Finding a principle in the Iraq tangle

On Thursday 100,000 are expected to gather in Porto Alegre, Brazil, to plot to save us from global capitalism. Next week the United Nations weapons inspectors report on Iraq, with war in the offing. Global events won’t leave us in peace.

Globalisation of business is the dragon to be slain at the third World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. Globalisation of people is the weapon they will use, reaching through national states’ borders to unite people who share their fears and ambitions.

They will also oppose “imperialism” — and so war on Iraq. In this they will also be anti-globalisers, in effect upholding the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which laid down that states are sovereign and inviolable: what occurs within their borders are their concerns alone.

This is at the heart of the United Nations Charter. It is a compact of Westphalian states, not an instrument of global seamlessness and union of peoples (once the socialists’ dream). But the United Nations also connects states: if they act in concert, on certain conditions, they may violate a miscreant state’s sanctity. Thus in Iraq in 1991.

Hence Helen Clark will support a United Nations call for action against Iraq but not unilateral United States warmongering; she upholds “multilateral action and the rule of international law”.

Yet peace campaigner Nicky Hager on this page last Thursday dismissed that stance as “pragmatism”. He all but called the United Nations the United States’ poodle. So war in Iraq would be “outrageous” and this country’s involvement in it would be a betrayal of the principles by which Clark and Foreign Minister Phil Goff opposed the Americans’ Vietnam adventure (with us in tow) 30-plus years ago.

Would they be?

As I recall the rationale of most in this country’s anti-Vietnam movement, and certainly of the Labour party, it was that the people of Vietnam should determine their own affairs — very Westphalian.

Opponents saw a civil war, not the international war against communist expansion that the United States Administration claimed it was fighting.

Moreover, the United States was not mandated by the United Nations.

The war divided this nation. It ended parliamentary non-partisanship on foreign policy. Now opposition parties routinely consider foreign policy just one more plank on which to attack governments.

National MP Gerry Brownlee’s hand-grenade on the ban on nuclear-powered ships a couple of weeks ago was such a skirmish. (And was in line with Bill English’s call for a party debate on the topic.)

Now, for Hager’s charge against Clark and Goff to stand — the charge that they are abandoning their anti-Vietnam principles — they would need to contribute to a United States invasion of Iraq that was not sanctioned by the United Nations. There is no evidence they plan to do this.

If the United Nations does sanction military action against Iraq, opposition to that action might rest on three bases.

The first is dislike of the United States. This underpins much of the opposition to economic globalisation and much of the international terrorism on which President George Bush declared war on September 11 2001.

Anti-Americanism is flimsy material from which to fashion a principle.

A second basis for opposition to United Nations-sanctioned action in Iraq is pacifism or near-pacificism of the sort that led some to oppose the intervention in Afghanistan.

While the Greens are in this camp, not many regular folk in this country are. They don’t like war but don’t oppose it at almost any cost. It is too high a principle.

A third basis might be that even the United Nations does not have a mandate to override the inalienable right of those within a state’s borders to decide what happens in that state.

This is a sort of extreme Westphalianism and is out of step with modern developments. Unlike in 1648, what is done within states can have transnational impacts: notably environmental, such as depletion of the ozone layer and (arguably) global warming, and in the floods of refugees from persecution or starvation.

There is a growing tendency to take note of these effects. And this tendency does not just reflect the self-interest of affected states. There is also an element of human fellow-feeling.

It is such fellow-humanness which might provide a modern principle for intervention in Iraq: that people everywhere have the same right to protection of life and liberty by the state they live in and that if that state fails its duty to protect them, the duty falls on fellow-human beings outside the miscreant state.

The United States has not appealed to such a principle and nor has our government. That is for good reason: it undermines a state’s autonomy and so politicians’ power base. It would also be fiendishly difficult to determine which state is bad enough to justify intervention and which is not.

But what if globalisation of human interaction continues to intensify and fellow-humanness grows with it? Now there’s a principle for Hager.