Greg Shupak

In a recent essay for Dissent entitled “The European Crisis,” Michael Walzer offers a case study in liberal imperialist ideology. The article ostensibly offers a discussion of the challenge posed to Europe by the mass influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. He urges European states to accept greater numbers of refugees than they have, albeit for a rather dubious reason:  failing to do so, he writes, will be bad for Europe. Furthermore, Walzer contends that it’s necessary to address the wars in the Middle East that have precipitated the refugees’ exodus by reinstituting a form of the inter-war colonial Mandate System. He writes that “There are countries in the world today that ought to be, for a time, not-independent and not-sovereign” and subject to an arrangement that is “like occupation.”

He nominates Libya and Syria for “a new trusteeship system for countries that are temporarily unable to govern themselves.” In what respect this is “like occupation” and not simply “occupation” is rather unclear. Understanding why his proposal is both unjust in its implications, and fallacious in its reasoning, allows us to see why his argument is so insidiously dangerous. Developing and disseminating a critique of this form of imperialism is particularly urgent following the recent attacks in Paris, which are sure to occasion all-manner of rationalizations for further interventions in the Middle East and North Africa.

Walzer’s arguments are characterized by subtle and not-so-subtle racism. His title foregrounds the European experience of the violent dispersal of millions of Libyans and Syrians rather than that of the people actually being dispersed. Throughout the essay the residents of both countries are treated as little more than problems to be managed. That most familiar Orientalist motif is present as well: the possibilities for the people of the East, in Walzer’s view, are limited to foreign stewardship, “a tyrant, like Qaddafi, say,” or “a chaos of thugs and zealots—and then thousands of people fleeing.” In this respect, the social democratic Walzer is every bit as reactionary as the arch-conservative Robert Kaplan, who has frequently put forth arguments that are virtually identical to Walzer’s.

Walzer laments that, if Europeans fail to meet the needs of refugees “the idea of Europe will die.” Europe endangered: here is the distress-call of the empire apologist. He goes on to say that if European states don’t adequately respond to the refugee issue: “The dream of a new kind of commonwealth, a commonwealth of mutual responsibility and liberal values, will be over; we will wake up to a grim day.” As is typical of ideological utterances, the statement is partially true and partially untrue. The claim that “the idea of Europe” is one of “mutual responsibility” is ambiguous. Who is mutually responsible to whom? If this is to be something other than utterly vapid idealism, then what are the material dimensions of this “mutual responsibility”? Evidence of “mutual responsibility” exists in much of the conduct of the European bourgeoisie’s disparate national factions toward one another but Walzer’s formulation occludes the uneven, violent relationships that the European ruling classes maintain within and beyond their borders.

Similarly, while it is accurate to say that “liberal values” are hegemonic in Europe, Walzer is dead wrong when he claims that it’s the absence of liberalism that produces “grim day[s].” European liberalism has shown itself perfectly amenable to many “grim day[s]” characterised by colonialism, neo-colonialism, genocide, patriarchal oppression, and centuries of ruthless exploitation of the working classes outside and inside of Europe: these are not liberalism’s “Other,” but constitutive elements of the liberalism that is hegemonic in Europe and that Walzer defends. By papering over these aspects of liberalism with rhetoric about the “mutual responsibility” to ward off a “grim day,” Walzer lays the conceptual groundwork necessary for his brand of imperialism.

Walzer says that he is reluctant “to suggest the countries that might serve as trustees, since I wouldn’t want to vouch for any country’s trustworthiness.” This is a flimsy subterfuge: who, other than the United States, and the European powers, could play the leading role in Walzer’s “trusteeship” system, given the current global order? Practically, “trusteeship” entails greater control over Libya and Syria principally by the traditional “great powers” of Europe and North America. Walzer must know this--his repeated use of “we” indicates that he does, as does the invocation of the Mandate System.

“The old mandate system of the League of Nations,” he begrudgingly acknowledges, “was not a great success”.  But, he says, “it did not produce, and perhaps it prevented, disasters like the ones we are helplessly watching today.” This is the Mandate System that includes, for example, Britain’s vicious suppression of the Great Iraqi Revolution of 1920, and of the 1936 Uprising in Palestine, or the French suppression of the Great Syrian Revolt in 1925-27. It should be noted that such episodes rarely put a dent in the colonial zeal of Walzer’s liberal and even leftist forbearers. Arguably, moreover, the Middle East states system which arose as a direct outcome of that brutal period is a precondition for today’s tragedies. Perhaps the closest contemporary analogue to Walzer's proposal, however, is the brutal UN-endorsed occupation of Haiti, wherein the massacre of pro-Aristide forces and the empowerment of sweatshop owners was a routine facet of “stability” and even “democratization.”

