Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Sheesh... and I thought the whole thing was over. apparently not. then again, this is a much more substantial comment, and according to Steven "we're all friends now". So I'll trust him. (Important concept, that, but I'll get to that later.)

First, Stephen quoted a somewhat offhanded response in my own comments section as an encapsulation of my beliefs for International Relations and International Law. He did so because he said that I provided no links or citations to show what exactly I think of the whole business. Fair enough. So, before we begin, and so that anybody who wishes can figure out exactly what the hell I'm referring to when I say "I've addressed that", here are the permalinks in question. In reverse chronological order:

This entry is about the idea of agreements between sovereign states, the misperception that the world is a "jungle", that the United States as a member of the world community has certain responsibilities to live up to, and to Steven's theories in general.

This entry is one in a series of posts that I wrote in response to Robert Musil, germane to this discussion because it discusses sovereignty and the U.N.

This entry is largely about sovereignty and the sort of agreements that can be (and are) made between sovereign nations, the reason why invasion is "against the rules", and how power isn't enough; not nowadays.

This entry is about the question of whether American unilateralism is ever justified, even though it would call down the wrath of the international community. I'd say "sometimes, but not as often as one would think."

This entry is about Steven's arguments that American political culture is somehow superior to others- germane because it forms the basis for his belief that the United States should "go it alone".

This entry is about whether Europe will stop talking and start arming if it looks like talking is pointless. I think it'll happen, but some in the comments section disagreed. I talked about the possibility of Europe itself becoming a sovereign state, but I don't have that link here.

This entry is about the possible repercussions of American unilateralism in terms of other nations paying attention to it and making agreements with it.

This entry is about the question of sovereignty and legitimacy- why the United States pays so much attention to sovereignty, was (I believe) my first post on the Treaty of Westphalia, and the concept that "the affairs of a state remain their own unless and until they harm another state".

This entry also deals with the question of sovereignty, and cites a situation where collective security would trump imperial.

This entry is about sovereignty outside of the borders of the United States.

This entry is about the reprecussions of invading Iraq, and the creation of the "war of all against all".

And finally, This isn't mine, but Yuval Rubenstein's insights on the subject that Geoff Hill was responding to when Steven linked to him. Geoff's response to Yuval was pretty weak, in my opinion- it's surprising that Steven linked to it. Yuval made the point that international laws are conventions between countries, and the practical reality that states do tend to observe international law implies that they do have some force. Geoff complained about there being "no controlling authority", but in his own quotation of Webster calls that aspect "implied", not required. Besides, quibbling over the definition of the word "law" is pretty poor form in the first place; it's possible that there has simply been an implied redefinition of the word that hasn't been picked up by lexicographers yet.

This is the comments thread for that entry, where Yuval responds quickly and efficiently to Geoff Hill's critique. Zizka's insights on the treaty of Westphalia were also really good- he noted:

"After 1648 it was agreed that no ruler would try to forcibly impose his religion and the peoples of any other ruler. It was a peace of exhaustion, but it worked, and the religious wars were ended. After that time a body of international law developed which often worked. The fact that it often broke down too does not mean that it was nothing.

With an international consensus, belligerents were policed partly by their difficulty in getting allies when they were flouting international law. There was no overriding enforcer, but there was enforcement."

Word, dawg.

I've been told that "Brevity is the soul of wit" quite a few times in response to my fairly long responses to Den Beste's articles. Part of that is due to the simple volume of the text to be responded to (he's the only guy I know who arguably writes longer posts than I do), and partially because sometimes simple arguments require complex rebuttals. This case may be no different, but I'll try to keep it shorter in the future (it's not usually that necessary). If it's a real problem, most of what I'm saying here I've said before (which is no surprise, as Den Beste isn't arguing anything new here, either), so going over those archival links will probably eliminate the need to read the rest of this entry. With any luck, those links will actually work; at the very least they should get you to the archives links in question, and if they don't I'll see about putting dates on them to make manual navigation a little bit easier. By all means, read them if you wish, but don't feel compelled if you don't, and if they contradict in places, all I can say in my defense is that "I am large, I contain multitudes."


Anyway, Steven has taken great pains to argue that, first, "there's no such thing as international law"; and second that those who attempt to define it as a short-form description of the body of international agreements, treaties, bodies and norms are trying to imply that there is controlling legal authority in order to check the power of the United States. On the first part, he has a point- international law isn't like the laws that states impose on their subjects/citizens, which is why I tend to use the somewhat more accurate term "International System". Still, the second assertion answers the questions raised by the first, and therefore is the more important of the two. On this, Steven merely asserted that this is so, without any shred of proof or logical justification- it was merely an ad hominem writ large. As he didn't give any reason why we should believe it except our good natures, I will still accept that as a definition for the informal concept of "international law". I know that's how I use it, so feel free to simply think of that definition when I say it. I'm not implying that it has the force of law in a sovereign nation, nor would I. (For a more comprehensive critique of this idea, go to Yuval's link above, and ignore Steven's citation of Hill- it was a weak response to a much stronger piece whose comments section annihilates the argument in question.)

