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Sovereignty, tolerance, and the liberal order

September 8, 2011

Anne-Marie Slaughter has fired back with a great post in the ongoing debate about sovereignty. Before continuing, I ought to thank her for her responsiveness to her critics (and for her responses to this humble student in particular). We may disagree significantly on what the “new foreign policy frontier” means, but certainly there is a new frontier in the debate when somebody like me has a chance to join the conversation.

That said, it’s back to the trenches of the ongoing debate over the nature and implications of state sovereignty and its changing form. Slaughter argues that preventing internal atrocities do have a stabilizing effect on the international system:

But the experience of the 20th century taught us that we also have a problem when the sovereign uses its monopoly on force to exterminate large numbers of its own citizens for political, ideological, ethnic, or religious reasons. Sovereign states that do this turn out not to be such good neighbors, creating massive refugee flows and often fomenting regional instability. Worse still, whatever personal or political pathology leads them to think it is fine to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing at home tends to spill over into the international arena. Human rights law came into being not simply because of the moral horror of the Holocaust but also because the world’s nations realized that it would have been easier (although never easy) to stop the Nazis after Kristallnacht than waiting until the invasion of Poland.

This is a compelling narrative, but as always I think the history bears out a more troubling moral lesson. For example, internal eliminationism (and there is a whole debate to be had about what constitutes ‘large numbers,’ or, for that matter ‘extermination’ but I will avoid delving into it too much) is not necessarily a reliable predictor of external aggression, and it is not necessarily a psychological warning sign of worse and more difficult foreign policy challenges to come.

Take, for example, the People’s Republic of China. China killed dozens of millions of its own people in the process of its transformation from a hodgepodge of corrupt warlords, brutal Japanese occupation, and crushing poverty. It also swallowed up two potentially independent national entities, Tibet and Xinjiang. Yet did China have anywhere near the track record of aggression that, say, Nazi Germany did? Of course not. Chinese military action was not pathological. Its intervention in Korea was in response to US troops pushing to its borders at a time when America did not recognize the legitimate existence of the regime in Beijing. Its attacks on Taiwan were really part of a continuing Chinese civil war, and the Sino-Indian war was also more in response to perceived encirclement than any kind of pathological aggression.

One case of Chinese aggression which does have interesting implications for R2P is the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979. China had supported Cambodia mostly for power-political reasons, since Vietnam was a Soviet ally and a hedge against Chinese power. So when Vietnam invaded in a war that had extremely beneficial humanitarian effects, China responded by invading Vietnam itself. Yet given the limited aims of the invasion it is hard to identify it as a natural pathological outgrowth of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping spoke the patronizing language of an empire, not of a genocidaire when he said “Children who don’t listen have to be spanked,” a sentiment commonly found among great powers regardless of their ideological preferences.

Democratic transitions are excellent predictors of warfare too, as Jack Snyder and other political scientists have pointed out in their studies. Building popular sovereignty does not automatically stabilize the international system. America is a solidly democratic country and routinely launches wars the rest of the world perceives as aggressive, yet there is no corresponding pathology here at home. Nor is a sovereignty rooted in an individual contract with the sovereign to protect his or her rights immune to the potential for eliminationism, as the first French Republic demonstrates.

Even Germany is an excellent example of a country whose defeat required the acceptance enlistment of a similarly eliminationist regime. Germany may well not have decided to implement its genocidal behavior towards its own people when the Kristallnacht occurred, and it should be very apparent that the defeat of Germany required the enlistment of a similarly brutal and bloodthirsty totalitarian regime, the Soviet Union. Stopping the crimes of Germany required abetting the crimes of the Soviet Union. It is highly unlikely an earlier war would have changed this, indeed, it might have left Hitler in power if the Soviet Union did not join in.

If we intervene to prevent external instability, that is a highly different criteria than the Responsibility to Protect outlines. If we are to make a case-by-case intervention on the basis of potential for external instability, we are not upholding the Responsibility to Protect, and increasing the selection problems which undermine the liberal international order it seeks to build, as Jay Ulfelder pointed out in this excellent post.

Firstly, the potential for external aggression from a regime barely holding onto power is generally rather low, so cases of genuine civil war are usually unlikely to culminate in serious external aggression. In these cases, intervening may actually increase the chances of violence being exported. In the case of Libya, foreign intervention actually encouraged the Libyan government to export its problems to Europe by through threatening to drown Europe in African immigrants (a threat European states took quite seriously) and to launch terrorist attacks. Previously, Libya had cooperated with European powers to mitigate emigrant flows through the Mediterranean, and reduced its involvement in international terrorism. Intervention can actually unleash external aggression, too.

