June 8, 2007

Brendan* argued:

The only moral act by a nation is self-defence. The UN cannot morally authorise force against any of its member states without also authorising the defence of said member, a contradictory stance.

Naturally that is specific to his (or possibly ‘our’) notion of morality. It would be alien to Genghis Khan or Julius Caeser. Being a citizen of the ‘first’ world post-1945 I tend to share it but would ask a qualifying question about UN obligations in the event of a government inflicting deadly force upon its own population? That was the argument used finally and after the fact by government leaders of the so-called coalition of the willing.

This could be regarded rightly as laughable. Since the UN formed, governments have continued to cause mass suffering and slaughter upon their own people and others: Mao, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Simoza, Suharto all caused various holocausts or mini-facsimiles of same without intervention from the UN. Saddam Hussein’s regime itself used gas on Kurdish people directly after the first Gulf War to suppress an uprising encouraged and then disowned by Bush the first. Moreover the UN’s response to the Balkans mess of the 90s was tardy and half-assed.

And there are countless other instances of nasty repressions not to mention invasions of one kind or another by one country on another. The UN has been powerless to stop these. Considering that, by example, one of the great mass-murders by state was committed by one of the privileged five UNSC members, the People’s Republic of China, considering that she sponsored another (the Khmer Rouge atrocity) this is hardly surprising.

Such a situation leads Brendan I suppose to state:

The UN is a pointless organization and should be abolish as a non representative totalitarian organization that legitimises similarly totalitarian member states.


There is a much stronger case for an expanded NATO to strong arm totalitarian states and exclude membership to immoral regimes.

There is a fairly significant section of the right supporting this view or some variation thereof. The neoconservative viewpoint is largely distinguished from so-called paleoconservative principles by the desire to spread democracy around. Old school conservatism believes that it is not the business of the United States (or wherever) to expend resources and lives in the pursuit of better things for foreigners. Cynically rendered this translates as the famous “he might be a bastard but he’s our bastard” quote usually attributed to Franklin Roosevelt. Neoconservatives confronting international terrorism and treacherous ex-pet bastards like Saddam, inspired by Ronald Reagan’s mythic legacy are fired up to change the world. Forget the UN they say, let’s round up a posse and go after the varmits ourselves. Nothin’ beats good old American know-how.

Please excuse the glib allusions but in the light of the half-baked nonsense that the US has made of building the new democratic Iraq I’m afraid it’s warranted. They knew how to smash a regime, they haven’t worked out how to make a new one.

I don’t believe Brendan is advocating the posse stratagem. He’s suggesting an alliance of nations admitting only ‘moral nations’. There is no suggestion that the US would be the leader of this alliance nor would it stand for anything but mutual defence. Its mission: self-protection not evangelical democracy.

But what is morality? What universal moral code are we to apply and how flexible is it? Take the death penalty for example. We in Australia tend to regard the death penalty almost universally as barbaric. The US does not, the PRC does not, the Islamic Republic of Iran does not. Each of these nations execute. However the types of crimes that carry capital punishment and the process by which such punishment is deemed appropriate vary greatly. The US does not believe that it is moral for a teenage girl to be killed by hauling her up by crane from the neck because she killed a rapist in self-defence. Needless to say Iran does. They are both equally convinced of their righteousness.

Naturally we can argue that the US is a democracy, hence moral. That NATO nations are likewise democratic, hence moral. In the US the death penalty carries the authority of popular consent hence moral, etcetera. We could regard as moral, nations that have a functional democracy.

But what about the relations of that nation with others? Democracy has many enemies created by the hypocritical behaviour of its avatars. Consider the case of Nicaragua. I do so because to me it seems relatively free of the usual murk. Here is a nation that has belaboured under the usual reactionary oligarchs vs. modern oligarchs tussle that characterises Iberian American political culture. Here is a nation which has laboured under a particularly unscrupulous and corrupt oligarchical family supported by the United States. And when a bunch of ratbags comes along and overthrows this state of affairs the US spares no expense trying to spoil the party.

