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Does an order of societies challenge state interests?

April 11, 2011

Anne-Marie Slaughter, about a week ago, penned a compelling piece in defense of the Obama administration’s choices in Libya within the framework of a new strategic outlook. It merits a full reading. Also worthy is Damir Marusic’s thoughtful reply at The American Interest.

To return to the question of interests and values, Slaughter decides that the nature of geopolitics has changed sufficiently that the conflict between interests and values is really now a conflict between interests and interests. This is certainly a step forward toward a better understanding of the oft-simplified realist-idealist, interests-values debates. In addressing Obama’s speech on Libya in particular, she seizes upon the question of legitimacy and national identity, which calls both values and interests into question:

Alongside these specific strategic interests, as Obama characterized them, was a more fundamental betrayal of “who we are,” a denial of our values that would cost us our integrity as a nation and as a global leader. That is a reason grounded in both our values and our interests. When the gap between what we say and think about ourselves and what we actually do becomes too great, it can cause a crisis of both national identity and international legitimacy.

Even a realist reader of Meinecke’s Machiavellism can appreciate the new classes and conceptions of moral obligations inherent in the highest levels of realpolitik. Authority does not spring merely from power and serve only to further it, it encompasses a broad range of moral questions. However, my problem here is again with the simplification of American moral values into one discrete outcome, that of the world leader whose legitimacy springs not from power, nor even the use of power for good, but for the use of power for specific kinds of goods. If America refuses to intervene, who is it “betraying,” and why do they feel betrayed?

Certainly America would be betraying those of its citizens and the international community who believe America has these moral obligations. But in intervening it is also betraying those citizens who believe the American political myth is one of putting responsibility to America’s people and constitution before foreign obligations, and those other members of the international community who believed a more sober American policy would be the rule of the day. This is not to say one side wins out more than the other, but again to critique the idea that there is any one resolution of moral values or any one audience that America supports or betrays when it acts.

Moving on, Slaughter argues there is a direct contrast in the conceptions of interests held by those clinging to the world of states, and those embracing a world of governments and societies:

In this debate, the disagreement is really between those who define American interests only with respect to a world of states, or with respect to a world of both states and societies. In a world of states, the United States is threatened only by strong states; Libya is weak. In a world of both governments and the societies they rule, the fate of the Libyan opposition would have resonated through social networks across the region, with pictures of horrific atrocities against men and women calling for liberty, democracy, justice, and Western help.

I am inherently skeptical of any transformational discussion in world politics, and so too that an overly “state-centric” approach is responsible in its entirety for the debate over Libya. The debate is, really, about concentrations and types of power. Those who oppose Libyan intervention, for the most part, are skeptical of how the existence of technologically-enabled “social networks” actually affects the concentrations of power important for determining American interests. Power, for the most part, tends to be concentrated in the state and its bureaucratic apparatus. As E.H. Carr noted, even economics and technology derive from the political structures which regulate their existence. Just as society places constraints on the behavior of governments, governments are able to prevent society from seizing the concentrations of power which concern interests as the state-centric thinkers in international affairs define them.

In other words, the social network and its horrific pictures of Libyan victims only approaches, in terms of interests, rather than values, the threshold of concern for the “state-centric” thinker insofar as those images alter the concentrations of power between and within states. Insofar as interests are concerned, public diplomacy matters to the extent it alters the way in which the more traditional bearers of power in the international arena exercise it with regard to America’s interests.

Consider that when the United States faced its debacle in Somalia, and shamefully stood by during the massacre in Rwanda, the world of societies did not exactly constrain US actions. While it triggered a heart-rending moral debate, it certainly did not cause the US any harm to its interests. American legitimacy endured, the crisis of conscience did not paralyze American foreign policy, and the concentrations of power which animate US interests remained essentially unaltered.

However, arguably, technology and commerce are changing this, as Slaughter makes clear. Though she cites him not, her fear of the outraged and disappointed international society revolting against US interests recalls Kant’s dictum in Perpetual Peace: ” … the narrower or wider community of the peoples of the earth has developed so far that a violation of rights in one place is felt throughout the world…”  The notion that technology and communication have fundamentally challenged the ability of a “state-centric” view of international power relies on the premise that technology and communication can fundamentally supplant and replace the power concentrations which belong to the state.

This argument is far less clear. First, international society is a diffuse and curious beast. While acknowledging its complexity, many advocates of a more society-centric view of US interests fail to take that level of complexity another step further. Technology is not a force which inevitably empowers certain moral views over others. Social media, if anything, gives us the ability to recognize how disorganized and divided international society really is. There is no reason international society has a set view of the Libyan crisis, what is necessary to resolve it, or that the reactions of international society have uniform and predictable implications for international politics.

