My friend the witch doctor, he taught me what to say

For a country that supposedly treats the Eurovision as a joke, isn’t it amazing how much the Brits can whinge about not winning? Actually, in the past week or so there have been a number of suggestions from the punters as to how we can get back to the glory days when Eurovision was a cosy little West European club, before all those little Ruritanian countries joined with their crazy ideas that they had as much right to win as anybody, and when Britain could enter any old crap and be assured of a top-ten finish. One is that the rich West European countries should secede, have their own song contest, and leave the East to its own devices. (This ignores the fact that the West Europeans didn’t vote for Andy either.) Another is to bring in weighted voting, so Mickey Mouse countries like Slovakia or Albania have fewer votes than (say) Spain or Holland. Neither of these bright ideas seems likely to fly.

Which brings me to our old friend Professor Geras. I must confess, I like Norm. And this isn’t just a residual affection based on how brilliant he was when he was a Marxist – I don’t, for instance, afford the same indulgence to Branka. But Norm has some personal qualities that go a long way to making him the human face of the Decent Left. He’s about the only Decent I can read for pleasure (as opposed to comedy value). He can usually be relied on to be sensible and insightful. He has the endearing habit of pouring cold water on the crazier schemata of his more enthusiastic chums. He also, in practice and not just in rhetoric, allows that you can fundamentally disagree with him without that making you some kind of deviated Nazi. That earns him brownie points in my book. Norm may be a ju-ju man, but he’s a ju-ju man with class.

Of late, Norm has been ruminating at great length on the question of a “league of democracies”, a sort of permanent coalition of the willing, which would act as either an alternative or a supplement to the United Nations. Like a lot of Decent discourse, this is recycled from something the US neocons have been discussing for a while. And like a lot of neocon discourse, it derives from Cold War geopolitics. You see, the point about the UN is its very universality. But that leads to a problem, at least since the great 1960s wave of decolonisation, which is sort of analogous to Britain’s Eurovision problem. That is, the UN is full of uppity Third World countries who believe they have a right to be heard and who have a distressing tendency to go off message and say the most extraordinary things. Take Evo Morales, who holds the eccentric view that the Bolivian government should put the interests of Bolivian peasants ahead of those of Yanqui corporations. Honestly, having someone like that walking around the corridors of world diplomacy is like having your dinner at White’s disrupted by a crowd of lager louts.

So the neocons, and evidently the Decents, feel the need for a club with some sort of door policy to keep the riff-raff out. The big difference is between those who actually counterpose the LoD to the UN, and those (like Norm) who feel that the two can peacefully coexist, possibly with the LoD operating as a kind of differential franchise – the “democracies” could be sorta like America, and the rest of the world like Puerto Rico or Guam.

I can foresee a big snag with this grandiose plan, and the snag is this – who’s going to get into the club? Since there are few countries in the world that don’t have contested elections and the other paraphernalia of liberal democracy, are we really talking about the UN minus China and North Korea? No, the aim is something much more exclusive than that. Really, the criteria should be “countries currently in agreement with US foreign policy” or possibly “countries Norman Geras and Paul Berman currently approve of”. One assumes the core of this league will be the US, Britain, the White Commonwealth and probably Israel, with additional countries being added on ad hoc. In that case, the optics aren’t great.

I tell you what, a lot of countries are going to get severely fucked off if they aren’t allowed into the club. Moreover, the Empire has always relied on some dodgy allies. We could, just to pluck an example out of the air, see the government of Pakistan (Mr 10% prop.) be invited, since it’s such an important player in the War on Terror. Presumably the point of the exercise is to avoid that sort of thing, since the Decents’ avowed aim is to destroy realist foreign policy and replace it with “idealism” (or magic realism), but the realist practice of actually existing imperialism does confound their hopes.

There are all sorts of delicious possibilities inherent here. Presumably Iran would be excluded from the LoD, but the puppet government of Iraq would be included. To do otherwise would make an open nonsense of the “new democratic Iraq”. And yet, the Iraqi government is a coalition of pro-Iranian Shia theocrats together with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, itself having an extremely close, decades-long relationship with Tehran. Reasons of Imperial face might also require the warlord state of Afghanistan and the mafia state of Kosovo to be counted among the “democracies”. On the other hand, countries like France or Greece might be counted out according to how far they deviate from the Washington line.

