Treston Wheat - 08 January 2011
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The debate on interventionism, when it is appropriate or not appropriate, typically surrounds two ideas: morality and national interest. The moral argument, coming from the just war theory, applies when an egregious action takes place. For instance, genocide is usually proffered as an example when another state should intervene to save a life. Genocide in Rwanda did not lead to intervention by outside powers, but theorists usually offer this as an example of when a state should intervene. The other cause for intervention is when it falls within a state’s raison d’état, national interest. After the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the United States intervened in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban regime and bring al-Qaeda “to justice.” This aligned with America’s national interest. During the debates on intervention, these examples are given as excuses to violate a state’s sovereignty. However, the United States should reassess this paradigm of “exceptions” to violate the sovereignty of others; instead America should argue that in certain cases states are no longer sovereign and it can intervene. This shifts the framework from exception to the Westphalian system to keeping the right of sovereignty as inviolable. Rather, when a state is no longer sovereign, another country can intervene for either moral reasons or the national interest.
To consider what makes states sovereign, analysts should turn to John of Salisbury. He was a 12th century bishop and political theorist who worked as the Secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury under Theobald and Thomas Beckett. He published his Policraticus in 1159, which articulated a doctrine about tyranicide. This medieval concept applies to today’s geopolitics, although in a redacted form. Tyrants were different than kings because the former no longer adhered to the rule of the law; a tyrant became plenipotentiary. This means he was above the law, and through his voluntaristic nature his will was all that mattered. The thought is best expressed at the Diet of Roncaglia in 1158 when the doctors of the law said to Emperor Frederick Barbarosssa, “You, being the living Law, can give, loosen, and proclaim law…kings rule while you are the judge; anything you wish, you carry on as the animate Law.”
Although tyrants and kings are similar, the term king carries with it a normative prescription of behavior in ruling the people. The normative behavior includes a dedication to the rule of law, putting the king under the law, and adhering to justice. When a king then acts as if he can whatever he wills, he becomes a tyrant and moves into disorder. Then “[i]t is not only permitted, but is also equitable and just to slay tyrants. For he who receives the sword deserves to perish by the sword.” Regicide was not allowed, but tyranicide was because the individual no longer followed the normative behavior expected for rulers. The tyrant was not sovereign in the medieval sense, so his actions negated the rules against killing him.
This theoretical framework also applies to a post-Enlightenment, Westphalian world of nation-states. Today, governments must also believe in the rule of law, the leaders must act under the law, and governments must adhere to justice. Although those in the West generally believe that the government needs to be democratic, but this does not have to be the case. Instead today people talk about the social contract, either in a Lockean or Hobbesian sense. As long as the people choose their form of government, whether it is a republic, monarchy, or autocracy, it does not matter. In John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, what is quintessential is “the people;” they hold the true sovereignty of the modern state. Therefore any type of government chosen is acceptable as long as it observes the rule of law and justice. A republic may represent the will of the people more, but a representative government can trample on human rights just as much as an autocracy or monarchy. When a government no longer works within the rule of law, or no longer provides justice for its people, it moves into a state of disorder. This abrogates the state’s sovereignty, and the people or an outside force can overthrow that government.
Moving back to the previously mentioned historical examples of Rwanda and Afghanistan, each of those states had moved into disorder by negating the rule of law and justice within their own countries. This meant that the United States could legitimately intervene in those countries for moral reasons or for its national interest. In Rwanda a Tutsi minority had ruled the country, often repressing their Hutu counterparts. After colonization, the Tutsi monarchy stayed in power. However, when the Europeans left the ethnic divide became greater because of Belgian exploitation. Although there were large amounts of tension between the two groups, the country lost control of rule of law and justice when the genocide started. The initial spark to genocide happened when the president of the country, a Hutu, died when his plane exploded. Within hours the Hutus began slaughtering the Tutsis; generally, it is estimated that the Hutus slaughtered 800,000 people in 100 days, the vast majority of them Tutsis. Western powers did nothing to stop the slaughter of the Tutsis, but they would have been able to because the Rwandan government was no longer sovereign. The presidential guard initiated the genocide against the Tutsis as revenge for the death of the president. A government led assault meant that the institution did not hold to the rule of law or justice. Every human has dignity, and the genocide violated this dignity. America, or another country, could have intervened for moral reasons without violating the sovereignty of Rwanda.
