Tag Archives: philosophy

Crackpot theory no. 13: the responsibility to rebuild

My recent mention of the positivist/idealist divide in pre-revolutionary Russian liberalism led to a bit of a discussion in the comment section about the source of morality. One version of the positivist view is that of Marxists. According to this, laws – whether they be moral or judicial – are mere constructs of power relations. Essentially, rules are established by those in power to cement their position and enforce obedience among the subordinate classes. It would be wrong, in my opinion, to consider power to the be-all-and-end-all of morality. That said, the Marxist view does provide a means of considering moral problems, inducing us to enquire ‘cui bono?’, ‘who benefits from this?’ Once you start doing this, you begin to realize that what appear to be moral arguments are often in reality mechanisms for advancing interests.

It is, to my mind, no coincidence that the philosophy of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) gathered steam in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West found itself with uncontested military power but a lot of awkward rules concerning state sovereignty preventing it from using that power. Knocking down those rules released the West from these constraints and gave it the opportunity to flex its muscles whenever and wherever it wanted. While R2P was justified on moral grounds, the appearance of this new moral rule was actually a reflection of the shift in the international balance of power.

Along with R2P, Western thinkers also came up with the concept of ‘the responsibility to rebuild’. Again, this masqueraded as a moral idea while in practice promoting Western military strategic interests.

The responsibility to rebuild was part and parcel of the philosophy of what is known as jus post bellum – justice after war. Under the influence of philosophers such as the Canadian Brian Orend, the idea of jus post belllum suggested that states should consider more than the justice of going to war in the first place (jus ad bellum), and more than the rules of what they could do during war (jus in bello), but also the rules of what should be done after war (post bellum). As part of post bellum thinking, supporters of R2P came up with the connected idea of the responsibility to rebuild.

The commission that wrote the original report on R2P argued that the responsibility to protect included a ‘responsibility to rebuild’, which ‘will involve the commitment of sufficient funds and resources and close cooperation with local people, and may mean staying in the country for some period of time after the initial purposes of the intervention have been accomplished,’ and which will involve ‘sustained daily efforts at repairing infrastructure, at rebuilding housing, at planting and harvesting, and cooperating in other 3 productive activities.’

In this case the responsibility to rebuild relates specifically to the aftermath of a humanitarian intervention, but other authors have extended the responsibility to post bellum situations more generally. US Admiral Louis Iasiello, for instance, states that, ‘Victors have a moral obligation to ensure the security and stabilization of a defeated nation … they must … repair and rebuild infrastructure essential to a vulnerable population’s health and welfare’. This duty to rebuild involves not merely economic reconstruction but also democratic reform, in order to create, if not liberal democracy, at least what Orend terms ‘a minimally just political community’. Walking away before this is achieved would, according to Jean Bethke Elshtain, ‘be an act of moral dereliction of the most egregious kind’.

Superficially, it seems all very kind and humanitarian. After a war is over, Western states (for it is surely they who these authors have in mind) shouldn’t just leave the country they have destroyed but should help it rebuild itself. Who could be against that?

But stop and think about it for a moment. Let’s go back to the R2P commission. This said that the responsibility to rebuild ‘may mean staying in the country for some period of time.’ And now you can see what this is really about. It’s a means of justifying prolonged military occupations of foreign countries. ‘We can’t leave. We have to stay and occupy these people, because we have a responsibility to rebuild!’ In short, as I pointed out in a book chapter I wrote on this subject a few years ago, its primary purpose is to ‘allow states which have waged unjust wars to continue unjust occupations of conquered territories.’

We can see this by the fact that now that so many of the West’s recent neo-colonial occupations of foreign countries have ended badly, talk of the responsibility to rebuild has magically vanished.

