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Saturday, March 29, 2003

Who's Being Patronising?

The New Statesman has a leader this week titled "How we patronise the Iraqi people". The last paragraph starts with this sentence:

Politicians and modish commentators in western countries are poor judges of what third world people want, which is mostly peace, security, food and water.

Isn't the New Statesman a "modish commentator"? The magazine is correct insomuch that most people in the world want "peace, security, food and water", but don't people want more than the bare necessities? In accusing the hawks of being patronising, the NS here is itself being patronising. The leader goes on:

Yes, they will want to keep out of torture chambers, but in countries ruled by tyrants, large sections of the population become skilled at keeping out of trouble; it is harder to dodge a cruise missile. In Iraq and elsewhere, all we can safely assume is that public opinion would like us not to sell military or police equipment to unelected rulers and their henchmen, not to make deals with dictators even when it suits us to do so, and not to impose sanctions that lead to disease and starvation among millions of children. If British and American (and, for that matter, French and Russian) governments were to follow these rules consistently, people could do more to overthrow their own rulers, where they deem it necessary, without violent outside intervention. (emphasis added)

What makes the NS a good judge of what people in the third world want? Here they are committing an error most evident in the anti-globalisation movement--it is projecting what it wants onto those who it puports to care about. I don't know if the Iraqi people want the liberation that they are being given, but neither do they. Opinion is also not monolithic--some may be for it, others against. Is the resistance that US and British forces are facing a mass campaign? So far most reports indicate not.

Something also needs to be said about the wish for the west to "follow . . . rules consistently". Independent central banks may be one thing, but is an independent foreign policy? No nation does this--few people, let alone states, leave a blatant opportunity to make a profit alone, and the temptation to cheat on any rules-based regime is simply too great. The call here is effectively for a depoliticisation of foreign policy--communiqués can be issued, regrets expressed, but in the end the NS would just have the west shrug its shoulders. The desire for this is reminiscent of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, where the "High Contracting Parties solemly declare in the names of their respective peoples that they condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it, as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another." The Italian invasion of Abyssnia in 1935 put paid to this ideal.

I am not going so far as to decry international law or the United Nations, as some commentators have done. I just draw attention to the fact that inernational law is more of a mutual-benefit process than a strict constraint on the actions of nation-states--if it were meant to be the latter, then a proper independent policy enforcement mechanism would exist. So far there is only one--the WTO's dispute-resolution mechanism--and it is only a qualified success. The NS would do well to consider why that is.