Saturday, June 03, 2006

Fred Halliday on internationalism & human rights (Salmagundi)

Norman Geras directs us (in Normblog) to a very interesting, outspoken, and intellectually substantial interview with Fred Halliday in Salmagundi. For anyone who doesn't recognize the name...
Fred Halliday is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics. From 1968-1983 he was a member of the editorial committee of New Left Review and is now a columnist for the online magazine openDemocracy ( His books include Arabia without Sultans (1974), Mercenaries: Counterinsurgency in the Gulf (1977), Iran, Dictatorship and Development (1978), The Ethiopian Revolution (1981), Threat from the East? Soviet Policy from Afghanistan and Iran to the Horn of Africa (1982), The Making of the Second Cold War (1983), From Kabul to Managua: Soviet-American Relations in the 1980s (1989), Revolution and Foreign Policy: The Case of South Yemen, 1967-1987 (1990), Arabs in Exile: Yemeni Migrants in Urban Britain (1991), Rethinking International Relations (1994), From Potsdam to Perestroika: Conversations with Cold Warriors (1995), Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (1996), Revolution and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power (1999), Nation and Religion in the Middle East (2000), The World at 2000: Perils and Promises (2001), Two Hours that Shook the World: September 11, 2001—Causes and Consequences (2001), The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (2005), and 100 Myths about the Middle East (2005).
Norm's advice: "Read the whole thing; you won't regret it." He's right. Even if you don't agree with everything Halliday says (I don't), it will give you a lot to think about.

--Jeff Weintraub
Norman Geras (Normblog)
June 2, 2006

Internationalism and universal rights

There's a terrific interview with Fred Halliday in Salmagundi. He starts by explaining his differences with 'the major political orientations of the New Left Review', differences that have a wider application across the left today. Fred writes:

The issue of rights is absolutely central. We have to hold the line at the defense, however one conceptualizes things, however de-hegemonized, of universal principles of rights. This is how I locate my own political and historical vision - it is my starting point. What this means very practically, to cut a long story short, is the issue of intervention. It seems to me that certain interventions in defense of rights are justified - Bosnia and Kosovo, to take two obvious examples, or the defense of the Kurds in Iraq in 1990-1991. The New Left Review and others on that wing of the Left attack not just these particular interventions, but the very concept of rights - and are consistent in doing so.
I took a more complex position, guided not by the interests of the West but by what I saw as the interests of the peoples in the countries concerned. The issue of whether the U.S. should or should not intervene in a country is a contingent one. Each case has to be debated on its own merits. The key issue is not: Is the U.S. intervening? Nor: What are the U.S.'s motives? The key issue is will that intervention plausibly help those people or not? That's the question.
The interview covers a wide range of issues. Here's Fred responding to another question:
Danny Postel: What about the argument that we have to start at home - that we are more responsible for what our governments do because we pay taxes to them? As citizens of the empire, we have more control over what our governments do than what other governments do. How do you respond to that argument?

Fred Halliday: I respond to it by saying that it's a very parochial argument, and inconsistent with internationalism. If women are being denied their rights in Afghanistan, if innocent civilians are being killed by both the Israelis and the Palestinians, don't we, as citizens of the world, as citizens of countries which are signatories to the U.N. conventions, as people with an international moral conscience - don't we have a responsibility both to speak and to act? Morality does not stop at the frontier's edge. These principles are universal. It doesn't mean that we do it without thinking, without listening. This is a curious contradiction: solidarity can become very parochial when it's only about one side rather than the even-handed application of principles to all sides.

It may, as a pragmatic matter, be that you can influence your own side more. But I also know from working in the Middle East for decades now that if you're in jail in Saudi Arabia or Iran, and you feel you're forgotten, it means a lot to know that there are people in the West who are publicizing your case, who are protesting or sending letters, which never get answered. They just get binned. But people have not forgotten you. People are speaking. It makes a difference.

I think underlying this response is a cop-out. It's the refusal to do the work - the necessary intellectual work of actually knowing what goes on in those countries. It's also a kind of inverted nationalism. We only care about our own governments. Whether Huntington on the Right or Chomsky on the Left, it's the same principle. Nationalism and inverted nationalism: flip sides of the same coin.

He's on top form. Read the whole thing; you won't regret it. (Via LFIQ.)