Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Carrots and Sticks

My Gun's bigger than your Gun!

Anarchy. For most people it is a word which evokes negative emotions. Think "Lord of the Flies", "Mad Max", or "WaterWorld" (don't think too much about that last one though). Think about the last prison riot you saw reported on television. Think about a society where there are no restraints on the behaviour of the individual. Some may find the concept appealing for the freedom it promises but, perhaps unfortunately, human beings do not seem well suited to such a system. It is generally accepted that anarchy leads to a society where the strongest have absolute power and the weakest have none.

The government of every nation, whether democratic or authoritarian, imposes and enforces a set of rules of behaviour on it's citizens. In the "Developed World" we often judge the moral acceptability of a nations government on how well this is achieved. Those authoritarian regimes who systematically use violence to intimidate and control it's citizens are thought of as "bad", while western democracies who maintain order through consensus with their electorate are thought of as "good". Undoubtedly some goverments are better than others but there are very few citizens of any country who believe that they'd be better off living in anarchy.

None of this is controversial, in fact you're probably giving me a 10/10 for stating the obvious. The problem is that even in the age of globalisation, the relations between individual countries still operate in an anarchic system. Although many organistions, economic unions, treaties and other agreements have been established to provide frameworks for behaviour, there is no "World Government" to settle disputes between nations. War is the means by which the most hostile disputes are settled; if your country wins then you were right and the enemy was wrong, a conclusion which will stand in history unless the enemy country contrives to win a future war and rewrites history. The outcome is decided by military power and is unrelated to the relative merits of the moral and legal positions of the parties to the dispute.

I don't actually have a garden but if I did then this might happen.
My neighbour and I have had a disagreement over the position of the boundary fence between our gardens. He's a wee guy and I'm over 6ft, and 16st. I'm sure he couldn't stop me if I just erected the fence where I think it should go and if he tried a couple of slaps would soon put him off. I can't do this (nor would I want to) because I live within a system where the rule of law prevents the strong from dominating the weak. If I was a powerful nation, I would have no such problems. The fence would be placed, the neighbour would get his nose bloodied, and the fence would remain in place unless his son, a martial artist, comes back from University and beats my head in. The other neighbours might complain, might worry that their garden will be next, and if they feel strongly enough, might form a protective alliance or come over and beat my head in themselves. Whatever the outcome, once the fighting starts the actual legal position of the boundary between our gardens becomes irrelevant.

Kofi Annan has said that the war in Iraq was illegal but in the anarchic international system this has little relevance. He cannot put Mr Bush and Mr Blair under house arrest, cannot imprison them on the basis of unknow charges, cannot hold them indefinately without trial, and cannot deprive them of sleep to facilitate intelligence gathering, all because the UN is not a world government and has little power. Obviously Mr Annan would not want to subject anyone to such treatment as he is a civilized man, and, after all, these activities only occur in uncivilised and oppressive countries, don't they? He might well like those responsible for an illegal act (such as an unprovoked invasion of another country) to be held to account in some other less barbaric manner but it is an option he does not have.

The US government, as the self styled "greatest force for good in the world today", might be expected to press for a stronger and more democratically representative UN which could in time become the final arbiter of hostile disputes between countries and reduce the need to resort to violence and war. Instead, it marginalises the UN, and frequently resorts to the "my gun's bigger than your gun" approach of military intervention. Is this a "good" attitude towards relations with other nations? I'm not going to tell you what I think. I'm sure you have your own views.

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