The Principle of Autocracy and Spheres of Influence
20 August 2012
In several posts I have attempted to understand autocratic regimes “from the inside,” as it were, seeking to grasp the reasoning of those who take a principled stance in the denial of freedom to entire peoples and populations. I gave one formulation of this in Modeling the Other, and offered a practical interpretation of this in Mullah Mohammed Omar’s Eid al-Fitr Address for 2012. Moreover, I suggested that these formulations of autocracy cannot be dismissed as being merely amoral, since there is even an utilitarian moral justification for this, as I described in The Chinese Conception of Human Rights.
The moral defense of autocratic governance is that autocratic institutions are necessary to secure the greatest good for the greatest number, which is an unambiguously utilitarian conception. While this would be laughable in relation to the Taliban, were it not for the miserable condition of the Afghan people — one could even argue that the Taliban while in power secured rather the greatest harm to the greatest number, constituting the pure inversion of a utilitarian morality — but this argument is deadly serious when it comes to the Chinese, who both preach and practise it. More importantly, the Chinese have their admirers even among Westerners. While I am quite certain that these Western admirers of Chinese utilitarianism would be loathe to surrender their own individuality to the good of the masses, they seem quite content to argue that the Chinese should accept the surrender of their individuality to the state. Some of the worst hypocrites in this respect even imply that such political models should be brought to Western countries, though, again, their own personal autonomy is not to be infringed, but it is fine to infringe the autonomy of others who they take to be much less important than themselves.
However, I am not interested in exposing the hypocrisy of China admirers — Tom Friedman is often cited as an admirer of the efficiency of Chinese autocracy, though for my money Robert Kaplan is the more dangerous China admirer, since he makes the moral case for autocratic utilitarianism — who are today the useful idiots of autocracy as others once played the role of serving as the useful idiots of communism. Rather, today I am interested in extrapolating the principle of autocracy, understood in its full moral, social, political, and diplomatic dimensions, which brings us to the consideration of a perennial feature of the politics of power: spheres of influence.
The central principle of autocracy is the inviolability of autocratic rule. In geographical terms, this means the inviolability of the autocratically ruled geographical territory, and, if the legitimacy of neighboring regimes is recognized, the inviolability of the neighboring regime’s territory. This was concisely expressed by Mullah Mohammed Omar such that, “The Islamic Emirate does not intend to interfere in the internal affairs of others nor allow others to interfere in its internal affairs.” The same idea has been repeatedly expressed by every nation-state that resists political “interference” in “internal” matters. The idea here is that the autocratic regime possesses absolute autonomy within its own territory, including the power of life and death over its citizens, and acknowledges a parallel autonomy to hold for other regimes in other territories.
Every nation-state recognizes a limited form of this principle, out of the pragmatic realities of power projection even if not out of an intrinsic respect for the boundaries of another nation-state, but there are implicit limitations upon this principle, and we have seen these limitations tested repeatedly since the Second World War and its aftermath up to the present day. When a regime’s depredations upon its own people reaches a level which is considered genocidal, even those who recognize a limited form of territorial inviolability will countenance a violation of territorial integrity in the interest of ending a genocidal campaign against a people internal to a given nation-state.
However, since there is no universally recognized application of the idea of genocide to actual historical circumstances, there is always disagreement about the threshold of intervention on humanitarian grounds. We can agree, after the fact, there there was a genocidal program in progress in Nazi-occupied Europe, and we can agree that the Khmer Rouge were engaged in a genocidal program in Cambodia, but beyond these paradigm cases there is little agreement, and therefore thresholds of intervention vary for different political entities.
The autocrat often must involve himself in moral contortions to excuse, explain, and justify his depredations upon neighbors, and this often takes the form of denying the legitimacy of neighboring regimes (putatively the objects of mutual respect and mutual non-interference), much as the advocate of slavery must deny the common humanity of those subject to enslavement even while celebrating the humanity of those other individuals who fall within the charmed circle of the free who are presumably beyond enslavement. Similarly, the autocrat who invades his neighbors denies that neighboring regimes constitute legitimate forms of power and therefore are exempt from his principled respect for other regimes’ internal affairs.
While depredations upon neighboring regimes are precisely parallel to depredations upon one’s own population — the former is external while the latter is internal, so that these actions represent the external expression and power and the internal expression of power, respectively — the principle of autocracy as defined by power’s own inviolability is an infinitely flexible pretext for action characterized as an attempt to defend this inviolability. We know that one of the most common rhetorical tropes of autocracy is to blame internal dissent on agents provocateurs under the control of external actors; this immediately de-legitimizes dissent as not being an authentic expression of internally subject peoples and therefore constitutes a violation of the autocrat’s autonomy. Exactly this pretext is then naturally extended to the external powers claimed to be underwriting internal dissent. There is no quarter of the globe that lies beyond the reach of an autocrat convinced that he is being “attacked.”
The supposed inviolability of internal state security thus is not limited to internal security, but naturally is projected outward and externally. An autocrat, once having consolidated an internal security regime, immediately perceives the possibility of danger from abroad, and so seeks to extend this internal power as far as possible beyond his borders. The ability to project power with impunity beyond the geographical territory defined by state boundaries is a sphere of influence (in the geopolitical sense). Autocratic regimes of expanding influence eventually collide on the far boundaries of their spheres of influence.
History is rich in examples of powers mutually dividing the world between their respective spheres of influence. The Spanish and Portuguese division of the New World along the Tordesillas Meridian meant that European discoveries in the Western hemisphere would be divided between Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence. This division continues to the present day, although the English did not recognize the legitimacy of the Papal decree on spheres of influence in the New World and consequently created their own sphere of influence by fiat through the establishment of colonies.
The European colonial divisions of Africa and Asia are now notoriously cited as examples of spheres of political influence and domination, and indeed the very idea of a “sphere of influence” carries with it a certain taint of colonialism, but since the political world cannot really get past the idea of a sphere of influence, it persists, even if it is called by other names and practised most grievously by those who have been the loudest in their condemnation of colonialism.
Spheres of influence can be carefully for formally defined, as in the British, US, French, and Soviet occupation areas of Berlin following the Second World War. Berlin proved to be a microcosm of Cold War spheres of influence, which were not nearly so well defined, due to shifting alliances and the ideological opportunism of potential client states. As the Cold War developed and its paradigmatic divisions emerged across the planet, the reality of spheres of influence were felt in every aspect of life. The Cold War was a Total War the transformed the lives of all peoples inducted into the struggle; the global division between US and Soviet spheres of influence defined the boundaries of the Cold War.
There is a fundamental asymmetry between autocracies and non-autocratic regimes, and that asymmetry is that non-autocratic regimes recognize some form of popular sovereignty and have some form of democratic institutions, which limit the depredations of a regime upon its own people, whereas the autocratic regimes of the world have no such limitations upon their depredations. Thus the “internal” affairs of a non-autocratic regime are not likely to involve mass atrocities, whereas autocratic regimes may pragmatically choose to limit their depredations, but there is no restraint in principle on an autocratic regime’s depredations. And while autocracy begins its justifications at home, in terms of its internal security, we have seen that this internal security regime cannot in fact be limited within the borders of an autocratic nation-states. Therefore there is in principle no limitation on the depredations of a autocratic regime either upon its own people or upon neighboring regimes.
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