Of Hawks and Flies

by Bruce S. Thornton

Advancing a Free Society

The international order — comprising the United Nations, interstate diplomacy, organizations like NATO, and all the other transnational institutions that are supposed to keep the global peace and deter aggression — reminds me of the Spanish proverb about laws: they catch flies and let the hawk go free. That’s why international crises like the one unfolding in Libya always incite lot of diplomatic bluster, selective outrage, and hypocritical moralizing, but very little effective action.

The civil war raging in Libya, and the argument over what America’s response should be, illustrate this phenomenon. Right now the debate centers on whether or not the US should impose a no-fly zone over Libya, or provide weapons and other support to the rebels trying to bring down the Gaddafi regime. One factor complicating this decision about a no-fly zone is the belief that, as White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley put it, “this has to be an international effort,” and that our NATO allies have to be on board. But NATO’s civilian head, Fogh Rasmussen, claims any NATO action such as a no-fly zone would require a UN Security Council resolution. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates agrees with Rasmussen.

But veto-bearing Council members China and Russia are unlikely to agree to such a resolution: “As authoritarian regimes,” John Woo writes, “China and Russia generally oppose any intervention into what they consider ‘internal’ affairs, especially the repression of political and economic freedoms. They have become a defense bar for dictators, and the UN Charter has become a legal shield for the oppression of their peoples.” We see here the fatal flaw of idealistic internationalism going back to the League of Nations: sovereign nations still comprise, fund, and enforce the decisions of any international organization. This means that such organizations cannot do much that conflicts with the national interests of member states, unless a state happens to be a “fly” like Serbia, which NATO bombed in 1999 without a Security Council resolution.

So expect little effective action from the international community or the Security Council regarding Libya. What we’re likely to see is more diplomatic bluster and outrage, the favorite expedient of states when they want to create the illusion of doing something, at the same time they have no interest in actually doing anything. National self-interest will see to that. Don’t forget, Libya may look like a “fly,” but it possesses the ninth largest oil reserves in the world, and 68% of it goes to EU/NATO states. Oil-hungry China gets 11% of Libya’s oil. As we see throughout the Middle East, dysfunctional states can act like hawks on the international stage because of oil. The only thing better for metamorphosing flies into hawks is nuclear weapons.

Even if the West should decide to act, however, the rank odor of hypocrisy will still hang over any response. The Colonel Gaddafi we welcomed back into our international good graces in 2003, when we removed him from the blacklist of terrorist states, is the same Colonel Gaddafi now bombing and strafing his own people. He hadn’t improved then, and he hasn’t gotten worse now. And why did it take the recent uprising for us to start talking about prosecuting him for the 1988 Lockerbie airline bombing? Did it really take some Libyan defectors to enlighten us about Gaddafi’s culpability? Where was all this tough talk about “international justice” six months ago?

Or consider one of the biggest human-rights-violating hawks, China. Nineteen eighty-nine was a year like this one, when people’s revolutions energized by the media-savvy young were dismantling the Soviet Union’s stooge regimes in Eastern Europe. Young Chinese hoping to duplicate that feat, however, were massacred in Tiananmen Square, despite the riveting image of one young man facing down a line of tanks. The world blustered and condemned, but kept on doing business with China and awarded Beijing the 2008 Olympics. But that was just the most famous of post-seventies China’s oppressions of its own people, from the Muslim Uighurs in China’s west, to the Falun Gong religious group, whose members have been executed, imprisoned, and tortured over the years. And right now, Chinese dissidents attempting to imitate the protestors in the Middle East have been quickly rounded up. Censorship, controls over foreign journalists, and security patrols have all been increased. But the world meets this oppression with a shrug as the hawk once again flies through the cobwebs of internationalism.

The demand that somebody (these days meaning the US) “do something” about dictators who oppress, torture, and murder their own people arises from a moralizing internationalism that thinks states should behave toward one another on the basis of common ideals and principles such as democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. But such commonality is a chimera. Just because we in the West have developed over the centuries a political philosophy that delegitimizes violence and prizes human rights doesn’t mean everybody else in the world has. And if we think such states are wrong, then we have to be willing to use force to stop or deter their violence, and ready to accept the unintended death and destruction that always follow military action.

But since we can’t intervene everywhere in the world, we have to calculate carefully the costs and benefits of intervening when we do intervene. This brings us to the final obvious point about interstate relations: in the end they necessarily are shaped not by utopian ideals, but by national interests, and these interests vary greatly across the globe, conflicting and colliding more often than not. If we can intervene to uphold our ideals without jeopardizing our national interests and security, so much the better. But given the risks and costs and unforeseen consequences of action, ultimately the long-term security and interests of America’s citizens must be the primary consideration of our leaders, not utopian idealism, sentiment, or even less the hypocritical exhortations of other states that have no intention of running the risks or paying the costs themselves, and whose interests are not necessarily our own. This tragic truth means that at times, no matter how horrific the spectacle, if we’re not willing to kill it, we will have to accept that the hawk goes free.

©2011 Bruce S. Thornton

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