June 6, 2007


Who is Bernard Kouchner?: Postmodern Politician (Paul Berman, 6/06/07, TNR Online)

Kouchner's mission in East Asia was meant to save lives, and yet the mission could easily be interpreted as an intervention into the affairs of a sovereign state, the People's Republic of Vietnam. The Boat People were citizens of the People's Republic, and the People's Republic had by no means granted permission to Kouchner or to anyone else to go trolling in the sea for the purpose of rescuing the enemies of the People's Republic. By what right, in the name of what international accord, could Kouchner go ahead with such a mission? He invoked a higher right, but, to be sure, scoundrels on the wrong side of the law always invoke a higher right. In France, a number of people on the left--not the new-style humanitarians but the old-school traditionalists--saw in Kouchner's mission a graver problem, too. This expedition of his may have been humanitarian, whether or not it was legal. But was this expedition, judged by left-wing standards, "progressive"?

Everybody on the left acknowledged the scale of suffering in the Third World, and in Indochina, especially. But the orthodox left clung to a fairly specific interpretation of these sufferings and their origin, and, according to this interpretation, the ultimate blame rested on Western imperialism: the imperialism of the United States, especially. And if imperialism was the problem, what was the solution? Anti-imperialism. And who were the leaders of the anti-imperialist cause in Indochina? These leaders were the Communist parties, like it or not, and this remained the case even if, in one country or another, the Communists behaved a little brutally.

If anyone had conducted a poll of world opinion in 1979 (an impossible thing to do, but I am speculating), the orthodox left-wing interpretation of misery in Indochina would very likely have enjoyed the support of a large majority of people, outside of the United States and the Soviet bloc and perhaps a few other places. Certainly an overwhelming majority of the world's intellectuals would have defended the Communist liberation movements of Indochina, and would have done so with a real vehemence. To anyone who harbored those ideas, the notion of rushing to the rescue of Communism's enemies in Vietnam could only have seemed blatantly and unmistakably reactionary--a retrograde humanitarianism that might succeed in rescuing a few people but was also bound to inflict a political blow on Indochina's best hope for progress in the future, namely, the Communists. In France, some people on the left were already listening to the New Philosophers, and these people lined up with Kouchner and his humanitarian missions, and it was fairly astonishing that Sartre, in the final chapters of his life, chose to be among them.

But a much larger number of intellectuals and journalists, together with the left wing of the Socialist Party in France, not to mention the Communist Party, wanted nothing to do with retrograde humanitarianism and foreign interventions into the internal life of Communist Vietnam. These people, the traditional leftists, wanted to know where this sort of intervention was going to end. This was a reasonable question. For if Kouchner was doing a good thing by sailing the seas of East Asia in a rented ship with six doctors (followed by a few other ships, after a while), why stop there? Why not launch rescue missions on a much larger scale, with more than a rented boat? The debate on this theme arose in France, but it spread right away to the United States and aroused a lot of polemical energy, too.

The exact manner in which this particular French debate migrated to America was something that no one could have predicted, except by noting that, in the history of ideas, nothing is predictable. The crucial role was played by Joan Baez, the singer. There was a lyricism of the nineteen-thirties and forties left, and Joan Baez was, all by herself, the lyricism of the nineteen-sixties left. She lifted her voice, and hearts pounded, and this was true not just in the United States. In the seventies, at the height of her success, the vagaries of life led her to France, where she spent a lot of time, and in France, too, she had her fans. One of those people happened to be Debray, who has described in his memoirs the pleasure he derived one day from listening to Baez serenade the elderly heroine of the Spanish Civil War, La Pasionaria, the mythic Communist orator--one revolutionary woman serenading another, across the generations.

Apart from singing, though, Baez also did some listening (as she has described in her own book, And a Voice to Sing With, back in 1987). She followed the French debate over Communism, Marxism, New Philosophy, Indochina, and all the rest. She gazed at the scenes of boat people flailing about in the South China Sea. She was horrified. And, in 1979, she wrote a letter to the Vietnamese Communists, apologizing for America's actions in the Vietnam War--yet also requesting an improvement in human rights. That was a novel thing to do, for someone with a golden history in the American peace movement. She wrote a second letter, a little sharper, requesting improvements once again. This time, she asked some of her comrades from the American left to sign, and a number of people did--Nat Hentoff, I. F. Stone, Allen Ginsberg, and quite a few others, the independent souls.

And now, at last, the debate broke out in the American left, on the far left and among the liberals, both. A great many people looked at Joan Baez's protest and were beside themselves with indignation. A condemnation of the human rights situation in Communist Indochina--by Americans? By the very people whose armed forces had wreaked so much damage on Indochina? The orthodox militants of the American left took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to express their righteous wrath. Dave Dellinger, the Christian pacifist, condemned her--Dellinger, the single most influential organizer of the American antiwar movement at its height, in the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies. From Dellinger's perspective, Baez's letter to the Communist leaders was genuinely ominous--a step toward a new imperialism. And perhaps something in this argument was not entirely absurd. In 1979, Jimmy Carter was in the third year of his presidency, and he was groping to come up with a new kind of foreign policy, something different from the policies of the Nixon administration that had preceded him.

