International Politics and the Production of Arab National Councils

One of the many interesting things the “Arab awakening” of 2011 has given us is the opportunity to witness the reproduction of the international system in real time with uncommon clarity.

By “international system,” I mean the institutions around which global politics is organized and the norms and values on which those institutions depend. This system may feel like it’s a feature of our natural environment, but it isn’t. As anthropologists are especially adept at showing, the political systems that we take for granted are really constructs we produce through everyday practices and representations.  These constructs often become so deeply embedded that it’s hard to imagine a world without them, but they are not inevitable, and their dependence on human practice means they are forever vulnerable to challenge and change. In a way, these systems are like ant hills. We collectively build and rebuild them as we follow our daily routines, often without even being told to do so. Even though the hill is constantly under repair, its residents and constituent materials always changing, we still perceive it as a fixed feature of the landscape.

The defining feature of the contemporary international system is the organization of politics at the global level around relations among nation-states. The nation-states on which this system is predicated are, in the ideal, hierarchical political organizations with unified authority over specific swathes of territory. This authority is legitimated through mutual recognition; you are the rightful ruler of your territory because I recognize you, and I am the rightful ruler of my territory because you recognize me. In practice, this system means that every bit of (populated) territory is assigned to a specific state; each of these states is supposed to speak with one voice; and international relations is supposed to be about official representatives of these states talking to (or, increasingly rarely, fighting with) each other.

Because this system presumes the existence of unified, sovereign governments, its constituents get very uncomfortable when the identity of another member becomes unclear. Unfinished revolutions are one way that can happen. When states say they no longer recognize an existing government as the legitimate representative of another state, the design of the international system compels them to anoint a successor as quickly as possible. That successor can’t be any old organization, however; it has to fit the template of a state. It ought to speak with one voice for the entire territory over which it claims authority, and, ideally, it ought to have some capacity for backing that claim to authority with force.

In Arab states experiencing revolutions this year, international demand for a successor to regimes declared illegitimate has encouraged the rapid formation of national councils to which international recognition could be readily transferred. The “national council” meme got started in Libya back in February, when rebels in Benghazi announced the formation of a council that would unite new governing bodies and military forces across “freed” parts of Libya. Two weeks later, France became the first country to recognize the Transitional National Council (TNC) as Libya’s legitimate government, and many other countries soon followed. At the time of its formation, the TNC papered over regional divisions that are becoming more apparent now that Gaddafi has been driven from Tripoli. In the meantime, though, international recognition legitimated military cooperation with rebel forces and gave the TNC access to badly needed funds.

The Libyan national council’s success at attracting international recognition and support has spurred imitation. Opposition forces in Yemen followed suit in August, and Syrian dissidents did the same in early October. Neither of these councils has won international recognition yet, in part because they haven’t shown many signs of being able to seize and sustain control of territory–one of the pillars of national sovereignty under the current system.

The important point here, though, is that these national councils have not arisen organically from domestic politics. There is undoubtedly some domestic logic to their creation–unified and coordinated revolutionary movements usually stand a better chance of toppling incumbent rulers than fragmented ones–but there is a strong outward-facing element as well. I think these councils came into being as quickly as they did–and maybe even at all–in response to pressures from foreign governments whose endorsements and material support they thought they needed to win their revolutions. Tellingly, SNC spokesman Ghalioun said at the international press conference announcing the council’s formation that one major benefit of the SNC’s existence “would be to provide a single body with which other countries could coordinate.”

Without question, the establishment of a unified and credible alternative government is a convenience for other states cheering for the fall of the incumbent regime. What often goes unrecognized in this process is the potential for unintended consequences. In the short run, this rush to unity could have some positive effects by hastening the successful conclusion of these revolutions. At the same time, international pressures to present a unified face may accelerate or even prevent political bargaining among opposition factions in ways that could undercut the viability of the regime that follows.

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  1. This is a great example of Gourevitch’s point in his “Second Image Reversed” paper. It’s an important argument to emphasize – we really need to be more conscious that the distinction between domestic and international politics isn’t as neat and tidy as the divides in our academic disciplines try to make it.


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