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intervention from Las Casas to Wallerstein
by Boris Stremlin
18 December 2002 06:46 UTC
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Food for thought for the self-proclaimed "responsible left" (and its
allies on the "stupid right").


   Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University


Commentary No. 103 - Dec. 15, 2002

"The Politics of Multilateralism"

As we know, the Bush administration has been divided between what we may call 
the "unilateralists" (presumably led by Rumsfeld and Cheney) and the 
"multilateralists" (presumably led by Colin Powell). We now know that 
immediately on Sept. 12, 2001, Rumsfeld recommended war on Iraq as a response 
to the Al-Qaeda attacks. Of course, he and Cheney had been signatories in 2000 
before they took office of a document calling for the overthrow of Saddam 
Hussein. These people not only wished to end Iraq's possession of weapons of 
mass destruction but also change the regime and indeed occupy the country. 
Furthermore, they wished on principle to do this unilaterally, without asking 
anyone's permission.

As we also know, they ran into a lot of political objection from important 
sources - the Secretary of State, the so-called "old Bushies" (close to the 
President's father), Tony Blair, and some Republican Senators. All of them 
argued that the same objective could be achieved via "multilateral" action, and 
without the negative political fallout in which a "unilateral" action would 
result. This led to the multilateral resolutions - one in the U.S. Congress and 
one in the U.N. Security Council. Both resolutions gave the Bush administration 
a green light for what they wanted to do, with some minor amendments and the 
delay inherent in sending back the inspectors. But what the Bush administration 
lost in slight delay they more than gained in greater legitimation in the eyes 
of the "multilateralists" around the world.

Multilateralism is the fig leaf that has made it possible for all sorts of 
"centrist" forces to say that they agreed with the objective - ending Iraq's 
ability to employ weapons of mass destruction - without endorsing actions by 
the U.S. that were "unilateral." But is multilateral action to achieve the same 
end really better? What this sleight of hand has done is to eliminate any real 
discussion of the legitimacy of the objective in the first place. Why should 
the five permanent members of the Security Council - the U.S., Great Britain, 
France, Russia, and China - have the political and moral right to stock (and 
use) weapons of mass destruction but other presumably sovereign states not have 
this right?

If you press the question, the answer inevitably comes down to a moral 
judgment. The big five can be "trusted" with such weapons, which they would 
only use defensively. Other countries, particularly if they have regimes that 
are dictatorial and have foreign policies hostile to the United States, cannot 
be "trusted." Myself, I don't trust any government, and I mean any government, 
not to use such weapons if they thought it in their national interest to do so 
(which might mean just their national survival, but might also mean simply 
maintaining their overall standard of living).

The moral distinction between the trustworthy and the untrustworthy has been 
around throughout the history of the modern world-system. And it has always 
justified a doctrine of "interventionism" in which the "civilized" tame the 
barbarians. If one goes back to the sixteenth century, we have the famous 
debate between Las Casas, the Bishop of Chiapas, and Sep&uacute;lveda as to the 
moral rights of the Spaniards in their treatment of the Indians. One of 
Sep&uacute;lveda's key arguments was that the Spaniards had to intervene 
(militarily and religiously) in order to save innocent lives, which he believed 
were threatened by the barbaric practices of the Indians. The answer of Las 
Casas to this argument was that one could intervene to save human lives only if 
the process of saving them does not cause greater harm. And there we have the 
debate to this day.

In the nineteenth century, all sorts of European theoreticians justified the 
imposition of colonial rule in Asia and Africa on the grounds that they were 
thereby ending barbaric practices (for example, slavery, which these same 
Europeans had been practicing up to a short time before; or alleged 
cannibalism; or suttee in India). In the 1930's, the United States was split 
between the "isolationists" and the "interventionists" who were those who 
wished to join actively in the fight against the Nazis. In the period after 
1945, there were many who wished to "liberate" countries from Communist rule, 
others who wished to support liberation movements against colonial or racist 
powers, and most recently those who wished to intervene - in the Balkans, in 
Africa - to prevent "genocides."

I have run the gamut of varieties of interventionism to indicate that the moral 
issues are not simple ones. We all believe in interventionism in some instances 
and fight it in others. The modern world-system is however based on an anomaly. 
It enshrines on the one hand the so-called sovereign rights of all states, 
which logically and legally define all outside interventions as aggression and 
illegitimate but on the other hand an implicit natural law argument that there 
exist overriding moral values underlying the world-system (which these days we 
are calling human rights), and those who violate these values have no right to 
remain in power anywhere.

How then do we deal with this anomaly? Well, we can deal with it as a 
moral-philosophical problem to be debated. Or we can make clear judgments which 
imply real action in the political arena. In fact, not too many people spend 
time discussing the moral-political dilemmas. And the people who make clear 
judgments only matter if they have the power to carry them out. So, when these 
clear judgments are made by the Bush administration, they do what they are 
doing. And when these clear judgments are made by people in less powerful 
structures, these people are usually condemned to do nothing, or at most to 
engage in trying to sabotage the actions of the powerful.

But the Las Casas principle - intervention to save lives is only justified if 
it doesn't cause more damage than it prevents - is a good guide to legitimate 
action in the world arena. And those that are supporting "multilateral" action 
to end what they perceive as the risk to human lives incarnated by Saddam 
Hussein's continuing to be in power and to have weapons of mass destruction 
ought to be asking themselves whether the "multilateral" action they are 
recommending meets the Las Casas standard. This is a moral and political 
decision that has to be based on a close reading of the present situation and 
the probable consequences of an invasion of Iraq.

When Tony Blair says, as he did a year ago or so, that inaction is not an 
option, one has to ask, and ask very seriously, why not?

by Immanuel Wallerstein

Immanuel Wallerstein

[Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein. All rights reserved. Permission is granted 
to download, forward electronically or e-mail to others and to post this text 
on non-commercial community Internet sites, provided the essay remains intact 
and the copyright note is displayed. To translate this text, publish it in 
printed and/or other forms, including commercial Internet sites and excerpts, 
contact the author at iwaller@binghamton.edu; fax: 1-607-777-4315.

These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on 
the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate 
headlines but of the long term.]

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