Carter had already taken a few steps in this direction. It was Carter who seized on the concept of human rights and elevated it into one of the main concerns of American foreign policy. He established a new bureau in the State Department, and he put the bureau under the responsibility of an officer grandiosely called the assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. And, with this bureau up and running, the Carter administration and its assistant secretary took to banging the table on behalf of human rights and humanitarian issues all over the world--not just in the Soviet bloc but in Latin America, too, and even in countries whose kleptocrats and dictators might have expected a bit more gratitude from the fickle United States. This sort of human-rights crusading aroused a good deal of anxiety on the conservative right, among the old-fashioned "realists," the old Nixon hands, who figured that Carter was undermining some of America's more reliable friends around the world. (And, to be sure, the reliable friends began to tumble from their thrones: the dictator Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, the shah of Iran . . . ) And the policy proved upsetting to quite a few people on the orthodox left, as well. Chomsky published his political magnum opus in 1979, The Political Economy of Human Rights, in two volumes (written with Edward S. Herman), expressly for the purpose of unmasking human rights as a cruel hypocrisy in the service of imperial rapacity.

Carter's foreign policy, in short, attracted enemies on every side--which ought to have made clear, at least, that he was up to something new. And then, like everyone else, Carter watched in horror as masses of Vietnamese fled into the sea; and he examined his own moral conscience, and I suppose that he glanced at the state of American public opinion, too, where he would have seen the debate over Joan Baez and her protests. He ordered the Sixth Fleet into action. The American navy went about scooping up the boat people. This was not like Bernard Kouchner sailing around with half a dozen kindly doctors. And, with Carter's order to the fleet, the whole quandary of a human-rights policy and of humanitarian action in the modern world, the enormous tangle of unresolvable questions about foreign interventions and their justification and purposes and consequences--all this, our modern predicament, floated majestically into view.

To everyone all over the world who had spent the previous fifteen years laboring to get the American military out of Southeast Asia, in the keen belief that Western imperialism and especially the United States posed the greatest of all dangers to poor people everywhere--to everyone who still clung to that august and deeply felt opinion, the spectacle of America's navy trolling the seas in order to rescue the enemies of Vietnamese Communism was bound to seem profoundly repulsive. But did U.S. imperialism really pose the greatest of dangers? Mightn't the Communists pose a danger of their own--as demonstrated all too obviously by the flight of thousands of unhappy Vietnamese into the sea? Maybe the power of the United States, with its navy and everything else, was a force that could be harnessed to good purposes, as well as to bad ones--depending on circumstances, and on the choices of the people in power, and on the demands of democratic opinion. Maybe the strength of the strong was not, by definition, a crime against the weak. Maybe power was a tool that, decently employed, could do a world of good for the most oppressed of the oppressed, just as, in the past, the power of the big Western countries had all too systematically done worlds of harm. Maybe Western strength and imperialist oppression did not have to be synonymous.

This was the new possibility in the field of human rights and humanitarian action, the grand-scale alternative view of world politics that had merely been hinted at by the tiny cadres of Doctors Without Borders and Kouchner's new Doctors of the World and a few other people--the Che-like adventurers with their medical bags and their non-Che-like ideas. If a rented ship from France was a good idea, the Sixth Fleet was a better idea. This logic was undeniable. At least, Kouchner seemed to think so. People with power, Kouchner began to say, had a right to intervene in other societies, under certain conditions--a right, in spite of the sacred mandates of international law and the inviolability of borders. There was a right to intervene on humanitarian grounds, and to do so "without borders." More than a right--there was, in Kouchner's word, a "duty." A moral duty to use power to rescue the vulnerable. A duty to use this power wherever people were in desperate need. A duty for wealthy and powerful countries not to stand by, fat and happy, while the rest of the world went to hell. Or, to put this entire argument the other way, the supremely oppressed had a right to be rescued, no matter what the theorists of anti-imperialism or the defenders of the inviolability of borders might say.

None of this was entirely unprecedented in the history of ideas. The ancient left-wing principle that used to go under the name of internationalism showed no concern at all for the integrity of duly constituted states. "Workers of the world" meant workers without borders. But whether Kouchner's new theory of humanitarian intervention had remained faithful to this left-wing provenance or had evolved into something new, perhaps an idea beyond any of the conventional ideologies, neither left-wing nor right-wing nor any-wing--this was a murky question. Kouchner sometimes wondered about this. Were left-wing motives the best of all motives that anyone could have?

Leave us set aside for the nonce the question of whether it is Left or Right, the simple reality is that for all our fretting about the transnational threat to sovereignty, it is rather we (mostly the Anglosphere, but those who ally themselves with us as well) who are the genuine threat. Indeed, it is fair to say that we have added a normative component to sovereignty which requires those claiming sovereign power over a state to govern in conformity with our liberal democratic standards or be considered inherent;ly illegitimate and subject to regime change at our whim.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 6, 2007 1:07 PM

At the very least, we should require that a nation's leaders "govern in conformity with our liberal democratic standards" to gain membership in any international organization. A good first step would be to rename it the United Democratic Nations, and eject any government not freely elected by its citizens.

Posted by: JonSK at June 6, 2007 2:13 PM