Against Despair

Despair is everywhere, and for good reason. Huge numbers of refugees are fleeing warfare and violence, while unceasing terrorist attacks are feeding the right-wing populist surge all across Europe ...

Despair is everywhere, and for good reason. Huge numbers of refugees are fleeing warfare and violence, while unceasing terrorist attacks are feeding the right-wing populist surge all across Europe and North America. The world has gone awry, and no viable solution has emerged.

Human rights, the great optimistic ideology of the 1990s, seems to be in retreat; meanwhile old, tired ideas from the heyday of the nation-state and decolonization are suddenly viewed as answers to the violence. Yet the territorial partitions and ethnic cleansings of the 20th century are hardly models of success. Whether we look to India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, or Rwanda and Burundi, it is now clear that partitions and population removals legitimized—rather than resolved—violent ethnic and national conflicts. Nevertheless, these ideas have returned to the world stage. Leftover slogans of the 1960s—such as “peace now,” anti-imperialism, and people-to-people exchanges—also fail as solutions to the huge, complex, bloody conflicts in places like Syria and Iraq. And after 15 years of American-led warfare in the Middle East, it’s clear that military interventions don’t work. In fact, they only exacerbate the problems.

Despair gets us nowhere. In the current crisis, we need an imaginative politics that draws on the most progressive developments of the 20th century, but also goes far beyond them. We need a confident, forward-looking form of militant democracy.1 A militant democracy would foster democratic practices that percolate through domestic societies and international institutions, accelerate and increase protection of human rights at the international level, and cultivate a robust international solidarity. This is especially true in an ever more globalized world with instant communications. A retreat to narrow nationalisms is a recipe for more violence.

Syria sits at the center of this maelstrom. Recent books, lectures, and blogs by Reese Erlich, Joshua Landis, and Michael Ignatieff offer much insight into the present crisis, but also demonstrate the limits of prevailing political thinking. If knowledgeable experts like these three are at a loss, then it really is time to open ourselves to new ways of conceptualizing the difficulties and to look far ahead for a solution.

But before doing so, it is crucial to fully understand our current predicament.

At present there are some 60 million refugees worldwide, an astonishing, incomparable figure. Not only is it the largest since the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees began tallying the numbers in 1950, it is no doubt the largest number ever in world history. And it doesn’t even include those whom the UN classifies as Internally Displaced Persons, refugees within the borders of their own countries. By the end of 2015, Syria alone held over six million IDP refugees.

Lawless violence is growing. There are the terrorist attacks, most recently in Baghdad, Dhaka, Istanbul, Brussels, Orlando, and Paris. By killing random civilians in public places, terrorist groups like the Islamic State (IS) have created a palpable sense of fear and insecurity in daily life. While attacks in the West and the near-West (such as Turkey) capture the headlines, the greatest number of victims have been in the Middle Eastern countries ravaged by war. Alongside terrorism, the Great Lakes region of Africa is convulsed with violence at every level of society, yielding the largest humanitarian disaster of the last 20 years. Various warlords and states have carried out every range of crimes against humanity. No intervention—certainly not the half-hearted ones to date by the UN, the African Union, or various governments—seems capable of halting the atrocities.


Politically, the right-wing populist advance all across the Western world provides yet another source of unease. Donald Trump and his analogues in Europe have tapped into the displacement that globalization has created for so many people. Such economic marginalization is real and shows up in all the figures, especially in the United States, of long-term unemployment, lower life expectancy, high levels of drug and alcohol abuse, and gross income inequality. The rightist response has been a nasty surge of racism and xenophobia, directed first and foremost at immigrants. The Brexit vote, with its ensuing political chaos and economic uncertainty, is only the most vivid example of this trend. And yet it has revealed social cleavages in their stark, naked form: old versus young, provincial versus global, common people versus the elite, native-born versus immigrant.

This was not how it was supposed to go. The flood of refugees, the spread of violence, the rise of xenophobic politics: all this was to have been consigned to history.   Icons of the human rights movement—such as Aryeh Neier and Michael Ignatieff—now look back with nostalgia on what both see as the heyday of their movement: the decade (more or less) between the fall of communism and 9/11.2 At that time, after years of struggle, Soviet bloc dissidents triumphed, as did the foes of apartheid in South Africa and Namibia. Latin American dictatorships fell, one after the other. Despite the wars in ex-Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide, accountability, not impunity, was on the rise. National courts pulled generals and their henchmen before the bench, while innovative forms of justice—such as the gacacas communal courts in Rwanda, as well as truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa, Argentina, and other countries—flourished. Human rights enforcement advanced at the international level as well. An array of tribunals appeared, beginning with those for ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda, culminating in the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002.3

At the turn of the new millennium, human rights advocates could survey the political landscape with some well-earned sense of satisfaction. Another decade and a half on, human rights seem to be on the steep downslide, their violations on the increase.

