Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Are Russia And China "Bad" Actors In The System Because They Prop Up Robert Mugabe In Zimbabwe?

No is the short answer.

Before I provide the longer answer, I encourage you to read the piece that inspired this post in full. It is an op-ed by the always-provocative but almost-always-never-right Tom Friedman in the NYT.

If you are too lazy (or too afraid of having to gouge your eyes out as a result of reading Tom Friedman), allow me to provide a synopsis of the argument: America's done some fucked up things, sure, but we're damn well better than Russia and China, who offer support to Mugabe's regime. In particular, these dastardly countries use their veto on the Security Council to protect him from condemnation. We're still a really nice hegemon, and while the world is hoping for America's power to be tamed by Eurasian rivals, it will be truly sorry if such an outcome actually comes about, because we're Generally Good and they're Generally Not.

Let's deal with each step in the argument one by one.

Step 1 of the argument: America is basically a benign hegemon.

Quote: "Polls tell us how China is now more popular in Asia than America and how few Europeans say they identify with the United States. I am sure there is truth to these polls. We should have done better in Iraq. An America that presides over Abu Ghraib, torture and Guantánamo Bay deserves a thumbs-down.

But America is not and never has been just about those things, which is why I also find some of these poll results self-indulgent, knee-jerk and borderline silly."

Of course America has been about those things. How can anyone say otherwise? The firebombing of Japan in World War II that resulted in the deaths of close to one million civilians; the use of napalm in the bombing of Vietnam; the sponsorship and assistance of authoritarian repression in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s which resulted in hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians being tortured, imprisoned, or killed; the deliberate and targeted starving of the Iraqi population in the 1990s - for the love of God, these are all examples from the last sixty years, and I hadn't even begun thinking yet!

The U.S. is like any other big power - it throws its weight around. "Benign hegemon" is almost a contradiction in terms. The U.S. is and has been those things.

Step 2 of the argument: That Russia and China's propping up of Mugabe is somehow "worse" than the U.S.'s conduct.

Quote: "I am neither a Russia-basher nor a China-basher. But there was something truly filthy about Russia’s and China’s vetoes of the American-led U.N. Security Council effort to impose targeted sanctions on Robert Mugabe’s ruling clique in Zimbabwe."

Why were Russia and China's vetoes "truly filthy"? Russia and China are protecting what they think constitutes their interests; that's not filthy, that's reality. Their conduct is of course morally detestable, but I fail to see how it is any more detestable than the U.S.'s repeated use of its veto on the Security Council to protect Israel when the latter - a client of America's as much as Zimbabwe is of China's - engages in its activities in the Middle East.

Again, this is not a surprising result: states protect their interests. I really don't know what else to say about this.

Step 3 of the argument: Not only is America's conduct superior to other powerful states', but our spirit is too - we have a lower tolerance for moral anguish in the world.

Quote: "Which brings me back to America. Perfect we are not, but America still has some moral backbone. There are travesties we will not tolerate."

Except for stuff like Rwanda. That's a travesty that deserves not just toleration, but a three month legal seminar on the precise meaning of the word "genocide". Also, put Dafur in there too. Don't forget the "civil" war in Congo, that involved something like ten countries and a multitude of armed militias, and cost about 5 million people their lives.

I can sense a pattern here, and the pattern rhymes with don't-give-a-crapica. Let's move on.

America is really no better or no worse than other powerful states in the international system. Once it has conceptualized an interest - and I am bracketing the formulation of its preferences for the purposes of this post - then it acts to fulfill that interest, and doesn't really consider moral issues except if the issue is of relatively low importance.

Alex Downes recently released his book on a subject related to this: the deliberate targeting of civilians in wartime. I haven't read it, but I have read the dissertation upon which the book was based (eight hundred and some pages by the way; the book is about 300). There are two basic arguments in the dissertation. First, democracies do not behave differently than authoritarian states when it comes to targeting civilians in wartime - they do so at relatively even rates. Second, what drives states - both democracies and non-democracies - to target civilians in wartime is the consideration of two related factors: cost of battle and likelihood of victory/defeat. If either the costs of war rise past an unacceptable level, or defeat suddenly looms or becomes more likely, states target civilian populations of enemy states. In other words, when push comes to shove in wartime, the gloves come off for everyone - democracies and autocracies. Good guys and bad guys. Everyone.

