A response to the Euston manifesto

Cyril Joad

My eye is drawn by the announcement in this week’s New Statesman of a new left-liberal grouping, based around the so-called Euston manifesto. (Read the manifesto here.)

Before commenting on the content of the manifesto, it is worth saying a little about its genesis. It is billed on the front cover of the magazine as “a manifesto from the pro-war left” (no need to say which war, you notice) and is introduced by an article by Norman Geras and Nick Cohen, who fell out with much of the left when they backed the American invasion of Iraq. This Manifesto sets out the terms on which they might repair those ruptured friendships.

The Manifesto itself is careful to say it is not based necessarily on support for the war (it has supporters who opposed it) but rather a belief that now that the war has been fought, it is necessary to ensure that Iraq can become a democracy. They want to stitch the country back together again, rather than abandoning it to the jihadists and Ba’athists again, although they do not say a lot about how this might be achieved. They say they are as keen to oppose tyranny and defend democracy as they are to reform that democracy itself (being from the left, one can rely on the latter point) but I have already given you the link to the Manifesto – its authors can explain it better than I can.

I have a lot of sympathy with it, as you might expect from a federalist. Democracy isn’t some quaint constitutional practice that happens to be followed in Europe and North America: no, it is a fundamental expression of human values that deserves to be adopted everywhere. Its features may vary from one country to another (the fact of that variation is in fact the definition of what a country is) but the right of people to govern themselves does not.

There is a hole in the Manifesto’s discussion of Iraq, though, namely the question of what happens next. How long should the occupation last? To be told, as we are sometimes, “as long as it takes” won’t do: the crucial question is whether the presence of American forces in Iraq is itself a fuel for the insurgency or whether it is the only means of fighting it. The authors obviously reject the George Galloway view that the troops should come home as soon as possible, but I want to know more about what they think than this.

I think the reason that the Manifesto can’t deal with this question lies in its lack of a clear picture of how the world should work. Paragraph 10 of its statement of principles, “A new internationalism”, is still wedded to the traditional notion of sovereignty. Humanitarian interventions – the responsibility to protect – are defended in a world of sovereign states if a government acts “in appalling ways”, but it doesn’t really work. The problem lies in the need to establish motives of any interventions and the need to do so unambiguously, but in a world of sovereign states, that is hard to do. Think of all those who suspect that George W Bush’s motivation in Iraq is oil: what can he do to disprove this?

I go back to Joad’s “Why war?” where he explores the conditions in which force might be acceptable (pages 153-4 in the Penguin Special edition of 1939):

That the Use of Force Demands and is Justified only by the Existence of Law.

My deduction is that, though the use of force is always an evil, until such time as we are all of us prepared to act in accordance with the ethic of Christ, it is a necessary evil; necessary, in order to prevent the bad from preying upon the good, and the savage from inhibiting the pursuits of the civilized. A background of force within the State is, then, I should say, not only necessary but beneficial. It is beneficial only on one condition, that its use is governed by law; that the law is such as most men wish to obey; and that it is administered disinterestedly by impartial persons in the common interest. Now as between States there is no such law, there are no such impartial persons, and there is no general concern for the common interest. Therefore the conditions for the beneficent use of force do not apply. Hence, although I am prepared to support the use of the police force, my support does not extend to the army. If and when there is public law between States, I should be prepared to back it by force, as I am to-day prepared to back the State’s law by force, for then the armies of the States would become the police force of the World State.

If the police are entitled to use force in order to enforce the law, then military action would be similarly acceptable in the equivalent circumstances at international level. I don’t want to see people carrying guns on my street but, if it comes to a shoot-out, I am not neutral as between the police and a bank robber.

But the police are only entitled to use force if they are enforcing the law: they are not permitted to take their firearms and uniforms and go out and rob banks themselves. As long as state sovereignty remains the rule at international level, it is going to be hard to trust any country that declares that it is fulfilling its responsibility to protect, particularly when that country explicitly declares its contempt for the existing international mechanisms of taking such action.

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