So, would the league of democracies be a sort of diplomatic Premier League, with promotion and relegation? And anyway, who gets to decide what the criteria are and who meets them? Are we talking about an extension of the Council of Europe principles worldwide? Is this meant to help enforce compliance with civilised norms, or at least with Civilised Norm?

I don’t really take this very seriously – it’s the kind of thing IR theorists debate down the pub when there’s nothing very interesting going on. But I imagine the debate will run and run – God knows, if you’re not expecting anything to happen, you can argue forever about hypotheticals. Perhaps a symposium in the next Democratiya?


  1. prianikoff said,

    June 4, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    Don’t think much of Norm ever since he joined the Euston mob.

    But I did like his intro to my copy of the “Grundrisse” (Penguin edition).

    Also he shares my affection for Emmylou Harris,but he’s an obsessional completist, who has every album – all reviewed on his blog. (the only reason I’ve ever read it, in fact)
    I’m only episodically obsessional and think I could have steered her career much better than the Scouse advertising man she hitched up with in the 80’s.

  2. Dr Paul said,

    June 4, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    The League of Democrats (League of Decents?) would have fun when it comes to Palestine. Al Fatah would get the seat, because Washington likes them, whereas Hamas, despite getting more votes, are positively beyond the Pale of Decency.

  3. Rob said,

    June 4, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    What’s quite interesting (and disturbing) is the way that this development fits into the broader post-9/11 discourse, which has represented a marked turn back towards concepts whose roots can be traced back to the international law of colonialism. Underlying all of these thought experiments is the notion that only a small group of ‘civilised’ nations ought to be allowed to create law on the international field, and act with the full-range of sovereign rights and duties. Once exams have finished I might well try and write up something on this.

  4. johng said,

    June 4, 2008 at 6:38 pm

    Well I know an ex-student of his who described him as more bad tempered and hierarchical in his approach then your average blog.

  5. Darren said,

    June 5, 2008 at 5:42 am

    “Well I know an ex-student of his who described him as more bad tempered and hierarchical in his approach then your average blog.”

    I’ve got a mate who went to York and said the same thing about Callinicos. 😉

  6. Dear Koba said,

    June 5, 2008 at 9:07 am

    Yeah but you might learn something useful from Norm

  7. Ken MacLeod said,

    June 5, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    Prianikoff said: But I did like his intro to my copy of the “Grundrisse” (Penguin edition).

    That must be a different Penguin Grundrisse to the one whose intro was written by Martin Nicolaus, a Maoist.

  8. ejh said,

    June 6, 2008 at 7:20 am

    So, would the league of democracies be a sort of diplomatic Premier League, with promotion and relegation?

    Or possibly a franchise system? Countries would presumably have to bid for admission (or indeed retention of status) on a yearly or a multi-yearly basis. It’d be on free market principles and all.

    Or, talking of the Premier League, particularly rich men could maybe buy up individual democracies to run as vanity projects. Over to you, punchline provider….

  9. organic cheeseboard said,

    June 6, 2008 at 8:55 am

    One assumes the core of this league will be the US, Britain, the White Commonwealth and probably Israel, with additional countries being added on ad hoc.

    I really hope i don’t come across as ‘weirdly obsessed’ here, but it strikes me that Israel is the key here as it is to so much Decent thinking on international affairs. The Decents, united with the American and Israeli right, are not fans of the UN, and one of the key reasons is that the human rights council has a fairly clear focus on Israel/Palestine, and it seems to keep coming down in ‘favour’ of the latter. Notwithstanding the fact that the HRC is not really very powerful at all – in comparison with, say, the security council – a lot of Israelis and Americans feel that the UN affords non-democratic states, mainly the Arab ones, far too much power to criticise its allies.

