I referred in my last Libya article for The Drum (the final part of the trilogy, on democratisation, will be published next week) to the issue of Responsibility to Protect, a doctrine enabling the UN to take action when states are grievously endangering their own citizens. I noted that one of R2P’s leading lights, Gareth Evans, described the Libyan situation as something of a test case. That’s probably a bit more complex than he would have us believe, given that what is effectively occurring is that a sovereign state has been making war on its own citizens – that very large part of the citizen body who are, in effect, making a revolution against that regime. It’s for this reason that the neat separations between politics and human rights law and norms need rethinking, I argued.
Without stating it so plainly, a similar conclusion could be drawn from an analysis paper by Julia Rabar at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Rabar argues that “operationalising the doctrine is harder than merely stating it”. That’s no doubt true. But Rabar’s piece falls victim to some of the sorts of thinking I’ve been critical of – in a rush to ‘Realism’, she tends to lose sight of the actual aim. To suggest that there are few institutions capable of being bearers of democratic transformation is surely tautological when what is at stake is a regime which has trampled all over any mediating bodies and accorded its citizens – not understood as such – no rights for forty years. Libya is actually the template for the sovereign state: all Leviathan, no horizontal equality.
Muammar Gaddafi is the perfect incarnation of the Schmittian sovereign – his lack of formal position exemplifies his status above and outside any law.
Once again, we can hear similar warnings sounded by foreign policy Realists and ‘anti-Imperialist’ Lefties: “the situation might be more palatable if the rebels represented a more attractive and viable alternative”. It’s surely interesting that the spectre of Al Qaeda is repeatedly invoked by both foreign policy types and elements of the Marxist Left.
Solidarity with the messy and “disparate” carriers of revolution is effectively rejected.
Here again, both ‘anti-Imperialism’ and ‘Realism’ meet at putatively opposite ends: frozen doctrines unable to take account of actual popular interventions and obsessed with the behaviour and actions of states. A much more productive way of looking at the era of global hyper-connection might be to see the real tensions as lying between the rights of states and the rights of citizens (a “people” is really a multitude asserting an identity as a citizen body). But, no, sovereignty remains sovereign.
On the Left, an exemplar of the refusal to rethink comes from Dr_Tad’s charge that by noting that norms have a meaning and a reality above and beyond the interests of actors with power, I’m somehow falling into Idealism. There’s little understanding here of the reality of ‘social facts’ or of the fact that the cult of Materialism was more of an imposition of Friedrich Engels on Marx’s corpus than anything else. You could, of course, go all Althusserian and talk of “determination by the economy in the last instance”; but that would be to indulge in more of the theological dogmatism we have far too much of. In truth, there’s no neat separation of economy and culture, any more than there is one of norms and politics.
The bizarre fact about realism, whether of the Realist or Materialist stripe, is that it always hits a brick wall in the face of events.
John Quiggin made a very useful contribution at Crooked Timber where he, quite rightly in my view, sees international relations Realism as a theory best suited to a world of autocracies. Sovereignty of the state is all, and sovereigns contend with each other for advantage in a Hobbesian world (dis)order. Bizarrely, I think, many socialists have accepted this de facto if not de jure. There’s the same blindness to the notion of competing and pluralistic interests (“Imperialism”, it seems, is a mighty beast with but one will, always the same under any circumstances) and the same forgetting of the agency of peoples.