Friday, September 09, 2005

On international legitimacy

I mentioned earlier that I'd do a post about legitimacy, and I've been very slow to get to this. But I've recently reviewed a terrific, though not faultless, book on Legitimacy in International Society by Ian Clark for the London School of Economics journal, Millennium. I also teach a graduate course on International Agreements. These both provided the occasion for thinking a bit further about the issue of international legitimacy, a vague and misused and misunderstood concept (and practice, as Clark has it).

A discussion of legitimacy also serves not only to understand the worries the American population has about the American image abroad, but also what kinds of claims and intentions underride this administration's foreign policy or any nation's standing in the international sphere.

Traditional notions of legitimacy (stemming from the diverse historical work of Thucydides, Hobbes, Grotius, Rousseau, Weber, Oakeshott, Morgenthau, Kissinger, Habermas, and others) tend to stipulate the concept in terms of authoritative governance and the various kinds of constraints that should be brought to bear on governance, delineating mutual obligations between governors and governed. Normatively acceptable or even unquestioned actions and ideas on the part of governmental representatives play a large role in defining what kinds of state behavior may be considered legitimate, thereby also generating series of responsibilities and moral and legal obligations on the part of both government and the governed. In other words, legitimacy in practice means normative acceptability. But this does not mean reference to some sort of transcendent, fixed set of moral norms -- it means, rather, that the acting state or other entity acts in such a way that its behavior is convincingly appropriate for those other states, entities, and peoples the behavior affects. Defining what is appropriate is part and parcel of determining legitimacy.

Contemporary international society appears to present more complex forms of governance, with more variegated kinds of agents, more complex relations of normative framing, and more conflicting sets of obligations than discussed in the earlier theories mentioned above where the focus was/is primarily on the role of the nation-state. Realists and neorealists view the state as the central actor in the international sphere, power as essentially military and economic, security as the primary role of the state, the international sphere itself as fundamentally anarchical (thus ripe for hegemonic power-plays and rule-making), force as often necessary, alliances as purely a temporary convergence of individual state interests, and state boundaries and sovereignty (of at least the hegemon) as sacrosanct.

Realists and neo-realists continue to hold the view that legitimacy is entirely a matter of states and state power (including pretty much everyone in the Bush administration). Many of the recent changes, however, are due to the presence and actions of various parts of civil society (NGOs, corporations, etc.) taking up more active roles in defining the nature of the international sphere and even the nature of power relations within that sphere. States, for example, increasingly function as facilitators of corporate activities and investments. Think of what American presidents mean when they speak of "national interests." They mean only partially "national security," but discussion -- or at least the subtext -- quickly turns to economic interests. And this doesn't mean taking care of the poor, situations such as Darfur or Rwanda, or even Bosnia (remember the damning criticism of Clinton from the realist right). Iraq is not a matter of humanitarian concerns, but a geopolitical game of securing a Middle Eastern outpost and a source of petroleum resources.

The traditional realist idea claims that inter-national relations are just that -- relations between nation-states -- and thus the international sphere is dominated by military and economic might, which are the traditional functions of states. In the realist case, legitimacy then is a function of power. To put it simply, Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic was correct in claiming might makes right in the sense that powerful states have "earned" their place at the top of the rubble heap since the realist description of international relations is the only one in town -- after that, it's all about Machiavellian appearances. Henry Kissinger is one of the intellectual proponents of this foreign policy view. Samuel Huntington is another in his own way.

What, then, if there is one superpower, one hegemon? Clearly, that state will be the international leader on this account and will thus also determine, if it is a powerful hegemon, the very idea of what counts as legitimacy. A grand hegemon determines the content of power. And legitimacy just is, in this case, whatever the hegemon decides it is -- this is of the nature of hegemonic power. "You're either with us or against us." This is what this administration has decided. It has figured it can cash out its unchallenged hegemony in a moment of domination where the very notion of legitimacy is reshaped entirely on its own terms. The belief is that there is no other hegemon even close enough to challenge a remaking of the global order in America's image (that's why China is frightening and the attempt at European Union is derided). Bush as God.

But there are serious drawbacks to this view, which has been the view of US foreign policy for decades. One of the serious drawbacks is that it's empirically anachronistic. Even if we grant that the state remains the most significant actor in the international sphere, other agents have claimed highly effective roles. Indeed, much of what counts in terms of principles of legitimacy and the obligations thereby generated - such as human rights or environmental responsibility - are as much articulated by non-state actors and citizens as by states. Given that such principles and state economic and military interests often conflict, pressure from non-state entities helps to shape the sphere of legitimacy, consensus, and norms in international society as well as the framework through which states can legitimately act. We can see this to some extent in the global battle that is presently played out between US "national interests" (remember, that's a euphemism) and much of the population of the rest of the world who accepts the norms of human rights, environmental well-being, sound economic development, good healthcare and education, and so on, even if the elites of their countries continue to buy into the neoliberal American version of globalization that promotes economic growth over quality of life.

International society is increasingly shaped by transnational problems that appear to require transnational forms of governance in order to resolve or mitigate them (disease, environmental problems, terrorism, etc.). This seems precisely a problem of practical legitimacy that the traditional realist focus on state security and power spectacularly overlooks. Think also of the power of "shaming" that NGOs often wield against states and corporations who act counter to human rights norms, sound environmental practices, and basic decency. Power is wielded in newer forms that the traditional military-economic approach has been slow to realize. Iraq is exposing this reality to the US.

Second, as long as a population fully subscribes to the idea of one's country above all others, the realist view of legitimacy is easy enough to hold. But the realities of our world are such that we have much more complex relations with other people beyond those of mere citizenship or family. We have moral relations with distant others, trade relations, friendships and lovers, religious affiliations, shared languages, shared interests, cultural hybrids and cultural borrowings, daily communications across the globe through ICTs, and so on. Indeed, we can say that the human moral sphere has extended beyond family, friends, and nation. All of these things can contribute to what we mean by "globalization." The informational and communicative connections we have developed are more fluid, immediate, and better understood.

As Clark notes, "If the current conditions of disequilibrium are treated merely as a raw distribution of power -- as much of current US policy and its many realist publicists would have us believe -- then the prospects for a generally acceptable constitutional order are far from bright. What is required additionally is that this actuality gives expression to a principle of hegemony that is broadly tolerable to most concerned and affected states... in Morgenthau's terms, we already have hegemony, but no moral consensus to sustain it.... This has certainly handicapped the practice of legitimacy, and prevented the legitimation of major international undertakings, such as the war in Iraq." (243).

The paleo-realists of the Bush administration have not only handicapped American legitimacy, but have cut off its head (if it ever had one) with drastic consequences for the future role of the US in the international sphere. This has been done through its lies to the American population and the world about the Iraq War, its retrograde environmental policies at a moment when the entire planet understands the seriousness of environmental problems, its attempts to sabotage international organizations and agreements widely considered to be legitimate, its condonation of the repressive behavior of corrupt regimes in other countries, its rhetoric of human rights while it officially sanctions torture and seeks special exemptions from the International Criminal Court, and so on.

There is hardly a state or people in the world that still trusts the American administration, apart from a few elites who still envision some economic benefits from their relationship with the US administration. This is the heart of legitimacy, not the archaic realist/neorealist notion of power. Shame on this administration.

The diminished American hope this administration has left us with should be that the damage is not so great as to extend beyond the tenure of this administration. The great fear is that the damage may very well be irreparable.

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