National sovereignty is weakly aligned to global altruism. Accountable to its own constituents, foreign policy, fundamentally a tool to serve and protect national interests, can act like a cap on humanitarianism.
When national interests are at stake, international policy suffers from myopia, self-interest and double-standards. And it lies at the very heart of our collective failures in peace, human rights and economic prosperity.
Security is one such national priority that doesn’t necessarily aggregate globally. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the ultraconservative Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, an ideology said to inspire al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State group, is a longtime western ally, for example. A swing nation in global price of oil, military, trade and investment partner, and a strategic Sunni counterweight to Shiite Iran: Saudi Arabia is crucial in the west’s attempts to shelter itself from a geopolitically unstable region.
This is despite the Saudi’s atrocious human rights record, beyond dubious executions, including poor women's rights, freedom of expression and treatment of migrant labor. And, despite, the nation being ”... a critical financial support base for Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other terrorist groups,” according to a leaked December 2009 memo signed by then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Likewise, economic stability also requires expediency. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s red carpet welcome to Britain in October, the lavish banquets and processions, were a segue to a multi-billion dollar business deal for Chinese investment, as Britain navigates its waning global influence and tetchy ties with the European Union.
For some a shrewd deal, for others a hypocrisy. Activists protested British pandering and silence over a country with a track record for curtailing the freedom of speech and abusing the rights of the Tibetan and Uighur minority ethnic groups.
And money doesn't have to be the only motive to turn a blind eye to human rights. In December, Reuters reported that the U.S. State Department disregarded its own staff’s damning findings of Oman’s forced labor and human trafficking record, by inflating its score in a mandated “Trafficking in Persons” report. This, apparently, was a move to support international relations with the Gulf ally, which played a key role in helping to broker last year’s Iran nuclear deal.
Foreign interventionism has also been self-serving. The toppling of dictatorships in Iraq and Libya, and attempted disposal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, had a core purpose in shoring up the west’s security interests. But after military intervention, insufficient attention has been given to state-building and post-conflict development in these countries, which instead fester in a power vacuum, and have given rise to greater security threats, including I.S.
And electoral accountability can constrain foreign policy more directly. It may explain why the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama dithered, and acted softly in Syria, with the failures and cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq interventions fresh in voters’ minds. Some 60,000 civilian deaths after the conflict started, the U.S. began sending aid to rebels. And, over a year after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed Obama’s chemical-usage threshold, the U.S. began bombing in Syria, targeting I.S.
Multilateral organisations were once thought to be the solution, to speak out, coordinate and neutralize national and transnational tragedies where a conflict of interest prevails. But humanitarian institutions themselves face diplomacy and politics, accountable to their boards and donors, and not directly to the people they seek to serve.
And are they powerful enough, when four out of five Yemenis are in desperate need of humanitarian aid, and Saudi Arabia seems to be blocking U.N. food donations? Are they politically neutral enough, or merely an aggregation of individual foreign policy? When Russia and China vetoed a 2011 U.N. Security Council vote for a crackdown on al-Assad, it would suggest the latter, as would the Saudi endeavor to block a U.N-led war crime inquiry into the Yemen intervention.
A globalised system of trade, migration and money flow, promised to bring capitalist economics, peace and ultimately, interests together. And while it has overseen a worldwide reduction in poverty, and the near obsolescence of inter-state war, it's still a system that relies on the whim of the powerful to help the indigent.
Though the nation state is the established, and proven, model of governance and prosperity, and while globalisation has challenged the notion of tribalism, our interests and accountability remain fundamentally aligned to the geographies we govern.
The point is not to reconstruct the nation state, but to rethink the international architecture in which it operates.
The 21st Century must now harbor global identities and perspectives by embracing new interconnections and technologies, and design truly independent and accountable worldwide institutions and laws, if we are to see beyond our borders and let humanitarianism prevail.
Tej Parikh is an international affairs journalist and received his master’s degree from Yale University last year, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has written for the Guardian, Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily and Global Politics Magazine. He tweets at @tejparikh90
Written by Tej Parikh and published on 10-June-2016