So the Russians outguessed me. I should have expected it. Although, in all fairness, did anyone really expect Syria to be ushered into the world of international nonproliferation efforts by Russia? It is true that Russia has a lot of experience with nonproliferation treaties, but is also true that many such treaties came into existence in part because of the Soviet Union’s assiduous application (in decades past) to the production of weapons of mass destruction. Of course the same argument can be made in the case of the United States, but the military actions proposed by the US were more in keeping with its traditional hypocrisies: the unilateral exercise of power in service of multilateral norms. I expected the bomb-or-not-to-bomb spectacle to be opening in all three rings of the American political circus. I did not expect Russia’s involvement, except as a spectator.
Now, however, Russia has entered into trilateral negotiations with the US and Syria, the UN looks to be on board with the plan, and I have to retract many of my previous statements. Or at least, I need to modify them. Previously I made the point that the UN and anyone else who envisions wide compliance with international norms need to face the uncomfortable fact that there simply is no impartial police force to deal with violators of those norms.
Now however, it seems that chemical non-proliferation compliance may be extended to include a nation that no one (at least, neither I nor Secretary of State John Kerry) expected to give up its right to independently maintain and deploy a chemical arsenal.
In the movie I referenced (somewhat foolishly I admit) as evidence in support of my argument, perhaps the most central quote runs as follows:
“The test of any … higher authority, of course, is the police force that supports it.”
To which we may ask, “Oh really?”
Can we not, in light of recent developments, ask if perhaps policing is not as central as we (or at least as I) believe it to be?
Fellow Judicalis blogger Rayden Vidal has posed this (or a very similar) question in a discussion of the criticisms of International Law offered by realist IR theory. In fact it seems almost a fundamental dilemma of policing. When is it relevant, and when isn’t it? If, as seems to be the case in many (though definitely not all) scenarios, social pressure can be brought to bear with sufficient force to guarantee compliance -- worse, if in many cases, despite a strong police force, infractions continue – how can we ever be confident that we are correct to allocate significant resources to policing?
Or is it even fair to consider tacit social pressure and official policing as separate entities? Especially when actors (like states) often consider themselves to be the highest authorities, and therefore justified in acting autonomously, cannot all policing be considered a form of peer-pressure?
It certainly would not be meaningful (on an international scale) to define official policing as state-sponsored and therefore legitimately entitled to the use of violence. What are the criteria by which we distinguish international social pressure from international policing?
It seems to me that lack of clear answers to these two questions: What is international policing? and When is it relevant, if ever? would seem to make Michael Rennie’s declaration in The Day the Earth Stood Still seem somewhat naïve, if it were not for the fact that he had what we do not, a credible higher authority.
Rather than envying his situation and lamenting our own, however, we may be able to draw a lesson from Syria and Russia’s latest diplomatic coup. Perhaps the greatest test of a higher authority is its police force, but when no higher authority exists to be tested, it may be that no police force need exist to bolster its legitimacy.
Even in the absence an intergalactic police, the world’s nations are, for the most part, united by a desire for prosperity and security. That fact, (national self-interest, hypocrisy, and political intrigue notwithstanding) may ensure that in many (at least in some, and with some luck, in the present) situations, peer-pressure alone will be sufficient to extend the reach of cooperative, non-violent approaches to international conflict.
That being said, this latest initiative could unravel at any moment, but it nevertheless offers some hope.