One of the key concepts here is that of "Collective Security". What is that, exactly? Well, anybody remember the Musketeers? "One for all and all for one?" That's what it basically comes down to- it's kind of an alliance, but nowadays it's on a massive, massive scale between most of the countries on the planet. The U.N. is based on this idea; it's built on an agreement between all the states involved that they will abide by the rules implicit in U.N. membership (set out by the charter) and that they will act as a whole against those that decide to break those rules; usually through some sort of condemnation (through the general assembly), but sometimes by the authorization of direct action (through the Security Council). In many respects its a tradeoff- a member of the U.N. has their freedom to act limited, but does so with the knowledge that the actions of others will be limited as well.

Steven asks why the U.N. Security Council should be allowed to act "as a jury", and implies that there's no way that any member of the security council could decide impartially on any real conflict (as their interests get in the way), and could never therefore authorize military action. The latter assertion is disproven by the mere existence of the Gulf War, which was fully approved by the United Nations Security Council- and in the Security Council's authorizations of interventions in many other conflicts around the globe. The problem, though, is that Steven is putting carts before horses. The Security Council isn't quite a jury per se, nor is it a government or agent of government; it's merely a way of the entire collective entity that is the "United Nations" to decide whether or not somebody broke the security agreements that are at the heart of the idea of the U.N., or whether some sort of outside party (a non-member, a non-recognized state, or what have you) is a threat to a member of the United Nations. The key word is "security"; the chief goal of the council is to ensure the security (in other words, safety) of its members, and of the world in general. It can do so because it is the representative of "the collective"... no one nation can stand up against the rest of the planet.

Or can they?

See, Steven said that the whole point of it was to defend the weak against the strong. Indeed, that's absolutely true, and the entire basis of collective security. In some respects, it's a logical extension of the old "Balance of Power", where great powers would ally themselves to prevent any one power from becoming too strong and collectively agreed not to destroy or conquer each other, at least to the point that the losing power couldn't recover. The question that he asks is (to paraphrase) "why should the strong (in this case, the United States) care, if they have no reason to fear the United Nations?" Being an American, he doesn't see why the United States should bother; wouldn't they be better off going alone? It's an argument I hear a lot, and if the only part of the international system that existed were the United Nations, and were the United Nations only about collective security, then there might be a point there.

There is a lot more to the international system, though, and a lot more to the United Nations. The international system isn't just one, or a few, or a hundred agreements, it's millions and millions of them, embodied in treaties, international bodies (like the WTO or U.N.), agreements, and a bazillion informal norms and agreements. Steven called these "a garbage bin" that can justify anything, but by definition an norm can't be appealed to unless it really is some sort of informal standard. In any case, norms are kind of like legitimacy- they exist because people consciously or unconsciously agree that they exist. All of these agreements are based on the idea that "if you help me, I'll help you"... an iterated prisoner's dilemma, where most of the players involved have agreed not to turn over the evidence because they all know they'll be better off in the long run. Yuval noted that violations of international law were pretty rare, but didn't explain why, although the answer is simple.

See, the whole thing is built on trust- you have to be able to trust the other guy, and he has to be able to trust you.If you squeal during a prisoner's dilemma, they won't trust you not to squeal again. By breaking the agreement, you become a "free rider"; someone who is trying to gain the benefits of an agreement without having to deal with the consequences. By extension, all those who still abide by the deal are technically referred to as "suckers" (heh)- they're those who endure the consequences of an agreement without enjoying any of the benefits. Nobody ever wants to be a sucker.

There are two kinds of international agreements (formal and informal) and are two different reactions to one party breaking them. If you break a formal agreement, you get widespread condemnation, claims that you've "broken international law", claims of unilateralism, and in general enough bad press to sink some governments and seriously hurt others. More importantly, though, you're no longer perceived as trustworthy, so those that are involved in agreements with you will think twice about it, and may start pushing the boundaries of the various deals in order to prepare for your (in their minds inevitable) betrayal. They'll also avoid making future deals as much as possible, because that crucial element of trust is gone. They might make deals with other states they can trust, but they'll avoid the free rider. If you break an informal agreement, however, then the public condemnation and bad PR isn't really an issue (the public might not even know about it), but the question of trust remains- if both parties have informally made an agreement and one party betrays that trust, then every other agreement becomes suspect, and no new agreements will be made because the government in question can't be trusted. That's bad.

