International Politics As If People Mattered

There’s an old story about a town in the area of Eastern Europe that changed hands between Russia and Poland several times between 1850 and 1940. A couple of men met on the street there, and one of them told the other, “Ivan, I hear we’re about to become part of Poland again.” “Thank heaven, Boris,” said the other. “I don’t think I could have stood another one of those Russian winters.”

Which is a good starting point for any examination of how the nation-state, and the relations between nation-states, affect ordinary people who happen to live there. Another good starting-point was contributed by my former teacher Marshall Hodgson, who in discussing the wave of decolonization that swept the Muslim world after WWII, pointed out that freedom for a nation does not necessarily mean freedom for its people, at least not all of them.

The model we have been operating under since the end of feudalism is that a nation-state consists of a specific piece of territory and the people on it. The government of each state promulgates and enforces the laws by which the people live. Ideally (that is, in a democratic state), the government is chosen by the people (or at any rate, by a majority of the people.) But we accept any government as the legitimate sovereign head of a sovereign state, as long as it gets to be the government by a procedure consistent with the law in effect in that state at the time of its accession, whether that procedure involves majority vote by universal suffrage, lottery, single combat, or a hot game of spin the bottle.

“‘Sovereignty’,” as the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein points out, “lies between ‘sober’ and ‘sozzled’ in the dictionary.” Normally, it includes control of relations with other sovereign states, and complete control over “internal affairs” within the state’s territory.

Or does it? The Nuremberg trials and the various international conventions and treaties opposing genocide and supporting human rights have somewhat eroded the legitimate power of even a legitimate government over its subjects. Can a sovereign state simply place an entire class of its subjects in a state of outlawry, strip them of citizenship, the right of residence, property, liberty, and life, as long as it obeys its own laws in doing so?

It depends.

Such behavior is certainly violative of several different treaties and conventions. Many but not all of the nations whose governments engage in such behavior are signatories of some or all of these treaties. So, if there were some uniformly dependable enforcement mechanism for such treaties, it could be invoked at least against those signatories.

That’s a major ‘if.’ In a discussion of events in the Balkans in the 1990s, a friend of mine analogized the position of the United States to that of the biggest guy in a bar, in which a gang of bikers is beating up on some little guy. It is our job as the biggest guy in the bar, said my friend, to defend the poor helpless victim. My immediate response was “the biggest guy in a bar has exactly the same obligation as everybody else in that bar–to call the cops.” Which is what a uniformly dependable enforcement mechanism for human rights, with jurisdiction over all violations of international law, would be. At the moment, of course, in the forum of nations, there are no cops.

Before we start wishing for the establishment of such a police force, let us remind ourselves that the real police (even in societies where the police force is impeccably honest and efficient, and has the full support of the surrounding culture and most of the citizens) still have–and use–the discretion not to act. No police force is required, or willing, or (probably) able to act against every violation of every law. The best police forces exercise their discretion based on such criteria as: can we be spending our time and resources enforcing some more important law? Preventing more serious harm? Are other social mechanisms available to solve this problem as well as the police can, or better? The less admirable will ask such questions as: can we be protecting more important people (or their property)? Can we be arresting less important people? Can we protect the people most likely to vote us a raise? Any global police force would probably have to retain the same discretion not to act, perhaps subject to some more explicit criteria. So any proposal to set up such a police force ought to include the criteria by which they may choose to act or not to act, or the mechanism by which their involvement will be triggered.

Which brings us back to the present. The United Nations as presently constituted can’t function as the global police force, because it can act only through the Security Council, which can be immobilized by the veto of any one of its members. (Imagine your city council unable to mobilize the cops except by the consensus of every local ethnic and religious pressure group, plus the NRA, the local street gangs, and the Chamber of Commerce.) Aside from the obvious–no nation will cooperate in calling the cops on itself–there are also more complex relationships: no nation will call the cops on its historic allies. Which means the cops will be called, under current conditions, only on relatively weak and friendless nations. (Come to think of it, this is not too different from the way the real cops function in many localities.) So if you are a citizen of a Big Nation (or a Little Nation with a Big Ally), and your government is depriving you of liberty, property, or cultural autonomy, or even threatening your health and life, you are strictly out of luck if you expect any help from the UN or its various agencies.

That’s Problem Number One: while we now at least have international agreements forbidding genocide and other human rights violations, we have no uniform and reliable mechanisms for enforcing them.

