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Alphabet Soup and the Libya No-Fly Zone

By Griffin W. Huschke, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow


International Relations theory is weird.  In most cases, policy is constructed in dichotomies of “realism versus idealism” or “liberal versus conservative”.  Never one to follow the pack, international relations theory is full of philosophies that aren’t traditionally juxtaposed in political discourse: in the US , the competing schools in IR theory are realism, liberalism and constructivism, with a smattering of feminists, critical theorists, cultural scholars, Marxists and other smaller disciplines making noise now and again.

While there’s a pretty big disconnect with elegant international relations theory and messy, messy foreign policy, the Bush Administration is largely regarded as following pretty realist paradigm (although realists will never admit it).  Condoleezza Rice’s pre-9/11 article in Foreign Affairs is a pretty good representation of realism’s core beliefs: the U.S. should use its power to pursue its own national interests without much regard for the will of international organizations like the UN.   The Greek historian Thucydides was credited with the first realist take on international organizations, and alliances as a whole—when you face a common threat, alliances are great. Every other time though, watch your back, because you never know who is going to turn on you.

Conversely, liberal scholars, who take their founding conceptual framework from German political theorist Immanuel Kant, think that alliances are great ways to strengthen a  country, and that international organizations are pretty swell, too.  Liberals argue that international organizations, like the UN and G8, allow for countries to air their grievances without going to war, and strengthen trade agreements that make everyone money.  International organizations also allow states to interact with each other enough that you can expect a certain behavior from different countries (we call that shortening the “shadow of the future” in The Biz). Overall, liberals argue that multilateral organizations have host of positive effect on the international community that allows participating countries reap more benefits than they could hope to get on their own.

Although there’ve been a few of nattering nabobs of negativism on Obama’s commitment to the international community, the ongoing civil war in Libya has demonstrated the President’s full-on liberal colors.  In the last couple of weeks, the Obama administration has reached out to all of the relevant international organizations, including the UNNATOthe Arab League the African Union, and the G8, in weighing the options for a no-fly zone over Libya.  Warships sent to monitor the fighting in Libya flew the NATO naval ensign, and were ordered to act only in response to a UN Security Council resolution.  It’s enough to make a grown liberal scholar all verklempt.

On the transatlantic level, the EU and US have been issuing similar measured responses since the situation began.  Defense officials on both sides of the Atlantic have issued calls for support from the Arab world, and the proposed no-fly zone would be a wholly NATO job.  Indeed, Secretary Clinton’s trip to Libya to meet with the Rebel Alliance, er, the Libyan National Council, came on the heels of a meeting between French Prime Minister Nicholas Sarkozy, Mon Mithma, and Crix Madine Mahmoud Jibril, and Ali Al-Esawi, two important members of the Rebel Council.  Even humanitarian aid is being discussed in a transatlantic manner.  Its going to be tricky for the transatlantic community to pull together something quick and legitimate, but its going to get done soon.  And for those fighting and dying in the lawless lands of Libya right now, that probably sounds pretty good.


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