Against the New Internationalism

By Burke, Anthony | Ethics & International Affairs, October 2005 | Go to article overview
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Against the New Internationalism


Burke, Anthony, Ethics & International Affairs


Bad consequences can discredit good intentions.--Jurgen Habermas (1)

When I think of the challenges facing international society in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, two images come to mind. The first, a work of postcard art, depicts a screenprint of the Statue of Liberty, with a twist. In the place of her striking face and radiating crown appears a decidedly masculine image: that of a helmeted marine, grim and tight-jawed, a cigarette poking insolently from his lips. The caption reads, in bold white capitals on black, "PEACE," and beneath it another phrase, asterisked: "conditions apply." (2) The second is a newspaper photograph of a young woman in New York taken during the global demonstrations against the war in February 2003. She has been called out of the march by the photographer and stands, at once defiant and bewildered, against a row of mounted police. Rugged up against the winter cold, she holds a placard upon which she has written a question: "Perpetual war for perpetual peace?"

Upon seeing these images I was immediately reminded of Suvendrini Perera's description of the war on terror as one "of category confusions and bizarre doublings":

a war where soldier, terrorist and refugee can
be made indistinguishable, where victims fleeing
Taliban oppression can be constructed as
potential "sleepers" for its terror, where international
conventions fail to protect asylumseekers
from being criminalised as "illegal"; a
war where cluster bombs and food parcels
share similar packaging; where loyal, long-term
residents are denuded overnight of rights
by the quaintly named "USA-PATRIOT Act"
and secret trials, forced interrogations and
summary executions are re-imaged as no
longer the instruments of tyranny but the prerogatives
of Enduring Freedom. (3)

That was written in 2002, when the war on terror was only taking shape. Now bitter irony is the soup of the day, and Western leaders and opinion-makers ask us to find in it not nihilism but nourishment. Words and things no longer correspond. Liberty is a hermaphrodite, male and female, warrior and peacemaker, the only possible way of representing the army that frees, the democracy that slaughters, the liberator that tortures. Postcards ring truer than the speeches of politicians; and, as if to affirm the young placard waver, George W. Bush tells us that "the advance of freedom leads to peace." (4) Peace and war are no longer antonyms, utterly irreconcilable, but new lovers naively imagining a brighter future. What then can we salvage of liberal internationalism? Jurgen Habermas calls the war "an unimaginable break" with existing norms, and in its wake we may well wonder if they are not beyond repair. (5) The danger lies deeper even than Perera suggests, in the gap between the cosmopolitan norms of civil rights and international law, and the exceptionalist prerogatives of national sovereignty. It lies in the potential transformation of cosmopolitanism itself, in the construction of new "internationalist" norms built not on the developing dialogue, normative consensus, and collective decision-making of the international community, but on the physical power, and ethical vision, of the United States and its allies.

This project, promoted in writings by British prime minister Tony Blair and such influential intellectuals as William Shawcross, Michael Ignatieff, Lee Feinstein, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, constitutes a sweeping effort to combine preventive war and unilateral humanitarian enforcement into a new normative framework for international intervention. While some of these writers have argued for the United Nations' structures and principles to undergo radical change, and others for it to be sidelined, all have framed their arguments in terms of a potent universalist claim about international justice and right. (6) While they do not reject the United Nations or the UN Charter outright as normative and legal frameworks for decisions about war and peace, these "new internationalists" do seek to displace its centrality and erect a new consensus in its place.

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