Thursday, January 29, 2009

Some Thoughts on Imperialism and International Law

Richard Seymour (i.e. Lenin of the Tomb) has written some very interesting pieces that touch on issues close to those I have recently addressed – namely the historical and theoretical relationship between imperialism, humanitarian intervention, self-defence and the war on terror. Both of these pieces are very insightful and I would recommend people read them (although I assume such a recommendation on my part is pointless, as I doubt anyone who reads my blog doesn’t read the Tomb). That being said, I have a few nit-picky concerns with Lenin’s stuff, particularly as concerns the role an importance of [international] law.

Who has the right to self-defence?
One of the important things that I think has to be done with this post is to properly disaggregate all the legal issues and then use them to properly frame some of the problems that Seymour identifies. So, to start with, he notes:
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.
Immediately, there is a problem. Seymour is conflating the right to use self-defence, with the degree of force which can be used in self-defence and the degree of force that can be used more generally in an armed conflict. Although this may seem like a pedantic distinction, I’ll argue later that it’s actually pretty important.

In a similar vein, Seymour points out the centrality of statehood to many of the arguments defending Israel’s actions, noting:
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…
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But it strikes me that the more sophisticated defenders of Israel’s actions don’t really need to refer directly to Walzer on this point. Instead all that needs to be referred to is international law, which although increasingly concerned with non-state actors, still takes the sovereign state as its main actor. Indeed, in international law, the right to self-defence can only be seen as accruing to states. Thus, I’ve noted before, the anomalous character of the Palestinians in international law really muddies the water. Historically, in the period of decolonisation (when there was a really radical Third World movement) this argument was less prevalent, precisely because the question of violence in pursuit of self-determination by non-state actors was so vital to their interests. But with the general move away from an international law whose agenda genuinely was – to some degree – shaped by these movements this argument seems to have disappeared (and to be honest may well surface in the imperialist camp with the perhaps Kosovo/Georgia serving as a bit of a harbinger to this).

It’s important to note this, I think, because it actually buttresses Seymour’s more general argument. International law’s focus on statehood (as opposed to just Walzer’s) is deeply exclusionary. As Anghie and the TWAIL movement have shown us, the centrality of the sovereign state to international law has a genetic connection to the old exclusionary/transformative notions of a Family of Nations that were around in 19th century international law. These notions of statehood were irreparably bound up with notions of European (and I would insist capitalist) notions of internal social organisation. I think this is important to note because it’s not just some commentators who embody these commitments but very fabric of our international order.

The general thrust of Seymour’s work is particularly provocative and although I find it persuasive I think the above caveats would lead me to slightly different conclusions to him. Seymour argues [this is a long quote but I think it’s worth engaging with]:
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 … 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.
I have to say I have a real problem with this. Whilst historically it is true that much of the old international law was racialised, this racism was of a cultural/social/economic type, rather than of the biological type (or it was at least an odd mix of the two). This is particularly notable because although the standard of civilisation was not always applied ‘fairly’ there were a good many ‘non-White’ states which gained full legal personality, or were at least granted ‘semi-civilised’ status. Once we hit early on in the 20th century (I don’t know exact dates for all of this) China, Japan, Egypt etc. were all fully sovereign. There are two driving factors behind granting these countries sovereignty – one is the direct, immediate interest of imperial powers, so as China Miéville points out (Between Equal Rights, 2005, Brill at pp.240-250) the recognition of certain states as possessing some sovereign rights was essentially driven by the fact that the major imperialist powers had made treaties with these nations that simply had to be accounted for.

The second factor was the internal character of the states – which comes from both 19th century international law and the Mandate System – essentially once many states genuinely had massively altered their internal life so that they were large, capitalist centralised nation-states they were granted some legal personality. Ultimately, I would argue that can again be (more broadly) related to the idea of ‘interest’, these nations were forced to reorganise so that they would be more suitable for the spread of international capitalism. To my mind the racialisation of these issues is secondary, or rather, much of the racism is as ad hoc as the notion of civilisation (indeed the two are bound up), often responding to particular imperial interests.

I would argue that the above considerations hold true today, albeit in a modified form. So, Seymour is right to point out that – to some degree, although again we shouldn’t go nuts about this either – ‘democracy’ has assumed a similar role to civilisation. He is also right to point out that in practice this notion of democracy is highly flexible as a good number of democracies have been undermined by Western states – often mounting some kind of international law claim [although as an aside I think part of this comes from the very formal notion of democracy deployed by Western states; democracy is a set of institutions – largely symbolised by continuing elections – and rights – often property rights but also an abstractly free press etc. – which have to be guaranteed for the future. This allows substantively democratic movements who do not meet these conditions to be ignored, whereas brutal reaction acting in the name of these commitments to be supported].

But I really don’t think this is a racialised notion. To my mind this is – as civilisation was – much more about the interests of imperial powers. The West didn’t undermine Latin American or Arab leftist regimes because they weren’t white, they did it because these regimes contradicted their interests (and let’s not forget that the CIA ran operations even against some of its 'allies'). It seems to me that the criterion of democracy – as noted in my very long square brackets – has responded much more clearly to interests than to race. Now, often the two coincide, and I think some of this is just contingent – Europe developed capitalism first, Europe expanded first; so capitalist organisation is European – but it’s telling that imperialists don’t seem to care about the colour of its puppet regimes’ skins and will happily support some ‘brown-on-brown’ (and even brown-on-white) action should it support their interests.

