Monday, October 12, 2009

Fiat Justitia, Pereat Armenia?

In an essay published today in the Armenian Weekly, Prof. Theriault – a member of the faculty at Worcester College - accuses two diaspora Armenian political scientists, Asbed Kotchikian and David Davidian, of taking a ‘neutralist’ position on the protocols issue – and rejects the claimed ‘rationalism’ of their analyses. Much hinges on the meaning of rationality and irrationality within his paper. The author employs a rather broad conception of the term: rationality, he claims, is about “logic’ – it is, more specifically: a form of thought in which reasons are given in support of a claim”. He continues:

…the numerous dissenting Armenian voices rejecting the protocols present rational arguments based on factual evidence for rejection. While one might challenge the logic and dispute the claimed facts, the fact that some rational people disagree with rejection of the protocols does not mean that those who reject them are irrational.

Quite apart from the fact that Davidian does indeed challenge the logic of the opponents of the protocols – which, by Theriault’s own definition, would give him the right to call their arguments irrational – Prof. Theriault goes down the self-righteous track by, in effect, implying – however indirectly – that Davidian and Kotchikian, and all other ‘protocol supporters’ as traitors, because:

For Armenians to acquiesce in this is not merely to betray the memories of those who died and those who survived. It is not merely to accept one of the great grand larcenies of history and the debilitating poverty that has resulted.”

Leaving aside this self-righteous moment, Theriault’s “analysis” contains two fundamental flaws: firstly, a breathtakingly leap-of-faith confidence in the power of justice and legitimacy in international politics, and, secondly, an inability to distinguish between rationality and reasonableness. Let’s look at these flaws in turn.

We need look no further than Plato’s Republic and Gorgias to see advocacy of ethical principle over realpolitik by a thinker universally recognized as one of the most rational in human history. Of course, those who understand how social movements really work, how they succeed, will recognize this all-or-nothing strategy as quite practical…

…he writes, then referring to the accomplishments of Mahatma Ghandi in India, and Martin Luther King in the United States, subsequently making the extraordinary statement that “moral legitimacy is a great force in geopolitics and is the reliable ally of the weak, oppressed, and marginalized.

Prof. Theriault inevitably comes to overestimate the power of justice and legitimacy in international politics, for one simple reason (quite apart from relying on classical authors whose works were indeed ethereally ethical, but ultimately politically impractical) – he fails to make a distinction between the transnational and international realms. The former is the level of interpersonal relations, through state boundaries. The second is the world of Nietzsche’s “cold monsters” – the states. While arguably highly interrelated, these two worlds very arguably function according to different logics.

Simply put – one would have to change the way the international realm ticks for Prof. Theriault’s arguments to have any bearing on what happens between states. While there is a wholesale intellectual attempt with precisely that aim – Critical International Relations and Critical Security Studies – it has minimal effect on policymakers, even where Great Powers are concerned. Prof. Theriault should look at the fate of the United Kingdom’s ‘ethical foreign policy’ during the first years of Labour’s rule – it didn’t take long for its lofty declared ideals to bump into the harsh realities of international politics. Unless Armenia is able to change the rules of the international game – something even Great Powers would struggle to do - it will have to acquiesce in these rules, or risk losing out. The choice is stark, but clear.

It is telling that all examples given by Theriault come from social movements operating at the transnational, or even sub-national realms – the fact that Ghandi faced the rule-of-law British, and that Martin Luther King operated under the protection of the American constitution does not appear to weaken their relevance for the current inter-state processes between Ankara and Yerevan for the author. But these two personalities were leaders of ‘social movements’, within states. In the anarchic world of inter-state relations, there are no supreme courts, no constitutions, no policemen to protect you and provide ‘justice’ – or, more accurately, legality - when things go wrong; you – the state – are pretty much on your own. To paraphrase both Theriault and Stalin, “how many divisions does moral legitimacy have?

Theriault’s second mistake is his conflation of rationality and reasonableness – always dangerous in the social sciences. Rationality is about matching means to ends – it is about optimizing resources given certain aims. Reasonableness refers to the choice of these aims. The greatest problem in the current debates surrounding the protocols is that both means and aims are contested. Quite simply, the proponents and opponents of the protocols have a different idea of the way the Armenian state should prioritise its aims: does historical justice come first, or do bread-and-butter concerns (survival in prosperity) matter more? Once you don’t agree on the aims of statehood, it is not difficult to disagree on the means as well. What might be ‘profitable’ or conform to the requirements of ‘raison d’├ętat’ may very well be despicable from the point of view of ‘justice’. In the end, it is not simply about ‘logic’, but the aims you choose, the hierarchy within these aims and how well means and ends are matched up.

And here, the question becomes how reasonable – or in fact, ethical - it would be to burden the Republic of Armenia with the task of providing ‘justice’ in a world where even Great Powers are, as a rule, unwilling or unable to be guided primarily by ethics. Or how morally justifiable it would be to cling on to an attitude that, in effect, implies – ‘fiat justitia, pereat Armenia’: that there be justice, even if Armenia may perish.

The morality of the protocols’ proponents lies precisely in their rejection of such an attitude. They value statehood, and the fate of Armenia’s present and future citizens, over the requirements of restitution for the past, in the knowledge that a prosperous and self-confident state would be the best – and most rational - retort to the injustices of Genocide. In the end, isn’t that what Kant’s categorical imperative is about: that humans always remain the aim, and never become the means?