What we do have, instead, (here comes Problem Number Two) are the various ways nation-states interact with each other, for better and for worse. At their most civilized, nations can make deals. Contracts. Leases, even. And can fulfill those deals peacefully. One of the more visible such arrangements reached its culmination in 1997, when the Territory of Hong Kong, leased by Queen Victoria from the then-emperor of China for 100 years, reverted to Chinese rule at the end of that period. The principals in the deal–the governments of China and Great Britain–behaved with scrupulous regard for each other’s rights. But the people who happened to live on the piece of real estate in question had virtually nothing to say about it. Many voted with their feet, to become citizens of more congenial countries. They had to do this using their own resources, after finding their own destinations and getting official acceptance there, an arrangement likely to be unattainable by Hong Kong’s least affluent citizens. Neither their previous nor their prospective landlord offered them any help in moving out. They had not been parties to the original lease (a contract between an absolute monarchy on one side and a constitutional monarchy on the other, neither of whom felt any obligation to the local residents) and they were not parties to its termination.

Yet another way sovereign nations can interact is by war and the threat of war. Consider the dispute, culminating in war, in the South Atlantic in the early ’80s. The subject was an inhospitable bunch of islands called the Falklands by the Brits (who had settled them) and the Malvinas by the Argentineans (who were geographically adjacent and claimed to own them.) The islands in questions are distinguished by some of the world’s worst weather, and a population of human residents greatly outnumbered by sheep and penguins. That human population, to a man/woman, wished to remain British. Their wishes were as irrelevant to the Argentineans and their allies as the wishes of the penguins and the sheep. The matter was decided, not by majority vote of the people most directly affected, but by the superior military force of the Brits–to whom, again, the wishes of the local residents were irrelevant, although in this instance they won out.

Of course, disagreements between nation-states can also be fought out by such relatively non-violent methods as trade sanctions and embargoes. The apartheid government of South Africa was undermined and ultimately overthrown with considerable help from 20 years of such sanctions. The Sandinista government of Nicaragua (a much smaller country with far fewer resources of its own) suffered the same fate after a much shorter period. The longest-lasting embargo–by the US against Castro’s Cuba–has crippled the latter country, but seems to have had little effect on the power of its government. The same could be said, until 2003 anyway, for the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. What is clear in all these cases is that the ordinary people on the street felt the impact of such sanctions before the government, and felt it more severely. You have to do a lot of damage to the people of a nation before its government will even notice. The less democratic a nation is, the more damage you have to do to the people to get rid of the government or change its behavior or even attract its attention. That, of course, is the whole point of being a member of the ruling class–relative immunity to the problems of the lower orders. If being Head Honcho doesn’t get you that, whatever else it does get you isn’t worth the trouble of showing up at the Oval Office every day.

Which is even truer of outright ongoing war. The only way to battle a country into submission is to break stuff and kill people. Most of the stuff, and the people, simply by the law of averages, will not belong to the ruling class. The odd American law specifically forbidding attempts to kill foreign heads of state as such is not even necessary to achieve this result (although it seems especially strange that dropping a bomb on Muammar Khaddafy’s limousine would be illegal, but wiping out the entire town in which he resides would be legitimate warfare, precisely because more people would be killed. Got that? It’s okay to aim at tens of thousands of people, but not at any particular one of them, especially not the one you actually want to get rid of.)

There have been instances in which the ordinary people most at risk from attack on the government nonetheless welcomed it. The ANC supported the trade sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa from the beginning. Certainly Jews and other victims of the Nazis welcomed the victories of the Allies. Our information from Kosovo during the recent unpleasantness there indicates that the Albanians still residing there welcomed the NATO bombing. This is a heroic posture, analogous to calling in a bombing strike on one’s own position to wipe out the surrounding enemy. One cannot expect it, still less demand it, from ordinary people in every situation that might require it (any more than the police can expect the enthusiastic cooperation of local civilians in the “War on Drugs” in American cities.)

Problem Number Three: Aside from economic sanctions and military action, what else can be done to protect people from their own governments? Accepting and aiding refugees is the most directly useful response. People who are willing and able to leave their homes and their countries may be able to find sanctuary elsewhere. This is scarcely a universal solution, however. It not only does not prevent “ethnic cleansing” and similar human rights violations, it encourages them. A ruler who wants to get rid of a particular group of people can steal their property and throw them out without even having to worry much about his reputation in world opinion. Once the “untermenschen” are gone, their plight ceases to be an issue. People who insist on reviving old grudges from safe haven elsewhere–the Armenian nationalist groups, for instance–are viewed as irredentists, revanchists, and crazies. Even the Jewish demand for economic reparations from the beneficiaries of the Holocaust is viewed as greedy and irrelevant. If I take your wallet, I’m a thief and may go to jail. If I take all your property and throw you out of your house, I’m a home invader and will almost certainly go to jail. But if I take all the property of hundreds of thousands of people and throw them out of their country, I will probably never see the inside of a prison, and I may even die a respected head of state.