As much as I like PJ O’Rourke’s work I found his article on the 1990 Nicaraguan election “Return of the Death of Communism” patronising, snide and propagandistic. Well he’s often patronising and snide. But that’s cool; he’s funny doing it. But out and out agitprop gets a little irritating. There’s the comparisons by association to Hitler, the reference to the ‘Birkenstock Bolshies’ US college kids there to support Ortega (who had been the lefty poster boy of the early 90s), allegations of electoral irregularities etcetera. Naturally PJ’s never really even pretended to be objective:

What was I going to say about a loathsome Sandinista victory? I suppose I’d have to natter on about the unfair advantages of using state resources for party ends, about how Sandinista control of the transit system prevented [opposition] UNO supporters from attending rallies, how Sandinista domination of the army forced soldiers to vote for Ortega and how Sandinista bureaucracy kept $3.3 million of US campaign aid from getting to UNO while Danny spent three million donated by overseas pinks and millions and millions more from the Nicaraguan treasury.

Give War a Chance
p. 57

Serious allegations if true but hardly as bad as the Somoza regime that preceded the Sandinistas. Somoza’s elections were straight-up rigged if held, he treated Nicaragua like his private farm and stole disaster relief funds from overseas. To quote from an equally partisan but contrary source:

Following the earthquake, the United States gave $57 milllion in emergency aid to Nicaragua; but the Nicaraguan Treasury reported receiving only $16 million. By April 1979, with Somoza near the end of his reign and now bombing his own people, he received a loan of $40 million from the International Monetary Fund. There were no binding conditions. A few weeks later the IMF, urged on by the Carter administration, gave him a further $25 million. After Somoza fled to Miami, the Sandinistas found less than $2 million in the national treasury.

p. 465

I’m quoting journalists of opposite dispositions on comparable things. I’m doing so because I don’t want to get into that argument: Sandinistas? Good guys or bad? Perhaps it’s a little unfair to pit the most serious of left-wing journalists against the Gonzo humorist for Rolling Stone but I think it’s worth stating that Pilger’s article has numerous referenced sources. O’Rourke’s is rather light there. Pilger’s article does contain (very light) criticism of the Sandinistas. O’Rourke makes them sound like Stalinists. Both views are skewed and both are essentially partisan propaganda. But Pilger wins largely because, on balance, he’s correct. What O’Rourke fails to do is to mention the FACT that the Sandinistas pushed Nicaragua further along the democratic road in eleven years than they’d ever been. He also fails to mention that the United States did everything it could to fuck it up for them. “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”, said Roosevelt of Somoza the elder. Under the Somozas the Nicaraguan people suffered military dictatorship, illiteracy, poverty and corruption. The Sandanistas may or may not have been much better but two things happened when they took charge: 1/ people learned to read and 2/there were elections and the opposition won. Never would’ve happened under Somoza.

Still the States supported old Somoza and tried to nix Ortega.!!!!! Oh the headaches history students will get a hundred years from now.

I digress, I know. But I have a reason. The United States and its dalliance with the internal affairs of its neighbours is a subject of hot debate: Allende vs Pinochet, Castro vs. Batista. But in Nicaragua we have a revolution that instituted a relatively humane and democratic regime. And the US tried very, very hard to kill it. I don’t mean to demonise the Yanks. They’re not to be singled out for abuse or evil empire accusations. They’ve got power they originally didn’t want. And they’ve got to swim in the same realpolitik sewer all powers do, great and small. Take the bad with the good. And compared to their partners on the UNSC permanent members club let’s face it they’re practically St. Francis of Assisi.

But moral? Moral Brendan? I put it to you that there is really no such thing as a moral nation. If such a thing exists it does so only by comparison with greater evil. Even then that is a subjective assessment. Those Muftis in Tehran’s cafes don’t regard 9/11 as immoral. They regard it as heroic. Immoral? Angelina Jolie, Paris Hilton, Sundays spent at the pub: that’s immoral. It’s one morality competing with another and in the absence of any new and universally appealing prophets or messiahs the deciding factor regarding the relative merits of this morality will be this.

