More on State Building and the International System

This is a guest post in response to a previous blog post by friend of the blog Matthew Kustenbauder.

Your post highlights the contradictions between today’s human rights regime (which is based on universal concepts of humanity and has its origins in European anti-slavery campaigns and traditions of humanitarianism, and before that debates in Christian theology) and the post-imperial international order (based on the nation state as the fundamental political unit).

Since the rise of nationalism after WWII, new states that were historically part of empires (and thereby incorporated under their systems of law, governance, and trade) have had to make their own way. For most of these states, and especially for the people living within them, the new era of national self-determination has been no more kind than was the Age of Empire. The withdrawal of imperial powers left a vacuum that today’s international system struggles to address with any effect. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that it is a fragmented and cumbersome system that gives the impression all states are “equal” — clearly they are not. It also tends to be a forum in which smaller and poorer states invoke language of victimhood in an effort, ironically, to get larger or more wealthy states to step in and do the work that states are meant to do for themselves — namely, govern those residing within their boundaries.

What do I mean by this last point? An illustration by way of anecdote may help clarify. I was recently frustrated watching a BBC World Report special (an outlet for the Bleeding Hearts Industrial Complex that you mentioned in your post) about multinationals and poor working conditions in the developing world. Cotton and chocolate were featured. The reporter investigated big cotton operations in India and cocoa plantations in Cote D’Ivoire. What registered as surprise to the BBC reporter was no surprise to me — He found lots of young women and children working there. But instead of asking why the local government didn’t regulate the industry or why they didn’t enforce the regulations already on the books, he ran off to Switzerland and the UK and America to ask why Nestle and Tommy Hilfiger, etc. don’t monitor their supply chains. I was baffled. This is a classic example of how an international system based on the sovereignty of individual nation states is at odds with universal notions of human rights. In many ways, it is the modern-day replacement for the old global-local tensions that existed between the imperial metropole and its colonies. We might ask, however, whether the current framework in which human rights activism operates is really any better suited to address the ongoing problems that plague developing nations. To my mind’s eye, the focus is on the wrong place … or is at least too focused on the role of businesses and advanced economies and not focused enough on working with multinationals in order to help citizens in poor countries put pressure on their governments to be accountable, competent, and truly sovereign.

The emphasis on human rights by Western governments and development work by NGOs in African countries have, more often than not, undermined the sovereignty of national governments since decolonization. More recently, however, China has emerged as the largest trading partner with many African countries. This is a game changer, not only because the Dragon does not hold human rights sacrosanct, but also because, unlike its Western counterparts, China considers economic growth and trade essential to establishing national sovereignty and the nation-state (not the international community) as the principal guarantor of the well-being of its citizens. The degree to which China can be ‘socialised’ in the ways of the international system, which was after all created by the Great Powers to replace the disintegrating world that western empires had made, remains to be seen. In any event, the long-standing tensions between universal principals of human rights, on the one hand, and the limits placed on intervention into the affairs of one state by another in the name of national sovereignty, on the other, will endure.

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Matthew Kustenbauder is a PhD candidate in history at Harvard University.

Quick hits

Guide to arguing on the internet (HT Lauren).

Speaking of arguing on the internet, I like the drama that is spats between economists and other academics on their respective blogs.

The Economist presents the faces of famine in the Horn. It is beyond sad that so many people should be condemned to suffer this man-made tragedy.

Brett Keller has posts here and here on Sam Childers (a.k.a. machine gun preacher), a gun-runner into the habit of doing morally and ethnically dubious things in the name of God. Keller says that Childers is “stockpiling arms at his orphanage and has admitted to selling weapons to unnamed armed factions in Sudan, Uganda, and Rwanda.”

In Zambia (where I shall be for the elections in Sept.) the politics of citizenship and belonging are yet to be settled 50 years after independence. We recently witnessed the dangers of de-legitimizing whole sections of countries as outsiders in Cote d’Ivoire. I hope that if Sata ever wins he will not do what incumbent Ivorians did to ignite a rebellion in the northern reaches of their country. For more on this check out this great book on the Ivorian collapse. I have read it and absolutely loved it.

A muddy few months ahead for the South African government. Infighting with the ANC top brass might mean an early exit for President Zuma. With over 60% of the votes in the last election, the ANC is essentially an oversize coalition prone to internal wrangles. It will be interesting to see how Zuma weathers the storm in the midst of challenges from both COSATU and Malema.

Lastly, the current issue of the Journal of African Economies looks at the impact of higher education in Africa. The main takeaway is that the low quality of education at lower levels (primary and secondary) has meant that the biggest bang for the buck on the Continent, as far as education is concerned, only comes with higher education. Too bad that many of those that get higher education are underpaid or out of the Continent all together.