Thinking back to early December, we’re still not sure whether the visit to France by the Libyan dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, was good or bad. Good, because even members of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government openly expressed their discontent with receiving a chronic human rights abuser in Paris; or bad, because they all had to backtrack and accept that France is now in the business of “engaging” thugs for financial gain.
The contradiction between making money and defending human rights has long been at the center of international affairs. More often than not the imperatives of the first have overridden those of the second. For a moment after his election, Sarkozy looked like he might buck the trend. His appointment of Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister, like that of Rama Yade as secretary of state for human rights, suggested he would favor policies focused on the protection of individual liberties.
Instead, Sarkozy has been recklessly unprincipled in his behavior overseas. The opening to Libya was almost entirely done so that France could sign large contracts, in particular defense contracts, with the Libyan regime. Recall how several months ago Sarkozy played a key role in helping release Bulgarian nurses held by the Gadhafi regime (lubricated by a ransom paid for by the Qatari government). At the time, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, son of the Libyan leader, let the cat out of the bag as to the real motivations behind the release in an interview with Le Monde.
Gadhafi told the newspaper: “First, the agreement [with France] involves joint military exercises; we will be buying Milan anti-tank missiles from France to the order of 100 million euros, I think. Then there is a project for the manufacture of arms, and for the maintenance and production of military equipment. You know it’s the first arms supply deal between a Western country and Libya [since the sanctions ended].”
In an interview with the Le Nouvel Observateur just before Moammar Gadhafi’s visit to Paris, Sarkozy was at some pains to defend his embrace of the Libyan leader. His main argument, however, was that unless countries spoke with authoritarian regimes that showed a willingness to alter their behavior, there would be no progress on human rights.
Sarkozy had a point, sort of. For Western states to advance democratic values worldwide, they need to articulate these in their dealings with autocrats, or autocratic governments. But what Sarkozy didn’t say is that the democracies often start off with a concession by engaging dictators before the latter earn engagement first by making concessions of their own on human rights. The practical result of Sarkozy’s thinking is that democracies usually find themselves in a dilemma: talking about human rights but doing little about it because engagement is usually premised on a political or financial calculation that makes one want to deal with unsavory regimes in the first place. In other words, despots are only really “frequentable” if they have something the West wants; and if they have something the West wants, then that places them in the driver’s seat when it comes to such things as human rights and democracy.
That deadlock can be convenient for both sides. Western governments can say that they spoke out in favor of human rights, before moving on to the more lucrative business at hand; and the despots can take pleasure in watching the hypocrisy of their Western interlocutors.
There may not be many ways out of this dilemma. The reality is that two very different logics are confronting each other: the logic of rational compromise, which the democracies bring to the table; and the logic of the gun, which the autocrats bring to the table. Almost invariably, the logic of the gun wins out because, first, the international community is divided and a despot will always find a willing business partner somewhere; and, second, because the logic of rational compromise relies on persuasion rather than intimidation, and no amount of persuasion will change a dictator whose stock in trade is intimidation.
What does all this mean for a capitalist culture — the assumption that capitalism in its cultural manifestations should encourage the free exchange of ideas, minimal state-imposed restrictions, and, ultimately, the pursuit of human liberty?
Plainly, this equation has usually failed to work when it comes to relations between states. For France’s capitalists to prosper and be happy, Libya’s political dissidents have to suffer without the benefit of French solidarity. Until, and unless, the democracies place human rights and liberty at the forefront of their endeavors, the situation will remain as is. Leaders like Sarkozy will say, with hand on heart, that they are defending the dictators’ victims, then turn around and arm the dictators to the teeth.