Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, January 19, 2007


Writes historian John Judis:

What exactly are we doing in the Horn of Africa, where we have encouraged the Christian government of Ethiopia to invade Somalia and replace its Islamic government? As far as I can tell, we have violated international law, committed war crimes, helped Al Qaeda recruit new members, and involved ourselves in a guerrilla war that could last decades. It's Iraq writ small. And it can't be blamed on Donald Rumsfeld.

There's an old principle of international law, going back to the seventeenth century, against one nation violating the sovereignty of another. It was often breached, but, after two world wars, it was enshrined in the United Nations charter. We criticized the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and justified the first Gulf war on these grounds. The purpose of this principle has been to prevent wars that could arise if more powerful countries simply took it into their hands to dominate smaller, less powerful ones.

Sovereignty, like slavery, is a concept/institution founded on a morally nihilistic rejection of human dignity that treats people as means rather than ends. Of course, some sovereign states treat their subjects well, just as some masters treated their slaves well. It is sometimes appropriate to let bad institutions stand and rely on good individuals and communities to mitigate them. But not always, and not as a permanent principle.

There is no merit in protecting weaker countries against stronger countries; there is merit in protecting weaker people against stronger people, and against strong states. This is the direction in which international law must move.


  • There's also the fact that the UN-recognized interim government invited Ethiopian help. It's not exactly a land grab.

    It wisdom remains to be seen (to me:I don't know enough about Somalia to hold an opinion worth sharing), but the legal status of operations so far have seemed fairly ambiguous unless one has great will to see outside powers in the worst light.

    By Blogger Nato, at 3:08 PM  

  • It's surely true that so-called "sovereigns"-- states, nations, etc.-- do not have dignity or intrinsic value in the way that persons do. But there are lots of artificial creations-- not only nations but corporations, partnerships, voluntary associations, school districts, public and private entities of various kinds-- that develop or are created and that serve valuable human purposes. And they do this in part insofar as they are treated as having some sort of legal status, and hence as being entitled to some sort of deference or respect or insulation against willy-nilly interference. Just how and how much will always be questions. But to suppose that just because these artificial constructions don't have the same dignity as "persons", respecting them is "nihilistic" seems a bit hasty.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:47 AM  

  • When you say "Just how and how much [interference is appropriate] will always be questions," you're not talking about sovereignty anymore.

    States, like many other institutions, have value. Overthrowing or disrupting them has a high cost and one should certainly be very cautious about it. But sovereignty consists precisely of the extreme position that outsiders have no right to interfere in a state's internal affairs at all.

    The idea of sovereignty has merit from the perspective of maintaining international peace. Precisely because it is so extreme, it minimizes the pretexts for international war-- though in practice there are always still quite a few left, and once a war starts, the sovereignty idea does nothing whatsoever to limit its brutality.

    But sovereignty is also a blank check for internal war and repression.

    Most states and nations are institutions/traditions with a positive value, and should be preserved and respected. Respect states, but not their "sovereignty."

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 5:59 AM  

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