Secondly, the potential of external instability for whom matters greatly. Somalia’s catastrophe is likely far more dangerous for its neighbors than Libya’s civil war was for its neighbors. Now, there are of course other considerations at play, but the more R2P falls into the trap of conforming to great power preferences, it falls into the elite exceptionalist trap which undermines other liberal institutions.

The reality is that there is very little reason to think that preventing internal atrocity will stabilize the international order. The potential for chaos and violence is inherent in politics. It cannot be eliminated at the source of internal eliminationism because eliminationism is not the source and may not even stem from the same source. It may even open the potential for more violence in the future (for example, an early intervention against the Soviet Union when it was starving millions of Ukrainians to death would have strengthened a German quest for Lebensraum in Eastern Europe later).

This isn’t a primary debate, of course, but I do think the temptation to try and pathologize authoritarianism, eliminationism, and external aggression rather than recognize them as the products of more complicated causal chains makes a weaker, rather than a stronger case for R2P and the liberal international order generally, even if it seems the more morally accurate or appropriate approach. If eliminationism is not worth stopping for its own sake, R2P risks becoming perceived as a pretext for great power interests, even if the great powers implementing it have little intention and little benefit in their actions. Ultimately war is subject to the highly unstable Clausewitzian trinity, simply because it is an instrument of policy does not mean that any policy and its logic can supplant the enmity and contingency of war. R2P’s strongest justification is in its vision of sovereignty and its desires to marry the associated crusading impulses with a rational liberal order. For this same reason, it is highly unlikely that R2P will ever prevent external aggression on the scale of Nazi Germany or the conquests of the Soviet Union or China, precisely because of the controls on it which Slaughter lauds. Its international security benefits are for now too nebulous. Its moral argument about sovereignty is more internally consistent, yet similarly impractical and potentially dangerous.

If Ulfelder is correct in identifying the conditions he does as the roots of liberal orders, and we are to take the root project of redefining sovereignty seriously, then attempting to rationalize R2P as a great power security policy may widen the cracks in its logic and bring about its own discrediting, if not worse.

Strips its value? Really? I may be an international lawyer, but I’m also a daughter of Charlottesville, Virginia, home to Monticello and Mr. Jefferson’s university. Last I checked, “protects and serves” was his definition of domestic sovereignty. The Declaration of Independence, after all, argues that all men have inalienable rights and that governments exist “to secure these rights … deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” “Protects and serves” is how all liberal democratic governments define their relations with their citizens; and I would wager the majority of the world’s autocracies at this point as well. Certainly the Chinese government, for instance, thinks that it exists to serve its citizens, even if we might often disagree about how it does so.

I endorse this liberal conception of sovereignty as a morally superior form to many with which it has co-existed historically and alongside which it exists today. However, I would not say this is why the rest of the world values sovereignty. Simply because Jefferson thought that the social contract between the individual and the state gave sovereignty meaning does not mean that this is the lowest common denominator of sovereign exception. Hobbes, himself a liberal, recognized the need to root sovereignty in the most simple, universally acceptable claim possible, and that was that all fear a violent death.

Sovereignty is an intersubjective concept, it is not a universally obvious entity with a commonly accepted meaning. Post-colonial states accept it and understand it in a far different way than many Western states do, for clear historical reasons. The same is the case for understandings of what sovereignty requires as far as a social contract. Serving the citizenry, for example, is different than serving individuals in the liberal sense. Take the Chinese example that Slaughter points out: China does not serve individual citizens. It serves its people collectively, their rights are understood collectively in political practice and often in discourse and theory. That means that if China decides on shooting a few thousand students in their capital because of the potential damage they could do to the social fabric, they are protecting their population. Tiananmen was a fulfillment of the requirements legitimacy, sovereignty and protection placed on them, in the Chinese government’s view. Yes, all governments serve, but how they serve is inseparable from the question of who they serve. In the barest conception, sovereign protection is service, and obedience is the price. What does and does not qualify as obedience is what determines the acceptability of the how and the legitimacy of the who.The distinction, however subtle, is still critical.

