Friday, July 26, 2002

Requiem for the Duped

Following Israel’s recent attack in Gaza, the BBC obligingly provided a summary of condemnation from the international community. The wrap up started with this handy introduction:

The international community has been swift to condemn an air strike by Israeli military forces on a residential complex in Gaza City which killed a Hamas military leader and 14 other people.

What followed was a precis of comments from representatives of various nations, international organizations and other assorted groupings. But the comments were not all the same. In itself that isn’t shocking since one expects divergent responses from different nations. Look a bit closer though and the differences are actually quite important.

Right off the top there’s the notion that “the international community” is one entity reacting with uniform approbation. This isn’t true at all. The list provided by the BBC begins with US and Russian comments to the effect that Israel acted with too much force and is threatening efforts toward peace. Then follow statements from UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson and EU Head of Foreign Policy Javier Solana. In each of these cases the statements quoted make reference to Israel’s extra-judicial actions in contravention of international law – i.e. they make their case on the basis of a legal interpretation. The next two quotes come from Egyptian and Saudi representatives. These respectively mention “war crimes” and “crimes against the Palestinian people.” The last three blurbs from Britain, China and Jordan refer once again to heavy-handedness on Israel’s part while deploring death and the breakdown of the peace talks.

Now we have to remember that the quotes are only samples of often longer statements whittled down by the BBC to give a quick impression of the overall tone. And yet there’s enough here to allow us to see some trends among the variety. First we have the groups of nations that issued standard diplomatic fodder: the US, Russia, Britain, China and Jordan. To some extent their complaints about the excessive nature of the attack are warranted, but Israel wouldn’t need to look far to find similar examples of overkill among its five critics.

The second group consists of the organizations: the UN, the UN Human Rights Commission and the EU. All three speak the language of academic abstraction with Mary Robinson’s legalistic banter taking the prize. With each organization the underlying justification for its criticisms is first and last international law. Robinson goes so far as to refer specifically to “international human rights and humanitarian law.”

Now something interesting emerges. When we turn to the third group, the Egyptians and Saudis, we have the usual rhetoric but we also find both nations bolstering their criticisms with references to crimes. They use the legal language of the organizations to condemn Israel, the implication being that Israeli leaders should be tried as war criminals. So in many respects, what we have is not three but two groups. On one side are the nations like the US and Russia making reference to the practical difficulties created by the Israeli action. On the other are the international organizations and the less moderate Arab states speaking the language of international lawyers criminal courts.

But surely this presents something of a paradox. All the democracies (i.e. those nations which run open elections to select their leaders) – the US, Russia and Britain - are in one camp, while the non-democratic organizations (neither Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson nor Romano Prodi were ever elected by voters in their presumed constituencies) and the more repressive Arab states are in the other (barring China and Jordan). Are we to assume that the world-roving international organizations dedicated to peace and social justice operate on the same principles as dictators?

The answer, in large part, is yes. To explain why we need only to look at the source, or at least the presumed source of much of the obsession with international law today: the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. As most people who’ve studied some philosophy or international relations know, Kant argued that as democracy spread throughout the civilized world (i.e. Europe) wars would become more horrific, but ultimately the carnage would lead to the realization that peace was the only realistic option. Nations would increasingly seek out means of cooperation and mutual restraint rather than beating each other senseless.

Kant’s suggestion remains the basis for current notions regarding international law even today. Kant, however, was neither as naive nor as self-righteous as our modern pundits of international perfidy. In the first place, Kant was aware of the problems to which his philosophy was a possible solution. Like his predecessor, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Kant inherited the philosophic and scientific presuppositions of the Enlightenment. In terms of physics, this meant nature was reduced to some version of matter in motion whether on the rationalist or empiricist models. The correlate in international relations was the general theory we call realism, often attributed to thinkers such as Machiavelli and Hobbes. According to realism, nations are constantly in a state of conflict, and while laws might reign within a given realm, between nations, the only law is survival.

Kant had his doubts about the outcome of such a world, but what’s important to note is that he never questioned the underlying presumptions of the Hobbesian realist image. Kant the idealist built his system of nations governed by laws on a realist base. He argued, after all, that his system presented the possibility that even devils could live in peace under rational laws. In Kant’s system, character has little place Today, we often forget this.

But to call the current love of international law Kantian is a bit extreme, especially since Kant never seriously believed in the possibility of international bodies with the power to overrule national sovereignty, nor did he reasonably consider that virtue and character would play absolutely no role in morality. Equally important, Kant had his own doubts about the efficacy of his international system. Within Kant’s thought there is the suggestion that the international order of laws and consensus built on abstract notions of human rights may only be a rouse, that the devils it seeks to restrain might find ways to take advantage of the laws, installing themselves as emperors decked in the vestments of morality. The moralists and the scoundrels would end up on the same side.

And here we have the connection between today’s humanitarian organizations and the scoundrels in the Middle East. The organizations assume that nations, regardless of their character are prone to war. In their eyes, the only solution is to produce a network of treaties and extra-political courts to constrain all players on the international scene, good, bad or otherwise. But the bad, as we see in the Middle East, use the rhetoric of international law to their advantage. In their own nations they act with impunity, but on the international stage they parade in justice’s mantle. So it really shouldn’t surprise us that the humanitarian organizations are on the side of what we would traditionally call the bad guy.

In his moral and political writings Kant was aware of this possibility. By rejecting character as a moral concern he knew he might end up slipping into something far worse: the justification of murder under the guise of indifferent law. When we tell Israel today it must take the moral high ground, we act as Kantians without Kant’s reserve. Today’s international organizations have become hotbeds for this sort of unthinking post-Kantian foolishness making allies of international law and barbarity. In this regard, Mary Robinson, a noted constitutional lawyer in her home country is among the worst offenders. Her tenure at the UN Human Rights Commission here on Lake Geneva will soon end. And so, before she fades into the sunset, let’s give her the last word with one final selection:

Israel must not abandon its core standards and values, even in the face of the serious security threat to its own civilian population. The current cycle of savagery must end.

Thanks for coming out Mary, and good luck in all your future ventures.


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