To paraphrase naval strategist Julian Corbett: since men live upon the land and not upon the virtual world of media, great issues between nations in struggle have always been decided – except in the rarest cases – either by what political power can do against another’s enemy territory and national life, or else by the fear of what the media makes it possible for one’s political power to do. In the world of interests, the ability of the virtual world to mobilize itself against the coercive institutions and forces of the state, or other political groups, is what decides.

Even assuming the failure to intervene in Benghazi would have resulted in a massacre – which is asserted but will forever remain unknown, barring some archival revelations unlikely to have been made or ever to reach daylight – would the reaction of international society have severely constrained US interests?

Would failure to intervene, and the demoralizing effect on international society, have tipped the balance of power between protesters and governments in any of the Arab states besides Libya? Would it have mobilized concentrations of power, such as terrorist organizations, economic agents, or foreign governments, to constrain US interests in turn?

The partisan and the irregular, existing as part of a national society and fighting against the state, exist in a dynamic with the “world of states,” or whatever political order dominates in their day, as Schmitt pointed out in 1962. We cannot assume that simply because a network is transnational, its transnationality, in and of itself, subverts the power-political orientation so far that the state order is no longer a useful frame of analysis. For technology to propel a representative of society to destroy that order requires not merely technology, which is essentially neutral towards one’s political ends, but an ideology. The difference between a society that seeks to capture the concentrations of power that the “state-centric” thinker is concerned with and to erode the concentration of power in the state itself is the difference between a protester in Tahrir Square seeking democracy and a member of al Qaeda seeking to destroy the state order of the Middle East in its entirety.

So far, international society, where we can pin it to a discrete group with clear aims, seems to be seeking greater self-determination within their own governments. Their aims are not to permanently alter the balance between state and society, to challenge the state order, but to change its autocratic orientation. In other words, if the societies caught in the thrall of the Arab Spring get what they want, we would not witness a transformation in the concentration of power between state and society, but the ascent of a new part of society to control of state power.

For adherents of the skeptical “state-centric” viewpoint, the complexity of international society only reinforces the importance of finding the concentrations of political power, wherever they reside. Because we cannot derive a uniform political aim or idea among international society, we must seek to understand how international society affects the distribution of power within and amongst states, because so long as the dominant vessel for high concentrations of political power remains the states, it is a state order which international society will be grappling for control over.

We may believe that international society represents some more just or proper form of political expression and organization than the state alone, but that is a moral judgment, not a judgment of interests. So far as the question of interest prevails, the attempts of certain sectors of international society to seize control of various state governments only matters in so far as societies can seize control of or wield power in degrees comparable to those of states.

Recognizing the importance of societies as well as governments—and both are important—requires focusing on development, the suite of policies dedicated to improving the lives of the individual human beings who comprise a society, as much as on diplomacy. It requires standing for Internet freedom and promoting all the ways in which information technology can help societies hold their governments to account. It requires paying attention to which voices are and are not heard in societies. And it points to the value of engaging the full spectrum of US society—economic, civic, educational, religious, philanthropic—to connect to foreign societies.

Is society always that important, or do we believe it is in our interests to make it more important? Or do we simply believe that the US ought to focus more on the interests involved in promoting society? These are the questions the state-and-society model opens in the interests and values debate. It does not yet, without a normative decision in favor of the society as form of political order equal in moral worth to the state, mean that society encompasses concentrations of power critical to US interests, except in limited circumstances where society seizes control or substitutes for state power.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2011 10:59 pm

    A short-ish comment (perhaps I will write something longer about this at my blog at some point). Your use of “international society” here is open to misunderstanding, ISTM; first, Slaughter in her piece does not use the phrase ‘international society’ (she talks about “states and societies” [plural] not “international society” [singular]); second and more important, for IR theorists “international society” tends to be associated with the English School, and the more traditional writers in that vein (e.g. H. Bull [The Anarchical Society, R. Jackson The Global Covenant) are pretty state-centric: i.e. for them states form an int’l society inasmuch as states share certain norms and values and interact through some common institutions. Slaughter is talking about something different.

    • April 11, 2011 11:30 pm

      Good point, yes, looking back it was not very smart of me to use that term. To clarify, I am not talking about the English School society of states either, but of popular and sometimes transnational political networks. I’d look forward to any thoughts you have to add.

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