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Keith Rankin: Do We Need A Global Police Force?

Do We Need A Global Police Force?

by Keith Rankin
16 April 2003

It has been long evident that the United States' invasion and conquest of Iraq has been neither a quest for weapons of mass destruction (whatever that phrase means) nor a selfless exorcism of an evil regime. The United States was always too eager.

No, the American government started this war. If it was an effective global policeman – protecting human and property rights wherever such rights were being denied - it would have dealt with Iraq in 1988. And it would have a policy to deal with the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe ethnically cleansed twice, in 1983 and over the last few years.

There must be better ways of bringing justice to the world than waiting for the United States to act. Hussein and Mugabe should be in the Hague, keeping Slobodan Milosevic company.

As Colin James noted earlier this year (, we have lived in a world of "Westphalian" nationalism. Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Europe adopted the system of autonomous nation states, bringing to an end the tragic anarchy that was Europe's "Thirty Years War".

It is probably no coincidence that one of the most significant works of political philosophy ever written – Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan" – was published soon after, in 1650.

Hobbes' central premise was that human beings are amoral and opportunistic. Humans will steal, abuse and kill if they believe they can get away with it. Hobbes' political solution was absolute monarchy. An autocratic police state – in which the autocrat was himself above the law – would control a population ruthlessly but consistently. People would obey the law, not out of any sense of moral obligation but instead because they feared the punishment that would follow.

Saddam Hussein was a perfect example of a Hobbesian autocrat. The events so far of post-Saddam Iraq show that people become amoral and opportunistic after they have been subjected for many years to a regime that assumes them to be amoral opportunists. Looting and destruction for the sheer fun of destroying things inevitably happen in a police state when the police disappear.

The neoconservative "free market" economic theories that in the 1970s and 1980s came out of the Universities of Chicago, Virginia and Liverpool, also owe much to Thomas Hobbes' interpretation of human nature. In particular was the economic theory of "managerialism".

The principal proponent of government management in New Zealand was Graham Scott, Sir Roger Douglas's appointee as Secretary to the Treasury. The theory assumed that we were all "agents" who would cheat on our "principals" unless we were managed effectively. The market – espoused more as an agent of discipline than as an agent of freedom – was seen as the most efficient method of social control. To ignore market signals was to be economic death.

It comes as no surprise that both the Reagan and Thatcher governments were supportive of Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s, when Saddam's worst excesses took place. All three governments shared a Hobbesian view of human nature.

What happens if we apply Hobbes' premises to the Westphalian system of nation states? The world is a "tribe" of nations; a tribe which today consists of about 200 member states.

Crimes between nations are supposed to be dealt with democratically by the Security Council of the United Nations. The problem is that, unlike a tribe of people, the member nations vary hugely by size. (Size here is measured by gross domestic product rather than by population.) Since 1991, the tribe of nations comprises one giant country, about 20 middle-size countries, and about 180 midget countries.

A lone giant nation is, in practice, free to behave towards others in accordance with Hobbes' premise of opportunism. Goliath beats David 99.9 percent of the time. The giant, unless morally constrained, is a ready-made Hobbesian autocrat.

The contrast to Hobbesian behaviour is the shared morality that we now call "social capital". The founder of modern economics, Adam Smith, a professional moral philosopher, published in 1759 his "Theory of Moral Sentiments".

Smith saw absolutist government as the problem, not the solution. Humankind, Smith believed, was a moral species, who refrained from crime because to steal, kill or destroy someone else's property gave them moral licence to do the same to you. It was adherence to the "Golden Rule" – "do unto others as you would have them do to you" – and not expensive control systems that enabled modern economic development to take place from the 19th century.

The United States – the world's only "giant" nation - has appointed itself as the autocratic chief of our tribe of nations. It does not follow the Golden Rule. Supposedly "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely". Absolute power within their realms certainly corrupted Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe. They were tribal chiefs.

There are four possible outcomes, I believe. The United States might break the mould and preside over the world's nations as a benign autocrat, despite having absolute power. More likely it will follow the well-worn path of other autocrats who perceived no consequential opposition. Alternatively the other nations, acting in unison, may resist American power, leaving us with the Westphalian "balance of power" status quo.

The fourth possibility is that the nation-state system will fold. Such a system collapse may create an anarchy in which all governments are impotent. Washington could hardly police the whole world if it cannot even protect Baghdad's museums and hospitals. One global anarchy scenario is that private (mainly American) corporations will rule the world mafia-style. That fear led to the dramatic street protests in Seattle and Genoa.

Fortunately there are non-Westphalian alternatives that lead to neither anarchic globalisation nor to American hegemony over our lovely planet. It is those alternatives we need to explore and publicly debate.

The likes of Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe and (for that matter) George Bush should never again have the unilateral power to steal from, execute or torture subordinate people or subordinate regimes. The world needs an effective morally principled peace force that can hold governments accountable for murder, torture and theft.

**** ENDS ****

© 2001 Keith Rankin

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