Some states conceive of themselves as serving a collective body of citizens, for whom the elimination of a few thousand or million is a logical act if it prevents civil war or foreign conquest. Some states conceive of themselves as serving individuals, but perhaps only ones of a certain nation. Other states may believe that only a specific nation is represented, and that this nation only has rights as a collective entity. In other words there are many alternative conceptions of the social contract. What they all have in common is that they expect to have the ability to use violence legitimately for the defense of their own political order. This is the lowest common denominator of sovereignty, and however much Jefferson may dislike it, Hobbesian sovereignty was important in recognizing that the more diverse conceptions of right and good a political order must bring together, the more base, violent, and uncomfortable the logic of its use of force often is.

Thus India, despite a degree of diversity and internal variation that stand in stark contrast to China, in practice conceives of sovereignty in a similar way on the international scale, and is, like China, reluctant to condemn the brutal exercise of sovereign power in Libya, Syria, or Burma.

As Jay Ulfelder has done, we can scale these considerations onto the international arena. The alternative, or sometimes complement, to brute force to prevent the rise of any dispute over a moral claim into violence is toleration, and the relaxation of the public effects of one’s private moral beliefs. On the international arena, this may well mean tolerating conceptions of sovereignty in other states which do not conform in any substantive way with that of Jefferson. In practice, tolerating alternative conceptions of sovereignty means recognizing that some states will kill large numbers of their own citizenry for political purposes. Unless the alternative approach to building a liberal international order occurs, this unsatisfactory toleration may have to suffice.

Slaughter is right to note that R2P is unlikely to cause more external aggression than already did exist. However, it will ultimately serve to undermine the liberal order and redefinition of sovereignty it seeks – and that is my ultimate fear. R2P, as Ulfelder has already noted, cannot consolidate the liberal international order. Even if it is sparingly used, however, it frays the basic shared understanding, or at least toleration, of varying forms of political order which enable global peace. R2P builds suspicion and distrust between governments wedded to illiberal concepts of sovereignty, or even countries with relatively liberal conceptions of sovereignty, such as India, then it ultimately does more harm to the liberal international order than good. For, just as Hobbes recognized that a higher structure was necessary to control the impulses and natural fear of the population, the erosion of the amicable great power relations which has made global governance possible will challenge the liberal order at the international scale. The re-introduction of ideological enmity, and the shattering of the convenient, if limited consensus on sovereignty’s meaning (and yes, the most universally-recognized value of sovereignty is its role in order, not in the liberal implementation of that order) will pose serious challenges for international stability.

The problem is not so much aggression as disorder. Rather than encouraging countries to fall in line with liberal norms, it will antagonize some and encourage them to mobilize or unify against R2P advocates and further oppose their actions. Since R2P faces constraints, as Slaughter acknowledges, many of its targets will be leaders whose violence against their own people is not incontrovertibly “eliminationist” but which seem to avail themselves to foreign action. There remains debate about how far Gaddafi would have gone, and how systematic and widespread his use of force in crushing the rebellion would have been. If the act of bloodily failing to win a civil war becomes a criminal violation of international law, the response, as we have seen in Syria, will be to win faster, not to do so with less blood.The results of R2P may well be more rapid and decisive crackdowns, armament against power projection capabilities, and the formation of political alliances with illiberal patrons to discourage foreign intervention.

This would bode very poorly for international peace and stability both. The danger with R2P is less the increase in wanton intervention by great powers, though this will certainly be prominent in the thinking of potential victims, and more the effect it has on the international context of power distribution, alliances, regime behavior, and ideological discord which shape the potential for and potential devastation of conflict. The danger to international society is not any war launched under its banner per se, but the increasing potential for ever greater levels of war, including the horrendous internationalization of civil wars and ideological disputes over the proper nature of government, which it may provoke. The liberal international order rests not on its own self-evidence or the natural laws of global politics but on a unique set of historical circumstances sustained by specific material conditions and ideological concessions. To implement R2P does nothing to address the necessary tasks of liberal consolidation but much to endanger the contingent basis upon which the whole arrangement rests. The United Nations could not have come to existence without accepting Josef Stalin and his murderous regime as legitimate stakeholders in the international system. The future international order will have to display tolerance of the rising but often illiberal great powers and their interpretations of sovereign right in theory and practice if it hopes to endure. To speak of the new definition of sovereignty as if it is the only morally acceptable choice, and to claim it justifies military action, may do more to incite strife than alleviate suffering.

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