Recent days have seen Dick Cheney and Tony Blair point belligerent fingers at Tehran, but both spoke in the slipstream of Bernard Kouchner, who a month ago warned the world that it should prepare for war over Iran’s nuclear programme. “We have to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war,” said the French minister of foreign affairs. The swell of rhetoric – which culminated in President Bush’s assertion last week that a nuclear-armed Iran could provoke a third world war – is gravely undermined by what Sir John Holmes, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, has called the “taint of Iraq”, and the weapons of mass destruction pretext for invasion. Why should we believe the US and its allies now, when we were already so brutally deceived?

There is, however, another aspect of Kouchner’s warning that is much more worrying. When the newly elected French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, nominated Kouchner, the great humanitarian, as the head of Quai d’Orsay, even some of Sarkozy’s critics hailed this as a pleasant surprise. Now the meaning of this nomination is clear: the return of the ideology of “militaristic humanism”. The problem with militaristic humanism resides not in “militaristic” but in “humanism”. Under this doctrine, military intervention is dressed up as humanitarian salvation, justified according to depoliticised, universal human rights, so that anyone who opposes it is not only taking the enemy’s side in an armed conflict but betraying the international community of civilised nations.

This is why, in the new global order, we no longer have wars in the old sense of regulated conflict between sovereign states in which certain rules apply (the treatment of prisoners, the prohibition of certain weapons, etc). We instead confront violations of the rules of universal human rights; they do not count as wars proper, and call for the “humanitarian pacifist” intervention of the western powers – especially in the case of direct attacks on the US or other representatives of the new global order. One can hardly imagine a neutral humanitarian organisation such as the Red Cross mediating between the warring parties, organising the exchange of prisoners, and so on. For one side in the conflict already assumes the role of the Red Cross – it does not perceive itself as one of the warring sides but as a mediating agent of peace and global order.

The key question is, thus: who is this “we” on behalf of whom Kouchner, Blair et al are speaking? Who is included in it and who is excluded? Is this “we” really “the world”, the apolitical community of civilised people acting on behalf of human rights?

[Extract. Appeared in The Guardian on October 23rd 2007.]


Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.

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