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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Neo-cons join public debate on Iraq « Previous | |Next »
February 5, 2003

Opinion polls show that a majority of Australians are willing to go to war with Iraq with a UN mandate. Around 75% of Australians do not support a war with Iraq without UN approval and so they are opposed to John Howard's unilateral stance. John Howard and his neo-conservative supporters are definitely out of step with public opinion.

This places the neo-cons on the defensive, as they are 100% behind the US, Britain and Australia bypassing the UN and going to war with Iraq alone. Neocons are conservatives who work within the horizons of realpolitik that gives primacy to the national interst, emphasize the geopolitics, and see international relations as the inevitible struggle of warring states. They see the cosmopolitan support for the UN as the first step to a federated world government.

What neocons do when faced with the above situation? They attack public opinion with all guns blazing. Thus Janet Albrechtsen says Australian citizens have a Misinformed trust in a toothless tiger. We shy away from unilateral action by the US & allies because the UN told us to; our argument is based on a 'lack of logic to say nothing of moral abdication.' There is a blog on this article by Gummo Trotsky who just cannot resisting commenting on articles by his favourite hero-columnist. And a very fine blog it is too.

The obvious inference of Albrechtsen's sweeping criticism is that we Australian citizens who place our trust in the UN are just a bunch of fools. Since it would be too difficult in Australia to do an Anne Coulter and charge us with treason neocons such as Albrechtsen have to argue their case. To her credit this is what does. She argues against liberal internationalism. Her case is that the UN is a fundamentally flawed body. (I will spell it out because the links will go).

Albrechtsen says:

"We have ourselves to blame for the UN's crippling credibility problem. The UN was a grand vision of nation states adhering to an objective body of international law. This vision was unrealistic. More than that, it was a dangerous delusion."

Albrechtsen then sets out the position of the liberal internationalists who support the UN.

"The UN's founders pre-supposed that nation states would set aside self-interest for universal values. An international community would emerge. World citizenship would replace national sovereignty. And they assumed countries would agree on what collective security meant and how it should be maintained. They also assumed Article 43 of the UN Charter, which gives the UN "teeth" the ability to use force would ensure the UN succeeded where the League of Nations failed."

Albrechtsen's criticism of this liberal internationalist /cosmopolitan position is then outlined:

"Each assumption proved not only wrong but dangerous. It lured the world into a false sense of security. Iraq shows that the UN's utopian idealism is easily manipulated by the world's most oppressive regimes."

Her argument for the structural flaws of the UN has several prongs. Firstly,

"When countries enter UN headquarters, they do not leave national interest at the door. And so the UN is driven not by common interests but by each member's self-interest."


"Article 43 is not the UN's saviour. Iraq has exposed how the UN's power to use force to maintain international security is meaningless when countries fail to agree on when and how to uphold that security."

Thirdly, consensus is difficult since:

"Even smaller groups of countries have problems reaching agreement."

Albrechtsen draws these together to say that "the UN's structural flaws often translate into paralysis. The UN's politics of inclusiveness mean it would rather avoid offending than expose evil."

Now, Albrechtsen does concede that the "UN has a useful role in humanitarian work, peacekeeping (once others have created a peace to keep) and providing a forum to exchange views." But she quickly adds, the UN "can't guarantee world peace. The UN's prevarication over Iraq shows how it can hardly become more than its members permit."

She finishes by saying: "Yet still most Australians defer to the UN. Go figure."

It is easy to figure. Albrechtsen's neocon argument does not allow for the UN, as an institution of global governance to act as form of constraint on, or regulation of, national self-interest and hegemonic political power. Though the UN is committed to universal human rights and the duties that go with those democratic rights, it can be seen as a way to provide some checks and balances to the primacy of the West in international affairs. Of course, Albrechtsen would not accept that the West should be constrained.

Be that as it may. What is crystal clear is that Australian citizenshave trust in the UN. As the East Timor intervention indicated, Australians are committed to the global humanitarian project: we intervened in East Timor in order to protect the rights of the powerless East Timorese in response to the intimidation, violence, oppression and terror by the Indonesian military and its client militia.