I’m sorry but I think I’m pretty much a legal positivist insofar as I believe rights are bestowed by law, by convention, by the state. Much as I sympathize with a natural law position I’m unable to agree that rights, to free speech, to property etcetera, are carved in cosmic granite by God or whatever. In relations to the rights of nations I considered this issue at my place in an article entitled The Right To Nuke which considered whether or no Iran has a ‘right’ to nuclear weapons.

Under a legal positivist framework you have to conclude that the rights of nations to bear arms, to start wars of aggression etcetera are problematic. In a nation-state a citizen’s rights are defined legally by constitution, bill of rights, statute, common law and the like. Even if one believes, as the American founding fathers did, that certain rights are self-evident truths it’s not got going to help you much if the local authorities disagree. Shout all you like about freedom of religion and speech in the PRC, you might find yourself on an involuntary organ donor. Most probably God will not intervene.

Brendan states that UN is a pointless organization. I’d retort that it is not a pointless organization. Its point is clear enough – to provide a institutional modus by which nations can resolve conflicts peaceably. However there are many problems-

It is a massive bureaucracy which is also not a government in the sense that it has no real legal authority. It is analogous to a parliament whose laws are obeyed if the citizenry happen to feel like it. Contrary to what Brendan has said, the UN is not totalitarian. Unlike genuine totalitarian government it’s actually been proved pretty easy to ignore.

But it does, as he says, legitimise totalitarian regimes. When the Australian representative speaks s/he speaks at least notionally for 20 million people. There is some accountability as our UN ambassador is responsible to an elected government. This cannot be said of North Korea whose ambassador is responsible to one man. In effect Kim Jong-il has equal representative power to our entire population. So does Castro, the House of Saud etc.

The other major problem is the UNSC, particularly the veto rights enjoyed by its five permanent members. These nation-states are also the only such ‘authorised’ to bear nuclear arms. This is de facto an oligarchy which tries to set in stone the geopolitical chessboard as the end of the second World War found it. In the era of the European Union it is difficult to understand why the UK and France would have permanent seats. It is difficult to understand by what ‘rights’ any nation-state should be able to exercise veto over the ‘crucial’ UN body.

There are other problems. But they boil down to the fact that the UN does not do what it is supposed to do effectively and that this is due to a structure that is both undemocratic and inefficient. And also that it is a hazy sketch for international governance without universal acceptance that such an idea is desirable.

The UN has no authority because it is not a government. If the UN security council is required before a country can invade another country for whatever reason how does it enforce that authority?. It can’t. International law likewise has limited authority because there is no police force to back it up. As I’ve argued elsewhere how does one lock a whole country up in jail?

In the current global situation where conflicting notions of the good life are coming to a head perhaps Brendan has a point about a union of moral nations. Although I would argue that it would be a military alliance based on common interests and values. Morality and democracy might be welcome bedfellows when we democratic nations start tolerating burgeoning democratic movements in the shithouse nations even if those movements advocate policies contrary to our interests.

That would be truly moral.

Until then we have a leaky and very flawed global institution or the old fallback to military alliance risking another global war. What path will we take as a planet, what path should we? I don’t know. Perhaps we need a third catastrophe: let’s see how good our new technology really is at decimating populations and making cities vanish. The first two precipitated great accelerations in human civilization albeit at the cost of millions of lives. The first two also produced proto-world governance, the second an improvement on the first.

Third time lucky????

* This post began as a response to Brendan Halfweeg’s comments during a recent debate at Catallaxy. Actually that particular post was supposed to be about whether or no Andrew Norton the recent winner of the ALS Best Solo Libertarian blog poll was a libertarian. Somehow it morphed into a shitfight about the legitimacy of the Iraq war which I joined in to let off steam. I entered my first serious comment at 174 if you’re interested. Brendan comes in at 200 and it’s 205 which prompted this.



  1. […] (A book meme that appears to have been started by Iain Hall. Last week it was Adrien, who’s also provided us with a new piece of philosophical musing). Still, that’s by the by. Go read […]

  2. […] Blog of the month gem June 9, 2007 at 2:19 am | In the Law, blogging life, Ethical questions, blog of the month, The War On Terror, Law, Iran, international politics, Iraq | THE RIGHTS AND MORALS OF NATIONS […]

  3. Brett_McS said

    The rights of individuals are paired with responsibilities which can be derived in a market process. Coalitions can be formed to provide enforcement, wayward individuals can be shunned – left out of the market.