Syria pushes all these issues to the forefront. The barrel bombs and sarin gas, the deliberate attacks on hospitals, the physical devastation of neighborhoods and cities, warring factions and a vicious state with a powerful backer in Russia, unending streams of refugees and IDPs: the utter destruction of a people and a society is underway, with no end in sight. Erlich, Landis, and Ignatieff all provide insights regarding the history and politics of the conflict. No one—not these three or anyone else—has an easy or complete answer to this complex and devastating conflict. Still, these three experts don’t get us far enough down the road of solutions. Erlich generally stays mired in the political world of the 1960s, Landis that of the 1920s and 1940s, while Ignatieff offers a hodgepodge of reasonable, pragmatic prescriptions that nevertheless reveals his greatly diminished hopes and expectations.

Erlich, an award-winning freelance journalist, first published Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect, in 2014. It has been reissued with an epilogue bringing the story up to spring 2016. The book is based on extensive travels and interviews in Syria and the neighboring countries. Erlich is well-informed, and his interviews and on-the-ground reporting bring to life the tragic dimensions of the Syrian crisis. Anyone who needs a primer on events and the various factions and their leaders will find it here, including two helpful appendices, with a timeline and capsule descriptions of the rebel groups.

Erlich makes clear that Bashar al-Assad, like his father, Hafez al-Assad, garners significant popular support. Syria, much like Iraq, has always been a complex society—including Christian Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks; heterodox Muslim sects like the Alawites and Druze; Zoroastrians and others—which has supported the dictators because they provided a shield of secularism against Islamic militants. And like many other dictators, the Assads, father and son, have known how to win support by offering wealth and social mobility to those who proved their loyalty (their fellow Alawites first and foremost).


Erlich managed to talk to all sorts of participants, and attempts to present each of their perspectives fairly. Still, his sympathies lie with virtually every group hostile to United States policy in the Middle East. He attempts to give a fair shake to the Kurdish and al-Qaeda leaders he interviews, as well as the Hezbollah commanders. And though he occasionally lets loose a string of condemnations seemingly to verify his opposition to Islamic terrorism, his anti-American political sensibilities make short work of such blustering.

Erlich’s writing demonstrates a fair amount of naiveté and an inability to move beyond 1960s slogans. His clinging to the labels of left and right are a prime example of this failure. To apply “ultraright” or “ultraconservative” to IS and the al-Nusra Front displays a singular failure of political analysis. What do these radical Islamic groups have in common with Edmund Burke or, for that matter, William Kristol, individuals whom we would easily label conservative? His naiveté also emerges when he write that “Islam is a religion of peace, as is Christianity, Judaism, and all the religions I know of.” This kind of argument demonstrates a lack of knowledge regarding the historical development of each of the monotheistic religions. Each faith, alongside declamations of peace, has been fully capable of launching untrammeled violence against its opponents. As Robyn Cresswell and Bernard Haykel have written, something exists in Islam that enables Islamic terrorists to claim that they are acting in accord with their religion.4

Far more informative and nuanced are the various writings, interviews, and lectures by Joshua Landis, an American expert on Syria. Landis knows the language, history, and politics of Syria better than most commentators. He has become something of a media darling, with scores of appearances on National Public Television and other venues. His blogsite carries comments and articles by other experts that are also well worth reading.

Underneath an affable manner, Landis takes a hardheaded, realist approach to the Syrian crisis.5 In his estimation, the multiple American efforts at state building and democracy creation have all failed miserably. This failure goes back to the support of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and continues through today in the Iraq war as well as the interventions in Libya and elsewhere. For decades, America has destroyed states but has been unable to establish viable governance structures in their place.

This is a story that we know well. Landis adds depth to the picture by his knowledge of Syria. Religious nationalists like IS have constituted the only forces able to unify some of the diverse populations of Syria. The other rebel groups—all told, amounting to about one hundred, according to Erlich—are small, clientelist cliques that are wholly rooted in their village and clan and nothing beyond. They quickly become warlords, and find support among foreign powers—like Saudi Arabia and Qatar—who want no one to win. Meanwhile, Assad, with Russian backing, has maintained a significant base of support across a diverse swath of Syrian society, who all rightly fear the deadly consequences of any of the rebel groups seizing power. For Russia, Syria is its only card in the Middle East. Under the protection of Vladimir Putin, Syria has become one more vehicle for reasserting Russia’s great power status. And Putin has succeeded. No deal of consequence in the Middle East can be made without Russia’s involvement.