That, of course, assumes that safe haven exists for each group of refugees. There is at least some evidence that Hitler’s original intention was simply to evict the Jews from the German homeland, and that the more murderous side of the Holocaust developed only when it became apparent that most European Jews had nowhere else to go. Since then, the UN has made itself useful by establishing refugee camps and facilities wherever people fleeing from (or evicted by) the depredations of their own government can get to. Many of these camps have become permanent fixtures in other countries, with highly visible effects on local politics and economies. The residents of such long-term camps cannot reasonably be expected to forgive, forget, and get on with their lives. They don’t have to be crazy to go on carrying old grudges and demanding return to homes that no longer exist. And the countries that host such encampments cannot be blamed for being unhappy about it. The UN may subsidize the camps and their operation, but they can do little about the social and economic impact on the vicinity.

Permanent resettlement of refugees usually works well for the refugees themselves and most of the nations that receive them. But, as previously noted, it is also an ideal solution for the original oppressor, and can only encourage those who seek to emulate him.

Short-term resettlement of refugees in camps has historically tended either to return the refugees to the same murderous circumstances they left in the first place (as in several African genocides in the last 30 years) or to shade into long-term arrangements with all the drawbacks previously noted.

The real problem (Number Four, if you’ve been keeping track), of course, is: what do the nations of the world really want to do about governmental human rights violations? Protect the victims in their own homes? Get them out of harm’s way? Temporarily or permanently? Force the perpetrating government to behave decently? Or get rid of that government? And what can actually be done by the organizations available and willing to do anything?

What the UN does–when the Security Council will allow it do to anything–is (1) care for refugees, and (2) provide peacekeeping forces where a peace agreement of some sort has already been reached. What various individual nations and alliances (such as NATO and the ad hoc grouping that carried out the Gulf War) do is fight wars–break stuff and kill people. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So the Kosovo problem, like innumerable others before it, was “solved” by refugee camps and bombs. The people on the ground in Kosovo could protest as the bombs fell around them, or they could cheer. But their attitude toward NATO would not affect their chances of being hurt or killed by those bombs. A sword makes a lousy shield. Even the best offense is useless as a defense.

What, if anything, do the techniques of nonviolent action and resistance have to contribute to the situation? Gandhian activist Ibrahim Rugova, who was first detained by the Yugoslav government and then released to a gilded exile in Italy, was apparently thoroughly discredited among his compatriots back home, who view him as naïve at best and a Milosevic tool at worst. But Quaker and other peace groups are, as always, widely respected for their work with the refugees. Some such groups attempted to aid the people of Kosovo on their home ground with food and medical care. This is obviously work worth doing, but it does nothing to stop ethnic cleansing.

From other side, from the point of view of nations that tried to stop or punish Milosevic in the 1990s, the debate raises yet another set of questions. Did any nation outside Yugoslavia have any legitimate national interest in Kosovo? There is no oil or other valuable resource in Kosovo. The other nations in the area may have had a strong interest in preventing or reversing the flow of refugees from Yugoslavia to neighboring countries, where they could upset the fragile ethno-political balance in Macedonia, or the marginally functional economy of Albania. But nobody further away than Greece and Turkey would likely be affected by even the farthest ripple of repercussion (unless, of course, somebody dropped a bomb on their embassy.)

The debate in the US Congress is the same one we have heard over and over since the end of the Cold War: if the US has no “legitimate national interest” in Kosovo, or Somalia, or Haiti, or Cambodia, or any other part of the world where there is no oil and in which none of the warring parties is communist, is there any other valid reason for us to take any kind of action–military or otherwise–against local genocide or human rights violations? The Gulf War was a no-brainer. There is oil in Iraq, and Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, all either directly involved or directly threatened. But the other places hit us squarely in our most ambivalent nerve. Does a government have the right to commit its resources to defend or assist the citizens of some other country merely because they are being attacked or threatened by a tyrant?

The negative answer we often reflexively give to this question comes from two different places. The first, of course, is the ghost of Vietnam, which in turn is the ghost of “plucky little Belgium” in World War I. After the end of World War I, citizens of countries on both sides became aware that many of the “atrocities” alleged to have been committed by Germany and its allies in Belgium and France had been either highly exaggerated or actually manufactured from whole cloth. Public opinion became understandably skeptical about “atrocity stories” after that. Which is one of the reasons the nature and extent of Nazi atrocities against the Jews and other “untermenschen” beginning in the 1930s received so little credence in the Allied nations even after the information was widely available.