Control of Libya and Syria by the United States and its allies must be opposed. To be sure, the Syrian government has tortured and killed large numbers of its population with Russian help. It so happens that in many cases where the United States claims to intervene for humanitarian reasons, or is called upon to do so by loyal intellectuals, the government against which the intervention is poised is similarly culpable. But Walzer’s cure is not only not an improvement on the disease but one of its causes. Walzer says that “we” should partake in the “use of force” to solve the problems of Syria and Libya. Therefore, we must look at what  “we” habitually do with such a license and what the effects are. 

Even in the recent history of Libya and Syria, there is little to commend the would-be “trustees.”  The Libyan intervention contributed to a body count of some 50,000 people and empowered the more conservative and sometimes racist tendencies in the opposition.  In Syria, the pattern of US conduct ranges from efforts to leverage an exile-based opposition movement, to subsequent CIA financing and training of fighters, to support for Wahhabists by close US allies, to current bombing raids against daesh and other jihadi forces. In neither Libya nor Syria did the supposed beneficiaries gain. This is to say nothing of the wider US record with respect to the Arab Spring: the war on Yemen, the US-supported Saudi invasion of Bahrain, and the welcoming of the restorationist dictatorship of General Sisi in Egypt.

This reality is precisely what disappears behind Walzer’s calculatedly imprecise formulations. He asserts, for example, that “wars, warlords, and tyrants require a more forceful intervention.” Therefore, for a state to undertake trusteeship “great virtue isn’t necessary, only a readiness to stop the killing, get rid of the killers, and provide enough stability for the citizens of the war-ravaged countries to begin rebuilding.” Wars and warlords, in short, require wars and warlords. Predictably overlooked is the problem with his recommending that “we” get rid of “the killers” when “we” are chief among “the killers.” Such hand-waving in the guise of moral pragmatism is, of course, a precondition for the coherence of the ‘humanitarian’ rationale for empire.

Revealingly Walzer argues that “politics is probably a more common cause of disasters than economics.” Here he assumes, quite unjustifiably, that economics and politics can be disentangled--a necessary element of the mystifying discourse in which politics is all about nebulous “values,” rather than hard currency. What might we discern about international politics if we factor in the economic?

It is unambiguously the case that elites in the United States have pursued wealth in the Middle East through war, occupation, and the support of countless dictators. To take only one of many possible examples, the US launched the 1991 Gulf War to, as Bashir Abu-Manneh argues, “safeguard the preeminence of US political and economic interests in the region. Arab oil regimes were protected, and Israeli military supremacy was assured: Iraq would never be able to pose any sort of threat to either Saudi Arabia or Israel….Only war, thus, could have satisfied the material and ideological requirements of U.S. imperialism.”

Moreover, Adam Hanieh of the University of London shows that:

US military intervention in the region must be understood as a necessary complement to neoliberal ‘peace.’  With the American occupation in Iraq, and the threats and attempts to destabilize and attack Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, the US supports and cultivates those social forces that it hopes will act as subserviently towards its interests in the region, and pursue normalization with Israel, as have the Jordanian and Egyptian governments.  The most important factor in US policy is to limit capacities for countries in the region to exert independent control over economic or foreign policy.  

These are key objectives of US regional policy and they are highly significant because, whatever Walzer’s protestations, he is recommending the rule of the American state and its junior partners over Libya and Syria. In the face of centuries of evidence of western states’ recourse to devastating violence around the world in pursuit of capitalist imperatives, effectively erasing economics from the discussion is Walzer’s approach to explaining how the current US-dominated international state system can produce a set of actors willing and able to run Syria and Libya in a manner that will benefit the people living in these countries.

Yet Walzer’s proposed solution, in addition to being ferociously racist, is historically passé. The system of colonial Mandates was certainly a key moment in the development of this international system, but in a world system structured by the legal form of sovereignty, can be counted rather a blunt, ineffectual mechanism.

And this is crucial to understanding the task that Walzer’s article performs. It is highly unlikely that his blue-sky-thinking for empire would directly affect policy.  However, the role of intellectuals of Walzer's type is to shape the moral and intellectual ground on which policy discussions and justifications can take place.  For the sake of future US interventions, it is of inestimable service that ideologues work at persuading influential audiences that the problems of Libyans and Syrians are really about “the idea of Europe” and that these problems can and should be solved by the US ruling class and its proxies. This intellectual work offers, as a form of narcissistic “sympathy,” a racist paternalism which denies the right of Syrians and Libyans to self-determination.  Despite Walzer's attempt to pretend otherwise, this is the precise opposite of solidarity.

Dr. Greg Shupak is an author and activist who teaches Media Studies at the University of Guelph in Canada.