And the future? Syria, according to Landis, is already partitioned. We don’t yet know where the borders will fall; but a truce will come when the lines dividing Kurdish, rebel-held, and Assad regions are recognized. That means, of course, that Assad is here to stay, and the sooner the US openly recognizes that reality the sooner we will get to some kind of Yugoslav-like solution. Not pretty, but at least the chaos and violence will be halted.

Landis seems resigned to this kind of partitioning as an inevitable feature of the Syrian crisis, and of the nation-state in general. Since the American and French revolutions, he argues, nation-state creation has been a violent process that often entails a “great sorting out” of populations. He is certainly correct historically, but is this a reasonable policy prescription for the 21st century?

<i>US Secretary of State John Kerry views the Mrajeeb al-Fhood camp for Syrian refugees, 2014</i>. Photograph by US Department of State / Wikimedia Commons

US Secretary of State John Kerry views the Mrajeeb al-Fhood camp for Syrian refugees, 2014. Photograph by US Department of State / Wikimedia Commons

Landis’s language evokes that of British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon, who, at the 1923 Lausanne Conference that led to the final World War I peace treaty with Turkey, spoke of the “unmixing of peoples.” Curzon ignored millennia of world history before the age of the nation-state by suggesting that homogeneous populations under the state were natural, whereas diversity was somehow artificial. Curzon and all the other major participants at Lausanne—the Greek prime minister Eleutherios Venizelos, the representative of the emergent Republic of Turkey, İsmet İnönü, and the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Fridtjof Nansen—agreed that “unmixing” was the way to resolve ethnic and national conflicts, even when it entailed the compulsory deportation of nearly 1,000,000 Christians from Anatolia and around 450,000 Muslims from Greece.

Lausanne was the first time that an international treaty legitimized what we now call ethnic cleansing. It opened the path for similar agreements, and immense human misery, in the decades that followed. The deportations of around 13 million ethnic Germans from Central and Eastern Europe at the end of World War II is one tragic example: the founding of Israel, with the forced removals of Palestinians, followed by the expulsion of Jews from the Arab lands, is another. Other examples include the massive displacements of Muslims and Hindus that accompanied the establishment of India and Pakistan, not to mention the creation of a Hutu-dominated Rwanda and a Tutsi-dominated Burundi, which resulted in not one but two genocides of Hutus (in Burundi in 1972, and, better known, in Rwanda in 1994). These horrific events of the last century, as well as today’s countless streams of refugees, are the results of partitions and the belief that population homogeneity—or a state fully dominated by one ethnic group—is the solution to conflict (leaving aside the fact that homogeneity is never fully attainable).

Despite these examples, it seems that we are back to this kind of solution, in Iraq as well as in Syria. Alongside Landis’s acceptance of the partition of Syria (and he is hardly alone), recent discussions in the US government have revived then Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s call in 2006 for the three-way partition of Iraq—into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi’ite territories—along with the requisite population movements to create homogeneous areas.6 Choose the term you like—population unmixing or the great sorting out—both are pallid phrases that disguise the injustices and suffering that always accompany the forced removal of people from their homelands, whether such policies are organized by states or by paramilitaries and warlords. Landis, unfortunately, has fallen into the Curzon trap, the belief that the nation-state and population homogeneity are the only way to be in the modern world.

The Syrian crisis haunts Michael Ignatieff and seems to challenge his life’s work. Ignatieff was, of course, among the liberal interventionists who supported the Iraq War, but he came to rue his decision. He believed that toppling Saddam Hussein would open the wellsprings of democracy. Instead, the Iraq War opened up the chain of events that has led to the meltdown of governance and society in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. At least Ignatieff has had the wherewithal to retract his earlier position (most especially in a 2007 mea culpa in the New York Times Magazine).

In his recent speeches and writings, Ignatieff has underscored the contradiction between the vivid imagery of the Syrian disaster that we can instantly access, and the incapacity of individual states and the international community to do anything about it.7 Every state interested in Syria supports its proxies, and then loses control of them. The United States makes pronouncements—the red line regarding chemical warfare, the demand that Assad has to go—and then does nothing to make any of it happen, thereby worsening the situation. Meanwhile, the number of rebel groups multiplies at a dizzying rate.