By the 1960s, we had no trouble believing atrocity stories. But the transparent lie on which the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was based, and the badly crafted communist atrocity stories were still hard to buy. The atrocity stories we were most likely to believe were the ones in which American and South Vietnamese troops were the villains. And we had the same bitter taste in our mouth from having been fooled into an expensive, stupid war by a deceptive government’s propaganda after Vietnam as most Europeans had had after World War I. When we said “never again”, we meant that we would never again allow ourselves to be made fools of.

The second source of our discomfort at committing American resources to rescuing foreign victims of tyranny is a more abstract one, which has an analog in our view of the responsibilities of business corporations. We used to expect corporations to be “good citizens” of wherever they were located–to support local charities and civic activities and the arts. Increasingly, corporate boards take the position that a corporation’s primary, or even sole, responsibility is to make money for its shareholders. If corporate “good citizenship” can be subsumed into the public relations budget as one more way to increase sales, the board will accept it. But only as one more way to make money for the stockholders. If the stockholders want to make charitable contributions, they can and should do so individually out of the dividends the corporation provides them.

Charity, our business philosophers increasingly believe, not only begins in the individual home, but should end there. Only the individual has the duty, or the right, to give away his own resources without recompense. Any aggregate of individuals can legitimately act only for its own–their own–selfish interest. If John or Jane Doe is concerned about the plight of the Albanians in Kosovo, s/he can contribute to the Red Cross or UNICEF or, presumably, the KLA. A country as large as the US, with citizens from so many different backgrounds, cannot (in this worldview) properly have a foreign policy at all, except for the purpose of making America safer or richer, a goal we can presumably all agree on. As a result, many of the debates in Congress seem almost perversely directed toward disguising altruistic motivation as some kind of more broadly defined self-interest.

But all too often, the alternative is to do the opposite–to disguise self-interest as altruism. We are always more willing to go to war for the protection of people who have large numbers of compatriots and relatives living–and voting–in this country, or for people who look like us, or live like us, than for the starving dark-skinned strangers in Somalia and Sierra Leone. Does that mean we should decline to fight for or contribute to the Kosovar Albanians or the Bosnian Muslims because our motives are insufficiently pure? Or does it mean that we should take the claims of the Somalis, the Sierra Leonians, and the Haitians more seriously? Should we demand consistency, insist on defending everybody or nobody? Or can we continue to make ad hoc judgments for the flimsiest of reasons, because defending somebody is still better than defending nobody?

That’s a relatively brief (honest!) statement of the problem. Is there a reasonable and feasible solution? Ultimately, I think the only possible solution is a real, impartial, effective global police force, whose members and commanders would give up their citizenship in any individual nation, presumably in exchange for some really good employee benefits. We have been edging closer to such an apparatus throughout this century. It took World War I to create the League of Nations and World War II to create the UN. Will it take another world war to create a law enforcement system with compulsory jurisdiction over all governments? How about an invasion from Mars, against which all the nations of the world could unite and really mean it? Could some home-grown threat do the same job (an epidemic, for instance)? How about an ecological crisis, like global warming?

And, once we have a global police force, what methods should it use to do its job? The tactics of local police are being seriously questioned in this country these days, largely because of some glaring incidents involving brutality and apparently unjustified shootings of unarmed civilians. If we cannot train our local police to do their jobs with a decent respect for the rights of the people who pay their salaries, what can we expect of a larger force with more powerful weaponry? There have already been incidents of assault and rape committed by “peacekeeping forces” in many parts of the world. The core of the problem is Acton’s old axiom: all power corrupts. If the only counterweight to the abuse of power within a nation by its government is more power applied from a supra-government, who is to keep that power from being abused?

Marx, of course, would be amused but unsurprised at this situation, in which every solution seems to generate a new problem. Gandhi would view the problems as purely short range; nonviolent techniques, properly applied, he would aver, will eventually prevail. Any deaths suffered in the meantime should be regarded as “acceptable casualties”, just as civilian and military casualties in a war would be, except that the casualties of nonviolent action are likely to be considerably fewer. And building a community among the conflicting parties after the end of the conflict is likely to be considerably easier.

I personally find the Gandhian approach attractive. But whatever the techniques the “community of nations” decides to apply to solve these problems, it is absolutely clear that the current ad hoc reactions now in use are at best a waste of resources and lives. A general conversation needs to begin, among nations and within nations and among and within ethnic and religious groups and other communal organizations, about how intercommunal violence and governmental abuses of human rights can best be controlled. Every candidate for political office or communal responsibility should be expected to take a serious part in this conversation, and to be answerable to those s/he represents for that participation. It is up to us as the represented parties to hold them responsible, beginning with the 2012 election in this country.

Red Emma

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