Only the exceptional states need apply

Apply for what position? As it turns out, the truly exceptional states could provide the only rightful applicants for the one position that would suit them: Sovereigns who possess prerogatives and powers which, in some cases, span the globe.

More specifically, what is the nature of this kind of state?

They are — or, better, believe themselves to be — accountable to no one. It is not simply that they have unlimited rights which other states must recognize and respect. Rather, they believe themselves to exist in a condition that is beyond justice and responsibility. Thus they see their powers as intrinsically limited only by the natural environment when it refuses to bow to their will. As unlimited in this way, their imaginations are free to concoct projects that brook no opposition worth recognizing. They are autonomous, and self-creative. They do confront humanly constructed impediments, but these are considered facts that could be otherwise. The world's resources are theirs to use when and where they please and dare. They recognize a law or the law only when they believe such legality reflects and serves their ends.

Theirs is an absolute politics.

The exceptional states are those which strongly embrace Hobbes' "state of nature." It is a condition defined by war and fear. They not only embrace the state of nature but they also willingly live within it while also believing everyone else must remain subject to a system of law if not to the law as such. Only the exceptional states enact laws to which they are not subject. Others obey these laws and lawmakers. The exceptional act. They make history. Others just provide some of the stuff from which history is made. As stuff, they lesser sort have a place in the history made by the exceptional — inconsequential fodder.

There is no irony in the belief of the exceptional that they are not hypocrites because of their conflicting assignments of legal accountability. They are, they believe, merely recognizing the true order of the world. A few states are subjects; the rest are subjected to the rule of the few. It is a matter of who has the power and will to act as they please. The hypocrites, as they might say, are those who believe in the necessity of legality but who break with this belief and the commitment which follows from it whenever doing so suits them. Legality is merely one of their tools.

There are few truly exceptional states. I can identify at least three states which approach the abstract characterization of such a state that I have drawn above. They are: The United States, Israel and North Korea.

North Korea might be the special or degenerate case among the three. It, like Pol Pots' Cambodia, appears to be a grotesque example of that tragedy which marks revolutionary socialism in the 20th century. Its history is nearly unique and serves as a model for no one. And the country is now out of step with the times. Its predicaments make the regime untenable over the long term, for North Korea cannot credibly use the weapons it has or wants others to believe it has in order to blackmail the world indefinitely nor can it survive on its own, given the meager output of its economy. For North Korea to sustain itself, it required membership in the socialist world system, which no longer exists. In any case, North Korea's greatest threat was and remains to those over whom the North Korean state rules. Because of the limited nature of the threat posed by this state, the world now seemingly waits for the North Korean regime to collapse while hoping that it does not take anyone else with it when it does crash.

The same cannot be said for the United States — "Superpower," as Sheldon Wolin labels it — and Israel. They are not, like North Korea, a special (degenerate) case within the class of special cases. Both the United States and Israel are exemplary instances of the exceptional state category identified above. Why is this so?

Both are military and diplomatic powers, are considered legitimate by their citizens, are economically viable and are international powers. Consider the fact that neither cares a jot for its reputation, nor listens to the counsel provided by others. Nor, for that matter, can we expect either of the two to make a credible commitment to engage in civil discourse when confronting other states, to make a real effort to secure world peace, to participate in the rule of law as practiced by international institutions. They practice instead an imperial statecraft which uses as a resource without observing the spirit of an international civil society, of a project of world peace and of a practice of lawful governance. Their interests remain untempered by justice and mercy, by common sense and intellectual curiosity. They are, oddly enough, long-time allies who are perpetually at war with the world around them and at large, and who accept the reality of war as the human reality. They even seem to need and admire each other.

This, in any case, is the significance I drew from this report:

With much of the world expressing fury over the raid, the contrast with Washington's muted response could not have been more striking. 

"The situation is that they're so isolated right now that it's not only that we're the only ones who will stick up for them," said an American official. "We're the only ones who believe them — and what they're saying is true."

The official was referring to Israeli protestations — backed by Israel Defense Forces video — that their solders were attacked by passengers on a ship headed for Gaza with humanitarian aid, when they boarded the ship in what the Israelis concede were international waters.

And this pronouncement:

Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited the Shayetet 13 base in Atlit on Wednesday and praised the commandos who participated in the deadly raid on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla on Monday for carrying out their mission, Army Radio reported.

"You carried out the mission and prevented the flotilla from reaching Gaza," Barak said. "We need to always remember that we aren't North America or Western Europe, we live in the Middle East, in a place where there is no mercy for the weak and there aren't second chances for those who don't defend themselves. You were fighting for your lives – I saw it, and I heard it from your commanders."

And, for that matter, this political manifesto — the National Security Strategy of 2002 — from the George W. Bush White House:

Defending our Nation against its enemies is the first and fundamental commitment of the Federal Government. Today, that task has changed dramatically. Enemies in the past needed great armies and great industrial capabilities to endanger America. Now, shadowy networks of individuals can bring great chaos and suffering to our shores for less than it costs to purchase a single tank. Terrorists are organized to penetrate open societies and to turn the power of modern technologies against us.

To defeat this threat we must make use of every tool in our arsenal — military power, better homeland defenses, law enforcement, intelligence, and vigorous efforts to cut off terrorist financing. The war against terrorists of global reach is a global enterprise of uncertain duration.

America will help nations that need our assistance in combating terror. And America will hold to account nations that are compromised by terror, including those who harbor terrorists — because the allies of terror are the enemies of civilization. The United States and countries cooperating with us must not allow the terrorists to develop new home bases. Together, we will seek to deny them sanctuary at every turn.

I could continue quoting such material indefinitely.

Today the world waits for the opportunity to assess Israel and America's response to the MV Rachel Corrie when it approaches Gaza. Will Israel dare to attack it? Will the United States support Israel no matter what it does? Will they collude in the commission of yet another war crime? Or, will they refuse play their parts in the confrontation that awaits them?

Whatever the path taken by the leaders of the two countries, we can be sure that they will have considered their interests in the matter.

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