Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Who has the right to self-defence?

As Israeli troops re-enter Gaza, the omnipresent mantra will be that "Israel has a right to defend itself". I recognise no such right, given that what it actually means is that "Israel has a right to defend its supremacy over the Palestinians with extreme force". But I just want to briefly point out one implication of this constant invocation of the right to self-defence in this context. The IR theorist Marc Trachtenburg once pointed out that the humanitarian intervention of the Victorian era "dramatised the fact that the society of nations was not a society of equals — that there were in fact two castes of states. To be a target of intervention — indeed, even of humanitarian intervention — was to be stigmatized as of inferior status". The obverse of this was that those of the inferior caste did not have the right to defend themselves. At best, they had the 'right' to be protected by members of the ruling caste, supposing anyone felt like giving a hand.

It might be argued that today the lower caste of states do have some rights of self-defence, but these are heavily circumscribed. Thus, the ruling caste reserves for its exclusive use the right to weapons of mass destruction, to aerial bombardment, invasion, and so on. Israel has a right to all of this but, say, Iran does not. And the Palestinians who - poor fools - don't even have a state, are not even permitted to have a rusty cache of rockets. The question of statehood is important. It is not uncommon for Israel's supporters to emphasise the fact that it is a sovereign state while its designated foes (Hamas, Hezbollah, Fatah, Islamic Jihad etc) are non-state actors. This emphasis presumably derives from the perspective of Just War theory, particularly that championed by Michael Walzer who is a strong supporter of Israel and can be relied upon to offer a sophisticated apologia for whatever war it is currently engaged in (Operation Cast Lead was no exception). For Walzer attributes to states the right not only to defensive violence, but to violence that targets civilians - both rights he denies nonstate actors. As Andrew Valls has pointed out, this is a double standard that relies on a heavily loaded conception of the kind of violence that nonstate actors might employ ("random murder"). This is an intriguing form of myopia given Walzer's background. For Walzer is, after all, one of those who helped pioneer the idea of Zionism - against the increasingly sceptical New Left - not as a religious or colonial venture but, rather absurdly, as a national liberation struggle with Labour Zionists juxtaposed to the Indian National Congress and the Algerian FLN. Nonetheless, the double standard operates in most conceptions of 'just war', and is mobilised in support of Israel's "right to defend itself against Hamas".

This caste arrangement was once structured by claims of racial solidarity, such as those of Anglo-Saxonism. Such are the origins of the 'special relationship' between the US and UK in the later 19th Century, in which the US resisted the urge to annexe any part of British territory in Canada or the British West Indies while the British not only acceded to American expansionism but embraced it at key points, such as during the 1898 war. Anglo-American competition did not disappear, but it was twinned with a new strategic orientation based in part upon racial sentiment and fear of emerging rival imperialisms of Russia and Japan. At this point, race and conceptions of democracy were inseparably intertwined, the latter seen as a function of the former. That is, for American imperialists such as Theodore Roosevelt no less than for the British empire, democracy was appropriate to the 'white race' which had alone reached a state of self-government.

The trend since 1945, however, has been to make racism invisible - as Robert Vitalis puts it, there is a pervasive 'norm against noticing' the way in which the global order is powerfully structured by race. In the Cold War, of course, the defence of white supremacy in South Africa, Rhodesia or even in the Deep South of the US, was interpreted as an anticommunist imperative. Opposition to anti-colonial movements was 'antitotalitarian'. Even the defence of right-wing dictatorships supported or imposed by western states was a defence of 'the Free World'. Today, the explicit justification for such caste distinctions is almost wholly democratic, (even if one will occasionally hear that the difference between the UK and Iran, for example, is that the former is a "civilized" state). Israel, it is argued, is not only a sovereign state but a democratic one. The world's democracies, it may then be added, have a duty to support one another against undemocratic rivals, at most offering friendly criticism if an ally appears to act against its own interests. Moreover, those democratic states have enhanced legitimacy in their global actions as they are said to be genuinely constrained by popular will, as opposed to despotic states that pursue narrow and parochial interests without the humane restraints that democratic states operate under (thus, "Israel takes the greatest of care not to harms civilians..."). This set of assumptions, as Vitalis suggests, rests upon a certain faux-naïveté about the endurance of race as an organising principle in world affairs, and in this way they help naturalise western supremacy. It would be pedantic to list the examples of democratic states that have been targeted for subversion and military attack by western states, or the democratic movements that have felt the iron heel of western repression. It is sufficient to note that in the most recent case of Israel's 'self-defence', the opponent has been the elected government of Palestine. Such violence by western states is neither democratic in method nor in aim, unless one is willing to descend to the argument that by definition political coercion by democratic states constitutes an enlargement of democracy's scope.

The way that the right to political violence (and to the technology and ideological legitimacy that enables it) is distributed, tells us a great deal about the way in which the global "colour line" that Du Bois wrote of has persisted beyond its formal overthrow. It stands as a rebuke to those polytechnic Polyannas who still insist that the era of 'humanitarian intervention' is one of unbounded egalitarianism.