The other example of Taliban-led Afghanistan also fits within the paradigm of no longer being sovereign, allowing the United States to take action within the country against the ex-sovereign and al-Qaeda. There are two reasons that the Taliban are not sovereign. They allowed terrorists to operate in their country, and they did not practice justice with their people. Under the Taliban, a quarter of all children died before they were five; about one fifth of the population was literate; life expectancy was barely over forty years old; and only 12 percent of the population had access to safe drinking water. Furthermore, within the five years that the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they created one million refugees and led to a quarter of the population not having enough food to eat. That is only a small part of how the Taliban violated the dignity of their people. In addition, the Taliban allowed al-Qaeda to operate in the country freely. As is common knowledge, al-Qaeda perpetrated the attacks on 9-11 that killed 3,000 Americans. However, they also committed several more acts of terrorism throughout the world, including attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. By allowing terrorists to operate within their country, and violating the rights of the Afghan people, the Taliban gave up their sovereignty, which meant America had the right of intervention that aligned with its national interests of defending the homeland.
America must also deal with the issue of sovereignty today in the debates on military intervention in foreign policy. This issue was raised when the Obama administration “violated” the sovereignty of Pakistan when the president sent a team to assassinate Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda. The most pressing national security issue presently, though, is Iran and its possibility of acquiring a nuclear weapon. There are a variety of policy options available to dealing with Tehran. These include diplomacy, sanctions, and military action. The latter would supposedly violate Iran’s sovereignty; however, this only applies if the government of Iran is still sovereign.
The Iranian regime has lost its sovereignty because it violated the rule of law, justice, and rejected the will of the people. First, an instance in 2005 demonstrates that Iran neglected the rule of law and justice by hanging two minors for engaging in homosexual acts. The act of capital punishment did not disrupt the rule of law; instead it was because the two were underage, which violated international treaties Iran had signed. Besides executing minors for sexual acts, Iran also is a state-sponsor of terrorism. These include: issuing a fatwa against British author Salman Rushdie and having worked with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In July 2011, the US Treasury Department identified the fact that Iran “is a critical transit point for funding to support al-Qa’ida’s activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The al-Qaeda network Iran allows to operate with its help is important for funneling money and operatives into the region. Iran has a clear connection to terrorism, which is an illegal form of political violence.
Finally, Iran disregarded the will of the people last year during the “Green Revolution.” After the disputed elections in 2009, the people rose up against the regime in protest against what they saw as fraud and corruption. A disputed and controversial election is not enough to negate a state’s sovereignty. Rather, it was the regime’s response to the protests that showed the government subverted the will of the people. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the death toll from government actions could be in the hundreds. The Iranian regime violated John of Salisbury’s rule about a normative prescription of following the rule of law and justice by executing minors and supporting terrorism. In addition, the government went against the Lockean social contract by negating the will of the people and suppressing demonstration with violence. Because the Iranian government is no longer sovereign, America can use military intervention to prevent the country from gaining weapons of mass destruction.
This analytical shift is important because it changes the discussion from when states can violate another’s sovereignty within the Westphalian paradigm to when a state is no longer sovereign and intervention is allowed. It is important because it keeps the right of sovereignty intact and inviolable. The change in the framework means that states are not violated as long as they adhere to certain principles. The change is a new way of thinking based on traditional concepts of sovereignty, which allows for a more robust and thoughtful foreign policy. Those who consider the ethics of foreign policy, and not only the power politics, can use this different perspective to re-frame the arguments. Now, when America wishes to intervene in other countries, rather than debating if an exception applies, people can debate if a state is still sovereign. The current nation-state model only works because of state sovereignty. Theorists need to change their thinking so that the rule of sovereignty remains.
 John of Salisburry’s dates are 1115-1180.
 Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies, p. 129.
 Politicraticus, Book I, chapter 15.
 Rwanda: how the genocide happened, BBC News, Dec 18, 2008: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/1288230.stm
 Filkins, D. “The Legacy of the Taliban is a Sad and Broken Land,” New York Times, Dec 31, 2001, p. 1, B4.
 Eke, S. “Iran ‘must stop youth executions.” BBC News, July 28, 2005: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4725959.stm
 Bruno, G. “State sponsors: Iran.” Council on Foreign Relations, Oct 13, 2011: http://www.cfr.org/iran/state-sponsors-iran/p9362
 US Department of the Treasury, Press Release, “Treasury Targets Key Al-Qa’ida Funding and Support Network Using Iran as a Critical Transit Point.” http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1261.aspx
 International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, “Death Toll Apparently Far Exceeds Government Claims” http://www.iranhumanrights.org/2009/07/deathtoll/