    The rights of nations are a purely artificial construct, and creating something similar to the way individuals work in a market place is difficult, because there is only a handful of nations for a start. Difficult, but I think it does hint at the direction for a reasonable solution.

  4. Brett I’m not certain that rights can be, I’m not certain I’m using the right word here, reduced(?), restricted to(?), expressed entirely in terms of market relationships.

  5. Brett_McS said

    There does seem to be a lot of different uses for the word, so it’s hard to know what exactly we are discussing.

    Probably the best distinction is between a right and a liberty. A liberty is something that can be done as much as one wants without impinging on others. Thus we can organise a backyard family barbecue as we please – that’s a liberty. However if we want to go to a park and have a barbecue we may need to obtain a right – by booking a barbecue place for example.

    The other thing I would emphasize is that we humans have liberties innately, but not rights. Rights are one side of a coin, the other side being obligation. If I have (purchase) a right, then someone else is obliged to provide it.

    Furthermore I would say that we humans do not need to be given either liberties or rights by some higher power (god or government). We already have one (liberties) and we can bargain for the other (rights). However, government (or the state) is an artificial construct. It definitely does need to be given liberties and rights (by us humans) for it to be able to function.

    This is why I find the term human rights so backwards. We should be talking about what rights we deign to bestow on government – government rights – not the other way around.

  6. Adrien said

    Interesting Brett

    Your distinction between rights and liberties is valid. Here I’m reminded of Johnny Depp’s little ontological lecture (if the term’s not too pretentious) to Orlando Bloom in Pirates of the Carribean 1: there’s only what a man can do and what he can’t. Fundamentally that’s always the case. In nature we have liberties but other natural forces have ‘liberties’ as well. Our liberty is curtailed for example when a tiger exercises her liberty to hunt us down for food, or when an earthquake exercises its ‘liberty’ to lay waste to our home. It does sound facetious but it’s not.

    Society is set up to better shield us from the liberties nature may take with us. In exchange we have given away much of our natural liberty. This is brought especially well into high relief when one considers the early formation of the State which was not democratic but fiercely heirarchical and to which the concept of ‘rights’ was foreign.

    The concept of rights therefore can be see partially as a restoration of liberties. I think this works. Consider those ancient societies which placed a great stock in ‘freedom’. Although not democratic by our standards there were standards compatable with rights ie limits on what the authorities could do to individuals and limits on what individuals could do to one another.

    In considering the ‘rights’ of nations I’m using the word metaphorically. The globe is now interconnected in such a way as that what happens on the opposite side of it can effect oneself even if marginally. This is a situation similar to ‘society’. And like society conventions, standards, ettiquettes (??) are deployed to make inter-relationships peaceful. Like the rights of individuals, the rights of nations are a way of restoring or maintaining liberties.

    Of course, as I’ve said, the UN, the nearest thing the world has to global governance, is not a government. Nor will it be forseeably. There is too little faith in it and we are far from a situation in which global governance is universally desirable. Perhaps the situation is analogous to the late neolithic periods prior to the formation of the State. People are interconnected, they trade and intermingle and must deal with cultural and moral differences developing ettiquettes to make this peaceful.

    Historically the State was established as a, by our standards, nightmarishly authoritarian structure (eg Pharonic Egypt) and by process of force. The same could happen in the establishment of a global government. Or we could see the establishment of mutually hostile rival ‘factions’, or a voluntary and relatively democratic federal system. Elements of all three exist now.

  7. Reflection on the UN and world ‘rights’ and ‘liberties’ seems timely at this point, and I thnk your post is interesting. Nonetheless, one could fill several weighty tomes with the flaws of the UN as it stands.
    All of the permanent members of the security council have poor records. All seem to act primarily out of self-interest. Some are not even democratic (China, and to a lesser extent, Russia), and all have a (relatively) recent history of bloody foreign policy. Your example of Nicaragua is pertinent in this regard, as it is a particularly egregious case of blood on US hands, as well as the failure of the International Court to enforce its own laws. At any rate, your post should provide food for thought for the mindless pro-American cheersquads out there.

