Friday, May 15, 2009

And they call it 'responsibility'

One of the most interesting questions that came up in my talk at Wadham College last night was whether those who lead us into war on the pretext of saving women from oppression or upholding human rights are purely cynics, or whether there is a sense in which they uphold a sort of neoliberal or bourgeois 'common sense' which happens to be contiguous with a defence of ruling class interests. I suggested that there are an awful lot of naked cynics - people like Rumsfeld and Cheney, for instance - but that beyond that there is a sophisticated intellectual culture, a technical expertise and a system of conceptual operations which academics, state officials, journalists, lawyers and various technocrats are educated in. There is a certain amount of cynicism built-in to that training, I think, a half-assed worldliness and pseudo-scepticism that is necessary to make it effective - a point that I'll come back to.

In the field of international relations, there is a dense clutter of overlapping and contradictory conceits that help elite thinkers explain world affairs with some basic verisimilitude. On the more sophisticated end, there is the constructivism of Alexander Wendt, Martha Finnemore et al, which critiques neorealist assumptions - not junking them, not saying that 'anarchy' and 'balance of power' and so on aren't operative, just explaining the obvious point that they are socially constructed and subject to reconstruction according to new norms and paradigms. It challenged a crude, and reductionist materialism but remained orthodox enough to become widely accepted in mainstream IR discourse. It was under the influence of a certain version of constructivism that IR theorist and former Clinton official Stephen Krasner argued that state sovereignty was 'organised hypocrisy', a 'cognitive script' that we need not take too seriously. And it is this trend of thinking that academics and writers such as Thomas Weiss, Alex Bellamy and others look to when they try to elaborate a new norm of 'humanitarian intervention', and the 'responsibility to protect'.

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) - involving senior dignitaries from various governments and the United Nations, and co-sponsored by foundations such as the Carnegie Corporation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and also the Canadian government - represented a zenith for this movement. The doctrine of 'Responsibility to Protect' (referred to in ICISS circles by its rebarbative acronym, 'R2P'), which has roots in the 'Just War' tradition, amounts to an attempt to seriously curtail notions of state sovereignty. It is motivated by what is seen as unconscionable instances of inaction in the face of catastrophe throughout the 1990s, most obviously in Rwanda (forget about what they actually did in Rwanda). But precisely because of that, it expresses, in its cold legalese, the renascent paternalism of post-Cold War imperialism. At its heart is the fantasy of knowing, benevolent Western power. Its moral warrant is 'enlightened self-interest', since the argument is that to leave suffering and oppression to fester is likely to be counterproductive and produce a security threat in the medium to long-run.

The drive to secure a central place for this doctrine in state postures has been somewhat sidelined by developments, but it is still percolating away in the academia, among diplomats and statesmen, and it's a live concern of Wilsonians in the State Department, such as Anne-Marie Slaughter. One of its most notable advocates, a former Australian foreign minister and co-founder of the ICISS, authored an introduction to Thomas Weiss' 2007 book, Humanitarian Intervention, which contained an assertion of the constructivist wisdom that states no longer operate in a principle-free universe, that there is widespread acceptance of certain moral claims upon them by the oppressed and neglected and so on. The book itself, considered a classic in the field, re-states this idea at some length, but just to give you a flavour of the necessary cynicism involved, here's a quote:

"Motives behind humanitarian interventions are almost invariably mixed. Looking for parsimony in motives does not really advance the discussion, because not all political motives are evil. If only altruism without significant interests had to be present, there would rarely be sufficient motivation to get involved in the first place or to stay the course - the feeble international military involvement in Darfur and the US withdrawal from Somalia after losing 18 Rangers in October 1993 are illustrations." (p. 7).

To explain everything that is wrong with this brief passage would take too long, so let's leave to one side the whole business of the consequences of actual US intervention in Somalia and the terrible likely consequences of any military intervention in Sudan. I just note that the basic argument is that we can't take too seriously all this stuff about humanitarian norms, that states really need the promise of some booty to keep them interested for long enough, and moreover that it is churlish to worry to much about this, as if motives didn't somehow bear on consequences. In fact, to cavil about the underlying assumptions of 'humanitarian intervention' would appear to be equivalent to professing a lack of moral seriousness - why worry about such trifling matters when there are people needing to be rescued?

Another of the conceptual innovations underlying the reigning dogma is the idea of 'failed' or 'failing' states. The ICISS report [pdf], for example, makes explicit reference to this in justifying its restoration of the idea of "trusteeship". It is a topic of fevered research by government departments, and bodies like the Carnegie Corporation offer substantial research grants for those studying 'at risk' states, and so on. The idea reflects, as Charles Call acidly put it in Third World Quarterly, "the schoolmarm’s scorecard", ascribing failure "according to linear index defined by a univocal Weberian endstate". The concept has its origins in the early post-Cold War years, and particularly in the Somali civil war, during which the state effectively collapsed. Following this and the failed US intervention, a series of articles in establishment foreign policy outlets and books by mandarin thinkers were produced on the topic of failed states and the appropriate response. Since then, the idea has taken off. Afghanistan was described as a failed state by Condolezza Rice. Robert Rotberg, one of the pioneers of the idea, argued in 2003 that failed states included Iraq, and also North Korea, Colombia, Indonesia and the Ivory Coast. Pakistan is regularly referred to in similar terms. Now Foreign Policy, a publication of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, publishes an annual 'Failed States' index, at the top of which is Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Chad, and Iraq. Clearly, there's a great deal of imprecision built in to the concept, since it embraces such a diverse range of societies with different social resources, economies, institutional structures, dilemmas, etc. - but this is quite useful in a way, because it sweeps a number of concerns of imperial planners up into a tidy-looking category, providing a catch-all explanation for whatever the US wants to do in these areas. And though the basic focus of such elite thinking is how the US can effectively deploy its resources to support state-building and produce 'stability' - as per the new Obama gospel in 'Afpak' - it is easy to see how this would be congruent with humanitarian justifications for war.

Imperial ideology has its spurious 'messianic' or 'missionary' element, but ultimately it strives toward the appearance of pragmatism, technical virtuosity, and 'common sense'. This was something that the pioneers of neoconservative ideology learned very quickly, and throughout the 1980s they worked on developing institutions with state backing such as the National Endowment for Democracy, accompanied by pseudo-scholarly journals such as the Journal of Democracy (which is not peer reviewed), pushing quasi-technical discourses of 'democracy promotion'. The larger ideological questions, if this process is successful, can be taken for granted.