Liberal internationalism may be deeply flawed--I for one think that it is and so stand on the ground of the nation-state against the world citizenship ideas of the cosmopolitans. But I accept that the conduct of nation-states should be checked and balanced through global governance.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:14 PM | | Comments (8)


Even though the UN could be an institution of global governance to restrict hegemonic whatever, it isn't and it doesn't. I believe that is the point here. 57 countries voted for Libya to be the head of the Human Rights Commission. Iraq and Iran are currently sharing the chairmanship of the disarmament committee. Can anyone take the UN seriously? I sure hope not, they are not only incompetent, they are a joke. They are simply not doing the responsible things you say they should or could or perhaps you think they are doing. And this is nothing new, this has been going on for years.

good point. I agree. But its all we've got -apart from the economic ones eg. IMF, World Bank and WTO.

An analogy. We can, and often do say the same things about our liberal democratic institutionswithint he nation states. But we don't turn our backs on them as governing institutions. We figure out ways to remove their defects.

The key issue is: do we need institutions of global governance in a world of nation states to regulate their behaviour. Or do we say nope; we dont needg lobal institutions of governance. We are doing fine with nation states in an anarchic world.


Thanks for the e-mail. Regarding the post above, is it really accurate to call the neo-con position "unilateral," given the fact that, in addition to the US, Britain, and Australia, 8 or 9 European countries just pledged their support of the US in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal?

I guess you mean "acting without UN support," but that is hardly the same thing as "unilateral."

In addition, I would just like to point out that a police force that refused to enforce the law would be a police force in name only. A judge that refused to enforce the law would be a judge in name only. The Security Council will not act to enforce its own resolutions, which, in my opinion, shows that it is not in favor of the very things it claims to espouse. Nations in favor of law and order will have to by-pass the Security Council to get anything done, just as Saddam's corrupt police forces will have to be by-passed to ensure justice in Iraq.

Gary, I just read your response to the first comment and would like to add one of my own.

You do make a good point, but certainly there are some structures that are so flawed that discarding them is the only option. I believe that the UN has become one of those.

The reason law works within nations is that it is backed by the power of enforcement. Unfortunately, this is not possible at the international level, where states conform to international law on a voluntary basis, and can be coerced only through acts of war. A system of voluntary restraint that is violated left and right for years and years is not really a legal system in any meaningful sense of the word. International law is, therefore, a bit of a misnomer.

The truth is that the neo-con outlook is closer to the truth of how things operate now, and it is likely to be closer to the truth as long as the power of enforcement is distributed among the parties supposedly subject to the "law." Better, in my opinion, to dispense with the charade so that we can make a more clear-eyed assessment of what the hell is going on. The UN just clouds the issue with nonsensical rhetoric, double standards, and absurd posturing.

Australians appear to only favour ihe use of force in Iraq if the UN sanctions it. This raises the point- would such people be happy if a majority of nations(51% or better)supported this action? Would they need a higher vote to be convinced?(ie a two thirds majority)How would they feel about almost complete unanimity except for a veto by Germany and France? After all this was often the case in the Cold War era with veto power by Russia or China. This is the core of the Simon Crean dilemma. At what stage do they believe they have the international democratic right to act? For Howard the position is much clearer-get off your intellectual arse and make a decision like I have.


Derk, my various postings on this have endavoured to explore why a majority of Australians require a UN mandate to go war with Iraq. John Howard is way out of step with public opinion this.

What I have argued is that Australians trust the UN in a way that you dont.I have mentioned East Timor as a reason for the Australian position--the UN worked. The different judgements at work here may also be due to the US being a suoperpowwer that is able to further its national interest and Australia, a marginal regional player that is forced to debate, argue, negotiate and compromise to further its national interest.

The voluntary behavior of nation states to conform to international law is not limited to war. There are other modes of enforcement, such as containment, economic sanctions, withdrawal of funding.

Two examples of international goveranance working are the IMF (though I am deeply critical of this institution) and the WTO.

Why the different judgements about the capacity of the UN as a governing institution?

My suggestion is that it springs from our deep philosophical presuppositions about the way international affairs works: eg., the realpolitik of the neo-cons and liberal globalism or internationalism & those in the middle

It is these that we are also debating. The UN/international law means something in Austrlia as it's ethos is used to criticise the actions of the Australian Government:eg of the Tampa affair in 2001 when the Howard Government flouted international law of the sea (rescuing people at risk as upheld by Norway) in favour of "national interest" to secure political advantage in a federal election.


as I see it the UN is basically a reonciler, arbiter, mediator between independent nation states. If states continue to disagree after mediation and their interests cannot be harmonized, then its war.

Its the Security Council that calls the shots on this. Can it come up a way between disagreement/conflict and war? Has it got a convincing alternative to war that would ensure a strong inspection regime