The Duty of the Benevolent Master: From Sovereignty to Suzerainty and the Biopolitics of Intervention

By Cairo, Heriberto | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, July-September 2006 | Go to article overview

The Duty of the Benevolent Master: From Sovereignty to Suzerainty and the Biopolitics of Intervention


Cairo, Heriberto, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


Recent claims about humanitarian intervention express forms of domination that are both geopolitical and increasingly constructed around a biopolitical duty to relieve the suffering of brutalized peoples. This paper examines this presumed duty in the context of tensions between juridical-institutional accounts of sovereignty and practices of suzerainty in which intervention "outside" is accompanied by intervention "inside." KEYWORDS: intervention, sovereignty, suzerainty, biopolitics, imperialism.

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  Expressed in a formula, one might say: all the means by which one has
  so far attempted to make mankind moral were through and through
  immoral.
  --Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 1895

The propinquity of modern nation-states to war underwent a new turn after the end of the Cold War, which was for some analysts also the end of "the long twentieth century." The institutional-juridical model of sovereignty is said to be less and less the base of the relations between states. Only the most "spectacular" feature of sovereignty is well maintained: Territorial integrity persists. The geopolitics of territories now articulates with a biopolitics, producing sovereign power over "naked life." A system of sovereign states is giving way to a suzerain order of traditional and new political entities, and war (and its legitimation) reflects these changes. The recent invasion of Iraq is widely seen to be exemplary in this respect.

According to the president of the United States, George W. Bush, as well as the official communications of the White House and the US Departments of Defense and State, the so-called Operation Iraqi Freedom undertaken by an "international coalition" of states (the definition of this coalition being suspect from the beginning because of the unwillingness of many relevant states to participate in it) (1) in order to achieve two main objectives: to eliminate the "weapons of mass destruction" (WMDs) that the Iraqi regime supposedly had, and to end the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein: "My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger." (2)

Each of the objectives is linked alternately to the weapons or the change of regime narratives, and the promoters of the action switched from one to the other, according to the situation. It seemed that the mass demonstrations of opposition to the war carried out all over the world encouraged more frequent use of the latter argument. It does not mean that this one is more relevant than the former; it only makes the action more intelligible in a specific context.

This ambivalent use of narratives in the Bush administration is well captured in a comic strip by Tom Tomorrow. (3) The author uses the film Matrix Reloaded, a continuation of the original Matrix (which develops the theme of the permanent un-firmness of virtual reality where you cannot be sure of the "reality" of what is "really" happening), to show the ambiguity of the discourse of Bush's administration. Tomorrow pretends to answer the general question of "What Is the Republican Matrix?" "It is an illusion which engulfs us all ... where reality itself is a malleable thing ... subject to constant revision." One of the characters in a vignette illustrates this: "It doesn't matter if we find W.M.D.'s, because we really went to war to free the Iraqi people!" But it is also a story about the performativity of discourse and the intelligibility of actions. It does not matter if the given reasons are accurate or not (as it was possible to confirm a few years later when the UN Secretary General announced that WMDs had not been found); what is important is to offer a convincing rationale for the action. Nobody would understand the war on Iraq today in terms of the "desire of the Emperor," and only a few in terms of "the will of God. …

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