The argument shed lights on my more general point here - not controversial or original in the least within the IR and Security literatures - that once states have defined an interest, there is very little to separate them in terms of conduct. (The fruitful and provocative debates in the subfield is on how states define the "interest" we speak of rather than how the behave once they have defined it). In that sense, there is nothing special about the U.S., and certainly nothing "filthy" about Russia and China's actions recently.

The Friedman piece is not altogether useless though, because it does elide an interesting question: assuming Russia, China and India (and Europe and Japan, perhaps) continue their rise, will a multipolar world be more peaceful than a unipolar world? The IR literature, especially since the 1980s, has been in wide agreement that bipolarity (two major powers in the system, like the Cold War) is a relatively stable balance of power. Multipolarity is considered to be more dangerous than bipolarity, for a number of reasons that I won't go into at present. (The interested reader can go to Mearsheimer's 1990 piece or Chapter 8 in Waltz to get the gist of the argument).

While the multipolarity-bipolarity debate is well-traversed ground in the IR literature, I have yet to come across a systemic comparison of unipolarity and multipolarity deductively - the literature that deals with unipolarity tends to be very security oriented (rather than theoretically oriented). Moreover, these meta-theoretical questions are losing their import in today's IR world: people would much rather solve the multiple equilibria of another bargaining model than think about these things.

My back of the envelope thought on the question would be that unipolarity in the abstract would be more peaceful than mutlipolarity. However, if one were to interact the polarity variable with the nuclear weapons variable, then multipolarity would be more peaceful. In other words, multipolarity in a nuclear world is more peaceful than unipolarity in a nuclear world, and the reverse in a non-nuclear world.

The argument, I think, would basically conceptualize two types of threats to peace: war between major powers, and military adventures against smaller states by major powers. My thoughts are that in a nuclear world, major powers won't go to war against each other because of nukes, and they would be more careful of meddling in other spheres for fear of drawing in a fellow great power. A unipolar state (or hegemon) in a nuclear world will be able to avoid the first pitfall - war with a relatively strong state - for the same exact reason (nukes) but will not be able to avoid the second pitfall - needless adventures and the ever-expanding frontier of defense.

Meanwhile, in non-nuclear multipolarity, the risks and costs of major power war would be substantially higher than in non-nuclear unipolarity. The increased likelihood of a big war in a mutlipolar world - and its attendant costs - more than compensates for any effect in the opposing direction.


AKS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AKS said...

Great Post Ahsan.

The article is truly moronic, clichéd and condescending. How can Tom Friedman get away with writing such crap?

It’s not even an original thought. Superman’s been harping on about “Truth, Justice and the American Way” since 1932!

And Superman's not alone. The idea of the righteous American empire pervades modern American culture. One of my favourite shows, The West Wing, is predicated on the belief that America is unique and exists on a higher plain. The characters in the show aren’t noble and moral and American but noble and moral because they are Americans who have been profoundly impacted by the American Experience.

It’s the American PR machine that deserves the most credit for propping up this façade that there is something truly unique and great about the American Dream, the American Way, the American Experience and the American Empire.

The trouble is that this image has become so powerful that Americans, including some of those in power, confuse this with reality (as Tom Friedman has just done). In my opinion its impact is two-fold: One, it can / may lead America on a delusional moral quest that jeopardizes local and global security; and Two, it leads Americans to believe that American democratic values are indelible in nature, so much so that they may fail to even notice the encroachment of authoritarian / fascist tendencies.

ali said...

much of the following article is [socialist] propagandist itself, but it'll do for now.

'Zimbabwe and the new Cowardly Colonialism'

ali said...

and true, i've never liked friedman's pieces, and i was shocked to see one of my best friends' bookshelf displaying 'the lexus and the olive tree', but there was one quote of his in the nytimes years back which i was compelled to agree with: "in the end, 9/11 will have more of an impact on the arab world than on america"
or maybe i naively just nodded along.

ali said...

also, if you guys have time, like an hour to kill, you can soak up this guy's lecture on 'the end of human rights'... definitely worth a listen, his latest book is called 'human rights and empire: the political philosophy of cosmopolitanism' (which i'm reading for my dissertation). some say he's too extreme, but i find much to agree with him.

Laila said...

oye AKS! E-mail me or msg me or something. It's very important (no not like a life-and-death-important, but more like I-really-need-your-help-in-something-important. And I am reduced to sending this to you through your blog because it seems like the only way to get through to you! )