All this, according to Ignatieff, has shattered the post-1989 consensus: the belief in moral progress (especially the advance of democracy and human rights), and the international community’s commitment to intervene when individual states massively violate the human rights of their citizens. Ignatieff was one of the authors of the Responsibility to Protect, a powerful challenge to state sovereignty and a sign of international commitment to human rights.8 R2P, as it is known, received unanimous acceptance by the UN member states in September 2005. Now, as a result of Syria, Ignatieff suggests, R2P lies in complete tatters. The same is true of the laws of war. Starvation is used by all sides as a weapon of war; civilians suffer indiscriminate attacks. And the timid response to the refugee crisis—Angela Merkel and Germany excepted—has undermined the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which obligates states to take in refugees.

The sheer scope of the human tragedy in Syria has forced Ignatieff to retreat from the moral high ground to support almost anything that will stop the violence. He seems to accept the reality that Assad will not be overthrown, nor will Russian influence vanish. The refugee flow into Europe needs to be regulated, Ignatieff argues, otherwise we risk undermining democracy and contributing to the right-wing populist advance. A balance has to be reached between the universal obligation to take in refugees and state sovereignty. The United States, Russia, and Iran need to make real the cease-fire and negotiations. The Western powers have to provide more support for the “frontline states”—Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan—that have taken in the majority of refugees. America in particular has to take more refugees. UNHCR and the World Food Program have to be fully funded, the Turkish-German deal to contain the refugee flow supported. And a no-fly zone, presumably led by the US, has to be established over parts of Syria to protect civilian populations.

Much of what Ignatieff proposes is reasonable enough, and perhaps the most that can be expected in the current circumstances. But is it enough? Is this the most we can say and imagine in this moment of despair? Does the retreat to concepts like state sovereignty, diplomacy, and humanitarian aid provide a fundamental solution?

<i>Two 11-year-old refugees from Syria, 2013</i>. Photograph by UK Department for International Development / Wikimedia Commons

Two 11-year-old refugees from Syria, 2013. Photograph by UK Department for International Development / Wikimedia Commons

A moment of great crisis such as this one requires more creative thinking than Erlich, Landis, and Ignatieff can muster. Certainly, the situation is immensely complicated, the human suffering far beyond the bounds of anything that should be acceptable in the 21st century. Each of the issues—unfathomable numbers of refugees, unending warfare and terrorist attacks, the right-wing surge in the West—requires a different mix of policy measures. Without question, military force exercised by powerful states is required to bring recalcitrant rebels, terrorists, and dictators to heel. Great power diplomacy has to be pursued alongside the use of force. Refugees need to be cared for and integrated into the societies in which they have landed. Civic organizations must challenge, as many have, the political and sometimes violent attacks on those deemed “foreigners” (an often false label, since many are second-, third-, and even fourth- generation residents and citizens of the countries in question).

These individual policies, important as they are, are not enough. They need to be assimilated into a new, comprehensive political orientation. When there are no easy answers we have to think broadly and search forward, rather than backward, to policies and principles like territorial partitions, individual state sovereignty, and anti-imperialism.

Human rights require the protection of states, but so long as rights are based in national citizenship, some categories of people will always be deprived of rights. “A man who is nothing but a man,” writes Hannah Arendt, “has lost the very qualities that make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man.” A life outside of political community, outside the bounds of citizenship, is a life reduced to nothingness. One no longer has the “right to have rights.”9: the right to be able to acquire rights.” See J. G. Fichte, Foundations of Natural Right according to the Principles of the Wissenschaftslehre (1796), edited by Frederick Neuhouse and translated from the German by Michael Baur (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 333. I don’t know whether Arendt was aware of this precedent.] Today, with the massive increase in the number of refugees and IDPs, Arendt’s insights of 60 years ago are more relevant than ever. And more demanding of imaginative solutions that go beyond a Syrian cease-fire, as critical as that is.

Does the retreat to concepts like state sovereignty and humanitarian aid provide a fundamental solution?

The refugees must be welcomed back into the national and international fold. At the very least, we need a robust revival of the Nansen passports of the 1920s and 1930s. These passports were issued by the League of Nations to stateless refugees and enabled people to move across borders. But just as important, they gave people a sense of identity, of a place in the world. Today, a revival of the Nansen passports would not only help relieve the physical suffering that is an intrinsic part of refugee life; they would also relieve the disorientation of non-belonging in a world that places primacy on papers and national citizenship.10 At the same time, individual states and societies have an obligation to offer sanctuary. Democratically minded citizens simply can’t allow their countries to take in only paltry numbers of people desperately in need. US policy has been particularly disgraceful in this regard. A determined policy of international solidarity—addressing the psychological struggles and pragmatic needs of the world’s refugees—would build off Arendt’s critique and form a key component of militant democracy.