Putting all of this hodge-podge together with some new stuff I want to make some conclusions.

Firstly, international law often has an abstract standard that it applies to everyone – this may not always be done fairly but in principle people support this. This abstract standard is something like – all states have the right to self-defence etc. But very often although this standard is abstract it essentially universalises a certain way of doing things which gives imperialist states a massive advantage. So every state has a right to self-defence. More importantly for us the rules regarding what it is permissible to do in war are massively in favour of high tech imperialist states. So, long range weapons which can’t be aimed properly (i.e. rockets) are ‘indiscriminate’ and as such any attack by them is per se impermissible. But long range, high-tech ‘smart’ weapons which nonetheless kill many more civilians are not per se indiscriminate and so the standard of proportionality, which is often largely a whitewash.

Indeed this abstract focus on direct-ness often operates in such a way. Whilst it is a war crime to directly target any civilian not taking part in the hostilities, it is not per se a war crime to launch an attack knowing that it will kill civilians not taking direct part in the hostilities (which leads to the ridiculous situation where a civilian driving an ammunition truck cannot be shot, but the truck could be blown up). As Marx noted, applied equal standard to unequal people is a right of inequality.

Often this is the favoured tool of the imperialists because it allows them to claim faux equality whilst massively reinforcing their own interests.

Secondly, outside of this equal standard there are some formally unequal standards that attempt to entrench imperial power within the law. Humanitarian intervention is one of these – insofar as the right clearly doesn’t accrue to everyone. More important in this respect is the War on Terror – which in practice is an attempt to entrench the right of certain states to intervene military unlimited by temporal or spatial considerations.

But, I believe that resort to this type of logic – and to some degree it underpins most Israeli interventions – often is a sign of weakness. The preferred method of imperialist states is surely to be able to operate through the ‘normal’, formally equal channels of international law as this allows them to avoid accusations of – well – imperialism. I think the vital point is that these sort of logics only come into play in the case of weakness or inter-imperialist rivalry. As I have previously noted, the US only resorted to strategies such as humanitarian intervention or the war on terror because it was facing opposition in the Security Council (although not initially with the war on terror).

What is common about both of these strategies – to my mind – is that whilst there may be something of a ‘colour line’, this colour line is secondary to, or viewed through the prism of, imperial interests. So, whilst the standards may be somewhat Eurocentric, this is – I think – largely because capitalism and imperialism grew up here (as it were). China Miéville – in his forthcoming article on Haiti – has a fascinating reflection on the relationship between international law and capital accumulation, arguing that we might well conceive international law as serving to facilitate capital accumulation. This is something I may run with in the next few years (providing someone gives me money to do a PhD), as we can interestingly see the initial period of exclusionary international law as linked very much with primitive accumulation. Present international law – and the way that it facilitates certain types of imperial violence – can be useful conceptualised in terms of accumulation by dispossession, allowing imperial states to intervene against those who are proving problematic for accumulation.

It’s vitally important to distinguish between these two and condemn them both. Because if we argue only that the second type (of formal exclusion) operates, we allow our opponents to point out the way in which genuine formal equality does operate.

Obama the Imperialist
I find this piece much more straightforward to agree with, so I’m not going to comment on it massively. One thing I would say is that the attacks in Pakistan seem to indicate that Obama won’t necessarily be dropping the ‘war on terror’ moniker (not that it really matters because, in substance, it is much the same thing as liberal interventionism). Indeed, in many respects Obama may simply strengthen the US’ claims to imperial exceptionalism. In the case of Bush it was ridiculously easy to point out the flaws and contradictions in claiming to love freedom etc. because of the obvious mistreatment of vast numbers of people – Guantánamo and extraordinary rendition being the most evident. But Obama has been quite decisive in ending much of this ‘spectacular’ mistreatment (through a series of spectacular moves of his own) whilst maintaining the claims as to American exceptionalism. The spectacular is actually quite a useful category for examining the transition from Bush to Obama. Bush (and the opposition to him) embodied the spectacular insofar as his administration was involved in some very spectacular forms of violence – torture, detention without trial, shock and awe. These forms of violence were vehemently opposed by a coalition of liberals and the left. But the point is that the US claims to exceptionalism should not just be undermined by spectacular violence but structural violence too – the prison industrial complex, immigration, poverty, complex racial problems. Since much of the opposition to the Bush administration was based on spectacular violence, Obama’s spectacular renunciation of much of this violence leaves him in the perfect position to argue for a renewed American exceptionalism.

John Bolton was very telling on election night – arguing that with the election of Obama the US could no longer be criticised for its racial problems (around 1:10). Ultimately, then, I fear that a lot of what China Miéville has said has come to pass – by emphasising the ‘revolutionary’, spectacular problems of the Bush administration (which did give us some allies) – we have undermined our abilities to criticise that which follows it, and may even have inadvertently created the conditions for a revitalised American exceptionalism.

1 comment:

Houstonlaw said...

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