Grotius to the Max

— My thinking about international relations remains hazy, but I felt there was something quite wrong about Martha Nussbaum’s essay about Grotius and the current international scene. My skeptical feeling, I believe, flows from my skepticism about the moral status of the nation state. I believe that there may be morally legitimate political units, and morally legitimate associations among those units. But I fear that almost no contemporary nation state is morally legitimate and that almost no association is legitimate. Therefore, laments about American unilateralism strike me as misplaced.

If any states are legitimate, then they are liberal democracies. (I’m not sure that any are in fact legitimate, but see Chris Morris’s Essay on the Modern State.) However, there are very few genuinely liberal democracies. There seems to be little that is not totally arbitrary in favor of the notion that a state like Iraq (prior to the occupation) has any moral standing whatsoever. Talk of sovereignty is totally hollow when a state is NOTHING more than a territorial monopoly on force–a Mafia with a whole lotta “turf.” Recognition of moral standing for nations comprised mainly of an autocrat who treats the entire land as his private property, and the people as his chattel, is not only perverse, but evil. But that’s the arrangement of a good chunk of the globe.

As for associations of states, the fact that the UN fails to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate states saps it totally of legitimacy. The idea that, in order to invade a morally arbitrary geo-political unit with no legitimacy or moral standing, a legitimate state must get consent from an organization containing members states that have no use for the notion of ‘consent’ in general is absurd on its face. This is not to say that invasion is morally permitted, only that entities with no moral standing have NO MORAL STANDING and thus cannot be wronged. People within a territory (the Iraqis) can be wronged, but not the agency that claims dominion over the territory (the state of Iraq). And organizations, like the UN, largely constituted by entities of no moral standing, generally have no moral standing, and thus cannot claim to be wronged as the “voice” of the “international community.”

Clearly Nussbaum understands something of this:

National sovereignty also is limited internally by morality. If a nation commits certain very bad acts against its own population, such as torture and mass murder, another nation may intervene – what we now call “humanitarian intervention” – to help the people. National sovereignty’s importance derives from its value to people and their freedom; it cannot be invoked to justify genocide and torture.

But this is too little. A predatory and oppressive state has no legitimacy, and thus no claim to sovereignty. So there is no basis for restricting intervention to missions to “help the people,” and no basis for restricting the agent of intervention to “other nations.” Indeed, other nations strike me as less likely to be able to legitimately intervene than private agencies, because the legitimacy of states is derived from the value to ITS people, and so intervention must be justified by reference to the interests of the states subjects. (This is where the justification of the Iraqi invasion fails.) An invasion by a capable, privately-funded force aiming to bring liberal democracy to Iraq would have been easily justified.

Nussbaum waxes lyrical about Grotian internationalism:

Grotius’ vision was not the way the world was seen in his own day. But by insisting on the power of this vision he created a climate of opinion in which that vision increasingly became real. Although his contemporary Thomas Hobbes influentially developed the pre-Grotian idea that the realm between nations is one of force and interest only, Immanuel Kant in the 18th century sided with Grotius, envisaging a world that achieved lasting peace through a federation of nations. Such ideas eventually led to the United Nations and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although the UN treats nations as the major actors in international affairs, the human rights movement moves us closer to Grotius’ picture of a world in which national boundaries are porous, and international agreements have at least some power to constrain nations.

And then shits on the Bush administration:

Are these ideas still alive? The Bush administration treats such moralized visions with utter scorn, casting the United States as the Hobbesian sovereign needed to bring order to an amoral realm. This stance is deeply alien to America’s founding traditions: Thomas Paine and other founders were steeped in the continental human rights tradition that had grown out of Grotius’ ideas.

The Bush crack is a total, ideologically motivated failure on Nussbaum’s part. Bush obviously has an extremely moralized vision of international affairs — one clearly based on a strong notion of human rights. Say what you will about the vision of Wolfowitz, Perle, and the quasi-liberal neo-Trotskyites, but it is not a Hobbesian vision.

In the State of the Union Bush proclaimed:

America will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere. No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them. We have no intention of imposing our culture. But America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance. America will take the side of brave men and women who advocate these values around the world, including the Islamic world, because we have a greater objective than eliminating threats and containing resentment. We seek a just and peaceful world beyond the war on terror.

Bush is clearly “steeped” in the human rights tradition, and I believe he is sincere. It is obtuse, willful misinterpretation to read Bush’s vision as one of the imposition of sheer power.

In general, Nussbaum is too complacent about the dubious standing of most nation states. I too am concerned with peaceful, liberal, global order.
But this seems most likely to emerge from the voluntary cooperation of non-state associations, bound together by affinities less arbitrary than territory, force, and ethnicity. The Grotian framework is an artifact of its time, when international relations were limited to interactions among kingdoms, and a relatively small network of international trade. But we now live in an age of airlines, email, Ebay, global culture, massive economic interdependence, and therefore in an age of heretofore unknown ability to forge associations more distributed, more closely tied to our individual interests, and less dangerous and unstable than states.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center