    Again, notwithstanding the fact that the USA has a veto with which it blocks almost all criticism of Israeli military activity, and notwithstanding the fact that Iraq has well and truly proven that the USA is willing to ignore the UN if its wants anyway, nonetheless the UN is deeply unpopular with neocons and Decents precisely because it has a habit of not toeing US policy lines, and Israel is a big part of this. There’s a groundswell of public opinion in Israel to become part of NATO, so far very thankfully being resisted, but all the same, and i hope this hasn’t come across as obsessive, Israel is a key issue behind this ‘league of democracies’ idea. the assumptions are that as Israel has an elected govt, it is inherently superior to any country which does not, and as such should be more or less free from censure from any other ‘non-democratic’ country.

    Rob in the comments is right, of course, that overall the main problem with this plan is that it looks very similar to the old imperial system of a few western nations, with inbuilt superiority complexes, dictating to smaller nations with less military power how they should be run. I’ve just come back from Indonesia, and while i was there i was reminded that actually, the original colonial project died very recently, and is still fresh in people’s minds.

    It’s not hard to see how this plan would look to someone from one of the countries likely to be excluded from the league of democracies. with Iraq so recent in the memory this looks suspiciously like the same old colonial system, but with a slightly more patronising face. as other commenters have said, where do Pakistan and Palestine fit in? Even if Fatah were elected I have the suspicion that Palestine probably wouldn’t ever be admitted – or if they were, it would be under the kind of preconditions that make this kind of idea so unacceptable.

    and ultimately there are two or three names which you can bring up immediately, and which render the idea null and void. Those are China, India and Pakistan. Three nuclear powers which would have to be included, and the first of which is so obviously not democratic that for it to be included would make the whole thing look like what it is – a sham.

    This all reminds me – to use the footballing comparisons – of the G14. A select few traditionally powerful clubs forming what amounted to a pressure group to try to make sure their often dubious wishes were made policy of a corrupt but globally representative body. And the biggest problem is that membership is only open to the richest clubs, is permanent, and by invitation only, much like this league of democracies would be (although I’m sure they would have some sort of weird measure for how democratic a place is).

  10. ejh said,

    June 6, 2008 at 9:12 am

    One point about Decent commentary is that the term “imperialism” doesn’t really exist in their vocabularies except insofar as they react against it.

  11. organic cheeseboard said,

    June 6, 2008 at 9:29 am

    A good point that ejh. And sorry to dwell on this, but it strikes me that for Decents, in their interpretation of history, the imperial age was all some time in the medieval period, and as decentpedia says, the second world war finished yesterday.

    an awful lot of former colonies have been independent for about 50 years. which means that people my age (late 20s) will have grown up under the influence of a generation who were adults during the colonial period. I think it’s important not to underestimate the legacy of imperialism – how enduring these memories are. It’s convenient for Britons to forget, and Americans can pretend that they were never an imperial power anyway, and point to Niall Ferguson who in the one-line summary of his work says that it was a good thing in any case, but the people who it effects – the colonised – have rather clear memories about this sort of thing.

  12. Martin Wisse said,

    June 6, 2008 at 10:16 am

    He also, in practice and not just in rhetoric, allows that you can fundamentally disagree with him without that making you some kind of deviated Nazi.

    Not my experience with him. In general, I find Norm to be an even greater douchebags than out and out hacks lik Nick Cohen or Alan “not the minister” Johnson. They are at least honest in their douchebaggery, while Geras hides it behinds this facade of reasonableness. He has a cozy little niche in academia and you feel it’s all so much after-sherry speculation with him, with no care for real world consequences.

  13. June 6, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    […] Splintered Sunrise […]

  14. prianikoff said,

    June 6, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    Ken MacCleod: “That must be a different Penguin Grundrisse to the one whose intro was written by Martin Nicolaus, a Maoist.”

    Sorry, just checked and you’re right. Martin Niclaus also translated it.
    Which means Geras is even more of an academic marxologist than I’d imagined.

  15. Phil said,

    June 6, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    He has a cozy little niche in academia

    Not for a while now, unless you’re counting a university pension.

  16. D.J.P. O'Kane said,

    June 10, 2008 at 2:45 am

    I remember Geras gave a good talk on the uniqueness of the Holocaust in QUB years ago.

    As for the ‘League of Democracies’, I suspect it will be a largely anglophone thing. . . meaning that Paris and Berlin may well ended making a troika with Moscow, as Immanuel Wallerstein has been predicting for years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: