Previously I recommended blasting Canadian philoso-rock in the DOJ offices in hopes of fostering rhetorical clarity. Today I have an equally radical proposal. We need a screening of the 1951 sci-fi hit, The Day the Earth Stood Still, in the UN. For those who have seen the film, the “why” of this ought to be self-evident. However, for the philistines and ingénues in the audience, I’ll provide a brief plot summary.
In the movie, a flying saucer touches down in Washington DC. The military wounds one occupant (Klaatu, who looks like most young, white men, only Hollywood handsome) and has its weapons vaporized by the other (a giant robot, Gort, also vaguely humanoid). Klaatu makes a miraculous recovery, tours Main Street USA, laments the tragedy of human violence, is shot, dead, and resurrected, proclaims the fiery obliteration of Earth if humans bring their violence so much as an inch into Space, and down comes the curtain.
It’s not a bad movie, and the lesson is clear: Intergalactic norms are easy to preserve – just vaporize anyone who violates them. All you need is a willing coalition of all-powerful, seven-foot super-robots with cheesy, nineteen-fifties laser-weapons, and a lot of dashes. Klaatu’s declaration is pretty straightforward. Here’s the basic text:
There must be security for all – or no one is secure... This does not mean giving up any freedom except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them.
We of the other planets have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets -- and for the complete elimination of aggression. A sort of United Nations on the Planetary level. The test of any such higher authority, of course, is the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots--
Their function is to patrol the planets -- in space ships like this one -- and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression we have given them absolute power over us. At the first sign of violence they act automatically against the aggressor. And the penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk.
The result is that we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war -- free to pursue more profitable enterprises.
We do not pretend to have achieved perfection -- but we do have a system -- and it works. I came here to give you the facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet -- but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.
The ultimatum contains most of the principal Cold War doctrines of the 1950’s neatly packaged: mutually assured destruction, the exclusive right to violence exercised by the State, and a technological solutions to social ills.
Why do I bring it up now? Because I think my president may have begun to believe himself to be modern day Michael Rennie, Klaatu to a hopelessly embattled Syria. And, to tell the truth, I am not so sure he is entirely wrong to have come to feel this way. His one previous test case, that of Libya, went rather well in that France and Britain stepped up to the plate quite willingly. It seems Gaddafi had earned enough international ill-will over the course of a long and polemic dictatorship, and that the UK and France saw sufficient political and economic compensation, to set the international peace lasers aglow.
How much can we fault the president for assuming that, after so many thousands of civilian deaths Syria, a chemical weapons would be sufficient to fire those lasers up again?
I think we must fault him a bit. The geopolitics of Syria aren’t those of North Africa, nor indeed is the political scene in Europe in 2013 what it was in 2011. Two years can be a long time. Sarkozy is gone, for one, and Parliament seems increasingly reform-minded day by day. Still, despite these changes, I can see why the president might have expected more support than he ultimately received. Similar arguments can be made about congress, although every president must reckon with decreasing clout as he moves through his second term.
All in all, it seems difficult to offer a resounding critique, but also difficult not to suspect that perhaps he should have known better.
Ultimately, though, the debate over how well Mr. Obama can expect to reprise Michael Rennie is secondary to the far more significant question: Can and should he (or we) expected the UN to reprise the Intergalactic Robot Police? Do we still believe in the state monopoly on violence as a cornerstone of the modern social contract, and if so, will we ever extend it to an international body? If we still agree that “the test of any … higher authority … is the police force that supports it” is not the UN entirely a failure both in the Syrian case and in countless others? And if we don’t any longer support violence as the ultimate recourse of justice, what do we have to offer in its place? Political expediency and unsteady consensus?
The reason the UN and the POTUS need to sit down and watch Gort slag a few shermans is that they seem to have lost sight of the crucial role of violence in the enforcement of norms, international or otherwise. Mr. Obama cannot play Klaatu without a credible death ray to back him up, and the UN needs to realize that it only deepens its irrelevancy by paying lip service to values it is not willing to enforce.