  8. joseph said

    haven’t fully read the discussion.v being a cfriday night and just met adrien in a bar.
    did this discussion really start about morals relating to nations? I find that a little funny considering nation states haven’t progressed beyond the capabilities of an amobea (see something and either try at fuck it or eat it or both)

  9. melaleuca said

    Get off your ass and write another post.

  10. PP said


    you will be happy to know i have been banned from catallaxy

    you win, dumbass

  11. Dierdrich Echmann said

    You are fucking cunt Swords. I think you bullshit shit and it is not good bullshit you are homosexual I think.

  12. pedro said

    Neither rights nor liberties simply exist. Both are effectively agreed (if we are lucky) or (more commonly) bestowed by the guy with the big stick.

    In the nation state our rights are not really agreed and cannot always be said to be imposed by majority. For example, pedophiles obviously don’t agree to the bans on their revolting activities, but at least we can say a large majority are agreed. Income tax is much more difficult. I expect a good majority of the population agree that it is necessary, but the percentage agreeing to the current rates is unknowable. The idea that society agrees anything through the election of representatives is a fiction, though perhaps a necessary one, because the motivations of the voters are unknown and at best voters simply get to choose between a couple of platforms, which is far different from the process that happens when a person enters into an agreement. Your incorrect statement about the popularity of capital punishment in Australia is a good example:
    “In a poll conducted in August 2003 by Newspoll, 56 per cent of respondents answered affirmatively the question: “Would you personally be in favour or against the introduction of the death penalty in Australia for those found guilty of committing major acts of terrorism?”

    Accordingly, the rights of nations are essentially the same as the rights of citizens. To some extent they are agreed, but the quality of the agreement is difficult to pin down.

    You can only argue for the inherent rights of man on the basis of theology. No god means no inherent rights.

  13. Adrien said

    You can only argue for the inherent rights of man on the basis of theology. No god means no inherent rights.

    Agree. The political function of God has been to make the powerful kneel before something higher. As they do, they themselves submit to authority. The metaphysical raison d’etre of any kinds of inherent limits on power is theological; otherwise it’s just a social contract.

    Accordingly, the rights of nations are essentially the same as the rights of citizens.

    Disagree. Firstly because I’m essentially a legal positivist who doesn’t believe that there are inherent rights irrespective of the existence of God. It’s a social contract because it necessitates vigilance to maintain. If our rights get trashed God won’t help. Secondly because many nations have been known to trash the ‘rights’ of other nations on the basis of divine mandate; there are those in Iran and America that affirm that their nations have such mandates.

    At least one of ’em must be wrong. 🙂

  14. pedro said

    The rights of nations are essentially the same as the rights of citizens because they only exist to the extent other nations recognise them.

    The claim of a manifest destiny is irrelevant to those who do not recognise it. The Souix had to be defeated on the battlefied.

    Whaling conventions and the international criminal court are good modern examples of my point.

    The only difference is the practical one, which is that citizens are clearly subject to the power of the state and at the national level no similar power exists. The UN is not quite a government, but does from time to time operate like one. The Korean and first Gulf wars are rare examples of UN santioned violence. The more usual punishment is sanctions.

    Essentially Australia’s relationship to the UN is little different to my relationship to the government. Australia gets a small say in what the UN decides and potentially faces punishment for transgressions, like for the recent notorious breach of the Iraq sanctions. The differences are essentially as to scale.

  15. Garfield said

    “The neoconservative viewpoint is largely distinguished from so-called paleoconservative principles by the desire to spread democracy around. Old school conservatism believes that it is not the business of the United States (or wherever) to expend resources and lives in the pursuit of better things for foreigners.”

    Yes, it gets confusing. Effectively a liberal-hawk ethos contrasted with old-style realism. The latter is often confused with hawkishness, but in fact carries traits of cynicism based on a fear of war.

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