The civil war ravaging Syria is filling the columns of newspapers around the world with horror. When I first saw the footage of the victims of the chemical attacks in spasms on the television in a Hangzhou bus, the terrified look on their faces seemed to beg the question: why is no one doing anything?
More people are asking that question and calls for intervention—inevitably led by the US—got louder and louder. If we would not intervene, the proponents said, we would do great damage to international order. For it would be a great danger for all of us, if Assad could get away with using chemical weapons, since others would see it is possible to get away from it.
In this article I do not want to talk about intervention in Syria. The question of intervention seems to be off the table (for now?) while a diplomatic solution is being implemented. Rather, I want to focus on one of the arguments used in favour of intervening. I do not agree that intervention is necessary to preserve order. Instead, I would like to draw attention to the fact that there is a much greater danger to the future of the current international society: Washington D.C.
Syria just signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, a first step on the path of a plan in which the chemical weapons of the country be completely gone next year. This solves the biggest concern of the Americans, who like to see the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons universally enforced. Universally? Well, not exactly of course. Israel is not a signatory to the CWC and the US Armed Forces also have plenty of napalm, nuclear weapons and even smallpox at their disposal.
This hypocrisy is one of many and follows a great tradition. The American Declaration of Independence espoused great values that certainly deserve some admiration. But at the same time, those rights of self-rule and the opposition to tyranny were trampled on when it came to the native Americans, who were chased away from their own lands and put into reservations like animals.
Washington does not like it when other countries ignore treaties they have signed with the US. However, it has a long history of ignoring or nullifying treaties when it is convenient for itself. Examples are the numerous ignored treaties with the native Americans and the American refusal to listen to the judgement of the ICJ when it lost the case the Nicaraguan government had brought against the United States for their involvement in a rebellion.
Nowadays we see that the US continues to campaign against torture, even though at the same time it engages in torture itself. It says that states have to sovereignty and human rights, while it is taking out suspects, their families and the surrounding civilians by drones without even asking full consent from the countries they’re operating in. It allows Israel to ignore the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while being furious when Iran seems to have the beginnings of a nuclear programme.
President Obama has said on Syria that inaction from the UN Security Council undermines its legitimacy. It is true that inaction is starting to become a problem; America’s continuous refusal to allow any action against the clearly illegal behaviour of Israel has done a lot of damage to the UN’s standing outside the western world. The fact that it used its veto to prevent a judgement from the ICJ against it to be enforced and that it has no qualms in ignoring fundamental rights of non-Americans, like privacy or the right to life, show how easily it ignores the desire for justice from the rest of the world when it suits it.
Now, I am not denying that what Syria is doing is okay or that it would not in some way have damaged the international order, if the world would have let the use of chemical weapons go unpunished. However, Syria’s actions are much less important for shaping what is possible in the international arena than what the US has done and is still doing. Syria is not a global superpower, but virtually a failed state. The US, to the contrary, is the chief architect of the present international society.
When the Second World War was over, only the United States was left standing. Europe was burned by war, Britain having gone virtually bankrupt in the process and France and Germany being too busy with rebuilding. Asia was scarred, with Japan in shambles and China getting ready for civil war. Russia also had had a price to pay and Latin America had in the course of the war only become more dependent on the US. This left Washington room to remodel the international society in its own image.
The result, with of course also input from other countries, was the United Nations system with a key role for the American dollar and the role of global policeman for the United States, in the West at least. Via the GATT and later the WTO, an economical system of international free trade soon spread and expectations of respect for human rights and democracy were built in. Not every member of this society followed this liberal world view, but it was at least the norm against which everyone was judged.
The United States has not only shaped this international society, even nowadays it is also still more or less the most important actor. No longer completely the ‘most popular kid’, it is instead the most respected and feared and somewhat popular kid. This still gives Washington the most power of any actor to influence the international society. Its actions have weight.
Drowning its own child
Past actions of the United States have shown how it regards the international society and its rules of conduct: they are very good and morally significant and all that, but not when it comes to its own ‘national interests’. In that case they only apply to the Other. This selfish way of thinking is putting the whole system in danger.
If Syria ignores the rules of the international society, it falls outsides that international society and it is punished directly or indirectly. Our norms will not stretch to include the wretched ideas of Assad. He is simply not influential enough for that. However, when the very author of the same order disregards its own universalist claims, that sends a completely different signal. If the pope would marry a man, that would be of far greater impact than when a priest would do the same. The pope could simply excommunicate the priest. But who would excommunicate the pope?
Because of the way it behaves, the United States is doing the same. The norms and rules of the international society require a moral leadership from the main powers in that system that Washington is not able to provide. If it does not change its behaviour, less and less countries will regard it as a legitimate authority for determining what states are allowed and what not. In that case, someone else will take over this role. If not the European Union, this might lead to an international society led by one of the rising powers.
The changes that such a move would bring to the international society would be far more far-reaching than whatever is happening in Syria right now, moving it to a new phase that might or might not be desirable.
This article was inspired by slowly growing anti-American sentiment I notice in myself and by George Monbiot’s article in the Guardian, ‘Obama’s rogue state tramples over every law it demands others uphold’ of 9 September. Apologises for its rantiness, but I believe this is an important point.