Let’s take the example of Afghanistan. Last month, Russian officials hosted Taliban representatives in Moscow, and the two sides came up with a joint statement, which among others things said the following:

‘The sides have proposed to launch a collective initiative to convene a broad-based international donor conference under the auspices of the United Nations as soon as possible, certainly with the understanding that the core burden of post-conflict economic and financial reconstruction and development of Afghanistan must be shouldered by troop-based actors which were in the country for the past 20 years.’

In short, the Russians and the Taliban are calling the West’ bluff. ‘You have a responsibility to rebuild,’ they’re saying. Do it.

The West, however, seems not so willing. Now it’s no longer the controlling power in Afghanistan, the responsibility to rebuild has ceased to be a useful tool for justifying its actions, but rather an inconvenience. Western states are saying that they will provide aid to Afghanistan, but that it must be conditional on the Taliban abiding by certain human rights demands, such as better treatment of women. But surely, if you have a responsibility to rebuild, you have it come what may. In the past, it was never said that this was conditional. We were deemed to have the responsibility regardless.

And so it seems that we in the West don’t believe in this responsibility any more. Well, I can’t say that I’m surprised.


Yale University professor Timothy Snyder has been making mild waves again this week with an interview in which he pontificated about linguistic policy in Ukraine. On the one hand, Snyder argued in favour of increased Ukrainization; on the other hand he proposed that instead of just repressing the Russian language the Ukrainian authorities should standardize a Ukrainian version of it, in order to distinguish Ukrainian-Russian from Russian-Russian. Personally, as someone who lives and works in a bilingual environment, I can’t quite see why we can’t just let live and let live,  and why it wouldn’t be better if people could live, work, and publish in whatever language suits them, especially in a country in which the population speaks (more or less equally) two languages. It’s amazing how self-proclaimed liberals and democrats seem so keen on measures which seem so obviously illiberal and undemocratic.

In Snyder’s case, however, it’s not altogether surprising. Readers may recall that he has been actively promoting the thesis that contemporary Russia is a fascist state which poses a deadly threat to the entire world. His logic is that the Kremlin has adopted as its unofficial ideology the writings of émigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin, and that since Ilyin was a ‘fascist’, that makes the Russian state fascist too. Several other authors have made similar claims. As I’ve explained on several occasions, it’s all nonsense. But there’s something about my character which always makes me doubt myself, even when I’m sure I’m right. Maybe I’ve missed something. Maybe I’ve misinterpreted something. You never know. And so, despite the fact that I’ve read a fair amount of Ilyin and yet to come to the conclusion that he’s a fascist, there’s a little voice which pops up and says, ‘Maybe you’re wrong; find more evidence.’

Fortunately, I’ve now had the chance to dig a little deeper. In Moscow a few weeks ago, I met up with Iury Lisitsa, who has edited 30 volumes of Ilyin’s collected works, and he kindly gave me a copy of the newly published volume no. 31 fresh off the printing press. It consists of op-eds written by Ilyin for émigré and Swiss newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s, and as such provides a good tool for analyzing the philosopher’s political thought and for testing the ‘Ilyin = fascist, ergo Putin = fascist, ergo Russia = fascist’ thesis a bit further. So far, I’ve yet to read all 900 pages, but I’ve skimmed through most of it, and read some parts of it in detail. It’s interesting stuff.

ilyin book

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Friday book # 24: Motherland

In this week’s book, Lesley Chamberlain charts what she calls the ‘long tradition’ of Russian philosophy from 1815 to 1991. Russia, she says, ‘sits uncertainly on the Western fringe in an alternative cultural space’. Its philosophy has followed a unique path, producing a ‘culture without reason’, rejecting the Enlightenment and the logical pursuit of truth in favour of German Idealism and the desire ‘to find a moral way of being’. Chamberlain believes, however, that the collapse of communism has brought this ‘long tradition’ to an end, and that Russia now stands ‘on the edge of reason’. I suspect that some readers might find this analysis a bit condescending. And given the apparent divergence of Russia and the West in the decade since the book was first published in 2004, I wonder if Chamberlain would reach the same conclusion today.