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Gaza: when words fail

EPA/Oliver Weiken

The continuing slaughter of women and children in Gaza is a painful reminder of the inadequacy of international institutions and our collective inability to impose order, let alone justice, in the world. The absence of a united ‘international community’ is plainly one reason it is so difficult to address even the most confronting and unnecessary of humanitarian crises.

There are others, though, which may point to an even more pervasive and corrosive threat to the way we conduct and think about international relations.

It is not only the Palestinians who are being brutalised at the moment, though. So are we, albeit at an altogether less traumatic, sensory level. The increasingly routine nature of human suffering not only deadens our emotional responses, it also risks normalising high levels of indiscriminate organised violence as an acceptable part of international affairs.

Cynics may say it was ever thus, but it’s important to recognise that – until recently, at least – there seemed to be a growing aversion to using force to ‘solve’ international problems.

This is – or was – not only surprising, but mildly optimism-inducing, especially when seen against the backdrop of what some of the leading lights of international relations theory would have us believe.

According to Thucydides, widely considered the father of Realist thinking, the strong do what they will and the weak endure what they must. This cheery aphorism not only applied to ancient Greece, Realists claim, but to every period in history – including our own.

And yet not only has interstate violence been in precipitous decline for decades, but the most powerful states have not always taken advantage of their overwhelming military superiority. Many people are – understandably, perhaps – critical of America’s involvement in Iraq and the violence this involved and unleashed. What most people don’t consider though is that it might have been far worse.

The great paradox of America’s foreign policy is that for all its military might it has been unable to win decisive military victories against Third World, even third rate, opposition. Why? Because American foreign policymakers felt some degree of socially constructed, non-military inhibition about what they could and couldn’t do.

In Vietnam, for example, the Americans drew the line at using nuclear weapons in the North, even though there was little chance that either the Soviet Union or China could have done much to stop them.

Much the same could be said about North Korea now. The US could remove the North Korean regime and its military tomorrow if it wished to do so, with very little fear of retaliation from China or anyone else. One reason that it does not is that this is simply unacceptable behaviour.

For a nation that styles itself the leader of the free world and a beacon of progressive values, killing thousands, possibly millions of innocents to remove a strategic threat would not be a good look – no matter how odious the regime.

Put simply, the US is constrained in part by domestic and international public opinion and the norms of non-violence and proportionality that have become an entrenched, if sometimes unrecognised, part of an increasingly transnational order.

Being a good international citizen means accepting the legitimacy and appropriateness of such norms. It is precisely this non-material influence on international behaviour that is currently being undermined by recent events.

We have already become accustomed to the idea that at least one country has the right, if not the responsibility, to employ drones to eliminate people who are deemed – rightly or wrongly – to be ‘terrorists’.

Inevitably there is ‘collateral damage’ in the form of civilians who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The ‘good’ thing about such weapons from the perspective of those that deploy them is that they involve no risk to their users, and because they are unseen, evoke little public outcry.

What’s happening in Palestine is – or ought to be – different. We can literally see for ourselves that not only is it painfully apparent that blameless women and children are the principal victims, but it also becoming evident that, for some people at least, it is the necessary and acceptable cost of dealing with an implacable foe.

In other words, the normative constraints that have hitherto stopped states from using disproportionate force – especially when the world’s media is looking over their shoulders – no longer seem to apply in quite the same way. Our socially constructed, discursively realised, ideas about humanity, morality and justice are in danger of being permanently undermined.

True, words will become important once again – if only so the protagonists can use them to call a halt to the current mayhem Gaza. Whether they will have lost some of their potential potency when it comes to curbing future outrages remains to be seen.

I’m reluctantly coming to the view that Thucydides may have known something awful, true and timeless about some of the more powerful parts of humanity.

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