Beyond these immediate woes, we must go farther to enact permanent solutions. Militant democracy means that democratic practices have to percolate throughout society, in the economy especially. But in our globalized world, democratic practices cannot be limited to the domestic political sphere. They need to be instituted at the international level as well. A reformed EU that is far less bureaucratic and much more democratic would be a powerful ally and agent for such sweeping changes. A rekindling of America’s own commitment to human rights and internationalism would be decisively demonstrated by joining the International Criminal Court. In that way, the United States would play a key role in the continual movement of human rights protections beyond the nation-state to the international level. The EU and the US could lead the way in pioneering trade agreements that protect workers and the environment, at home and abroad, and in embracing immigration as a social and economic boon to the nation.

In our era of angry populism, rising anti-immigration sentiment, catastrophic numbers of refugees, heightened security, and surveillance measures within liberal states, the answers are to be found in not less, but more. More democracy, more human rights, more internationalism, all bound together as a transformative new political vision for our globalized world. Not a shy, retreating, embarrassed defense of human rights and international solidarity; nor a resigned shrug that globalization is the way of the world and we have to live with it as it is; but a confident, defiant projection of democracy, human rights, and internationalism forward into the 21st century. Only these principles, translated into policy, will ensure that the right to have rights is not defined exclusively by national citizenship, leaving millions of refugees as marginalized non-persons. Only a militant, vibrant democracy will enable us to solve today’s bloody conflicts: not with 20th-century nationalism and sectarianism, but with a new and necessary 21st-century internationalism. icon

  1. I am adapting here kämpferische Demokratie (militant democracy), a term used by German communists in 1945 as they returned to Germany from exile and resurfaced from the underground within the country. It was often used in association with other phrases, like “democracy of a new type.” Other anti-Nazi resistance groups around Europe promoted a similar political language. They all were searching for a way to broaden the idea and practice of democracy, something that seemed possible amid the relatively open political situation in Europe from around 1944 until the full onset of the Cold War in 1948 with the construction of Stalinist states and societies in Central and Eastern Europe. Kämpferische Demokratie is different from wehrhafte or streitbare Demorkatie, although all have the same English translation. The latter terms are associated with the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany and give the state the power to defend itself against forces hostile to democracy. Kämpferische Demokratie, as I am using it, is more society- and international-oriented, wehrhafte or streitbare Demokratie more state-oriented. See Günter Benser, Die KPD im Jahre der Befreiung (Dietz, 1985). For a related concept, see Ian Buruma, Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance (Penguin, 2006).
  2. Aryeh Neier, “The Future of Human Rights?” lecture at The City College of New York, October 5, 2015, and idem, The International Human Rights Movement: A History (Princeton University Press, 2012). For Ignatieff, see below.
  3. On national courts, see Kathryn Sikkink, The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions are Changing World Politics (Norton, 2011). On international tribunals, see David Scheffer, All the Missing Souls: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals (Princeton University Press, 2012).
  4. Robyn Cresswell and Bernard Haykel, “Battle Lines: Want to Understand the Jihadis? Read Their Poetry,” New Yorker, June 8 and 15, 2015.
  5. For one example among many, see “Current Conversations,” Robert Con Davis-Undiano with Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma, January 4, 2016, YouTube video, 57:48.
  6. See Tim Arango, “Reviving an Old Idea for an Iraq Still in Turmoil,” New York Times, April 29, 2016.
  7. For example, Michael Ignatieff, “The Destruction of Syria and the Crisis of Universal Values,”Kelman Seminar, Harvard Law School, March 7, 2016, YouTube video, 1:29:01 and “The Refugee Crisis in Europe: How Did It Happen? What Do We Do Now?,” Central European University, January 21, 2016, YouTube video, 1:31:54.
  8. For a devastating critique of R2P, see Rajan Menon, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention (Oxford University Press, 2016).
  9. Ignatieff and many others often cite this passage. See Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951; Meridian, 1958), pp. 300, 296. Arendt’s formulation, “the right to have rights,” is uncannily close to a phrase by the German Enlightenment philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte: “The one true right that belongs to the human being as such [is
  10. Ignatieff mentioned the Nansen passports in the discussion following his lecture, “The Destruction of Syria and the Crisis of Universal Values.” His grandparents, refugees from the Bolshevik Revolution, carried Nansen passports.
Featured image: Free Syrian Army soldier walking among rubble in Aleppo, 2012. Photograph by Voice of America News / Wikimedia Commons