe that a regime with a proven record of aggression is arming itself in preparation either for further aggression or to acquire weapons that would enable it to intimidate its neighbors or others and engage in a kind of extortion.

The second issue is the question of who has authority to wage a war like the war being anticipated in Iraq. Can a single nation-state, or a group of nations, make that decision, or does it require an international body to be the legitimate authority? While some say that it requires United Nations approval, I myself don't believe that it does. If the United Nations fails in its responsibility to act militarily to prevent aggression, nations can bind together outside the United Nations to take action. At the same time, I see it as highly desirable for any action to be as broadly international as possible and, if possible, with the endorsement of and an active role for the United Nations.

The third issue is whether a just war can aim at a change of regimes. Some people argue that war may justly be waged only to prevent a regime from moving into territory it doesn't hold or to evict it once it's in, as we evicted Iraq from Kuwait. Other people say that it's acceptable to wage war to remove a regime if the regime is sufficiently wicked. I am inclined to think there are circumstances in which an evil regime, which is likely to pursue aggression and cannot be stopped by other means, can be deliberately deposed. The aim of removing Hitler, for example, was a legitimate aim, because there was no way to leave Hitler in power and avoid aggression under his leadership. The Bush administration and its critics are now debating whether the same is true in the case of Saddam.


March 10, 2003
Vol. 92, No. 19
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Page one
Architecture students get concrete lesson in how buildings are made
Study: High-density storage of nuclear waste increases risk

George talks bioethics with Chirac amid U.S.-French tensions
Seniors embark on service projects with funding from ReachOut 56
Visitors section added to home page
Grant supports scientific analysis of security issues

Spotlight, briefs
Staff members and supervisors encouraged to conduct 'informal conversations' by end of month

Calendar of events
Nassau Notes
By the numbers: Early endowment

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