Why? Here's an example. Let's say that the United States, through the State department, had some sort of informal agreement with China about American trawlers fishing off the Chilean coast. (No idea why they'd be there, but bear with me.) There's no formal agreement, but a mutual understanding that said trawlers won't be harassed by Chilean authorities if they venture inside Chilean waters as long as the United States doesn't overfish in the region. That holds for a few years, but intense lobbying by Captain Highliner (he's an influential bastard) has led the U.S. to turn a blind eye to overfishing there. Chile notices, tells the U.S. to tell the Cap'n to lay off, the Chilean fishermen are going nuts, and the U.S. tells Chile "go screw" and fishes just close enough to international waters to duck out if the authorities come calling, and Chile doesn't have the ability to do anything about it- the deal was informal, the U.N. can't do anything about it, and the Chilean navy can't molest these U.S. boats. The fishermen are screwed, the Chilean government has a lot of unemployed mad fishermen on their hands, and Cap'n Highliner gets a new pipe.

So what does Chile do? Well, let's extend this thing.

A few years later, Chile grows a sizable piracy industry. Plants are churning out CDs and DVDs, shipments of these things are going all around the world, and those former fishermen are busily hawking Windows XP to anybody that passes by. The United States is flooded with these things, and Bill Gates wants it to STOP, but Chile doesn't have any IP laws, and the current leftist government thinks that they're a tool of global imperialism (or whatever) so it couldn't care less about arguments that they'd be good for the economy. The U.S. is losing far more potential revenue than it ever gained from fishing off the Chilean shore, and is having no luck busting the Chileans within the U.S. U.S. representatives come down, desperately wanting to stop these things, and agrees to make a deal: we tell Cap'n Highliner to lay off, and you sign on to the international IP agreements. What happens? Chile will say two words: they rhyme with "buck cough".

Why? Well, it's pretty simple- they can't trust the U.S. to its end of the deal; they know that they could sign the IP treaty and still end up with the good Cap'n back in their waters after a year and a half. If the U.S. had stuck to its earlier agreement and not caved in to domestic lobbying pressure from irate sea captains, then they could have gone down to Chile, made the deal with the Chilean government, and received fat "campaign contributions" from Bill. Instead, this ends up hurting both countries- the U.S. doesn't get its I.P. laws enforced and Chile's fishermen are still stuck hawking CDs instead of doing what they really love. And these are two agreements; as I said, there are thousands, if not millions of them. The only option the United States has is military action, which means that the United States has just gone to war for Cap'n Highliner.

Therefore Steven's long and verbose arguments about the United States "looking out for its own interests" are both right and wrong at the same time. Governments pay great attention to their interests, yes. Any government with a clue, however, will realize that their interests will be forwarded by those agreements. If the formal agreements require informal agreements then so be it- it usually ends up going both ways, as even the United States makes quiet deals at times. It's in nobody's interests for anybody to "break the deal" because there's no guarantee that there won't be some sort of agreement that they need in the future- the deal-breaker will have lost their credibility, and the sucker won't be able to make worthwhile agreements with the deal-breaker. There may be a few screwups and broken deals here and there, but that's the reason for all that public condemnation- other states will want to show that they wouldn't break that deal, and if they have in the past then they certainly wouldn't now. No state can exist outside of this system- even an economic juggernaut like the United States isn't so intrinsically valuable that everybody else couldn't get by without it, and make deals with each other if it turned out that the United States was simply untrustworthy. Besides, there are other interests besides economic and security interests- a government wants to look good, and will sign agreements in order to show its subjects (or voters) that it is a player on the international scene, that it's strong, that it respects human rights, etc. etc. etc... thus gaining increased legitimacy from those people. (This is the difference between realism and neo-realism... the former just looks at states, but the latter also looks at what happens *within* states, which is one of the reasons I'm sympathetic to it. The thirst for prestige is rooted in the conflicts over legitimacy, sovereignty, and power within any state, so any examination of that are going to be rooted in neo-realism.)

Thus, "International law", where the "controlling authority" is sovereign nations' own enlightened self interest. Whether it's "Wilsonian", "Jacksonian", or whatever, it's simply the way the world works, both between different liberal democracies and between liberal democracies and dictatorships/monarchies/social democracies/whatever-the-hell.

One more thing before I close: I'm not interested in any sort of pissing match, especially one that largely consists of Steven rewriting what he's already written and me rewriting what I've already written. The links and this post pretty much encapsulate my views on this issue, and there's not much else to say, really, without ending up in a game of dueling sources (which I'd have difficulty winning, considering that Steven usually uses popular political sources that he can link to and I'd prefer to cite journal articles where I simply can't.) If we're really "all friends here", then I'm fine with that, and hope that those who have read this little exchange have got something out of it. At the moment, however, it is over.

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