Book of the Month for November 2017
by Leif Wenar
Oxford University Press (2015)
MIGHT MAKES RIGHT, or why you and I support some of the most atrocious regimes around the world and why that is about to change (if we want it to).
Who wouldn´t want to live in a resource-rich country? A place where oil, gas or diamonds just pop out of the ground. Money literally growing for you to pick it up. Maybe not that many people, not at least if you live in a country ruled by weak institutions or without an extensive democratic history, which was the vast majority of the world not long ago.
Might makes right is the principle that authorizes the use of coercive forces to exploit natural resources and sell them to other countries or individuals. If that natural resource is used to make phones, clothes or to drive you home, that individual becomes you. The idea is simple: international law understands that a ruling regime represents its people and therefore whatever that regime does with its resources i.e. oil, is legal, like selling it to us. Even if in order to obtain that resource, a few kids need to be mutilated or a couple hundred thousand people need to be exterminated because of their religious beliefs.
Might makes right is the principle that authorizes the use of coercive forces to exploit natural resources
These three words explain a good deal of the world foreign policy scenario as well, and again the principle is not extremely complicated. Quick case study: Country X is recovering from a civil war -or a huge recession. The government and institutions are trying to get back on track when all of a sudden, a large oil source is discovered and a few armed men decide to take the resource hostage and sell it for their own benefit. At this point it´s just government versus militia or people versus militia however, in a few months, the amount of dollars that you and I paid these militia for their oil made them more powerful than their government and their people combined will ever be. So yes, thanks to us the legitimate authorities and their people are doomed from the start. Well, thanks to might makes right.
But hey, maybe you aren’t the empathetic kind and you can’t care less about those people; if they can’t handle their business that’s their problem, right? Now let’s say that Country X is the Soviet Union, and discovers oil in Siberia in the 1960s, sells it to the western countries, and in 10 years –thanks to those transactions, their military power equals the United States. Well then you have something called Cold War, which may sound closer to home than Equatorial Guinea. Or let’s say that Country X is Saudi Arabia, and one sunny day in the 1930s king Saud and religious leader al-Wahhab discover oil. They decide that Saud can have the kingdom and oil as long as he spreads and preserves Wahhab’s religious values, and at some point, Saudi Arabia starts spending billions in order to spread Wahhabism around the world -billions that we pay them diligently in return for their oil, and suddenly you have a thing called ISIS. Sounds familiar, right?
Chances are that if you have a phone, don’t walk naked in public or use a motorized vehicle, you have enabled similar episodes like the ones above. And that’s exactly what those three words “might makes right” do; they make us involuntary actors in the most atrocious acts of our time.
Despite how bad things look, the truth is that as a race, we humans are not doing so bad
So enough with the bad news because, despite how bad things look, the truth is that as a race, we humans are not doing so bad, especially in terms of might makes right. A couple hundred years ago this principle not only applied to resources, it also did to human beings and was called slavery. You could, by coercive force, own an individual and sell him or her under the law. Some brave British men had the courage to challenge that and in sixty years slavery became something marginal and illegal, moving towards full eradication.
Even less than 70 years ago might makes right not only applied to resources but to countries as well. Before the Second World War, it was “OK” to invade a country and rule it if you were successful. This practice was internationally recognized and accepted, and it was called Westphalian rule. After the war, Human Rights were declared and that rule was abolished.
So, it seems that every hundred years we have been able to reverse some of the most disgusting rules and legalities that were widely accepted by society; rules that, despite how anachronistic they seem now, were no more suspicious to the average guy than what it is today to buy a phone made with oil imported from Nigeria. As it happened in the last two centuries, the reform will need to come from our own system, and luckily for some of us, we live in countries where we can choose and influence our laws. Seeing how we did in the past, we have reason to think that we will again do the right thing and ban might makes right for resources as well. At least I do, and so does Leif Wenar.
The oversimplified ideas that I tried to expose above and many other fascinating facts -like how these three infamous words perpetuate patriarchy more than Islam, are brilliantly elaborated in Oil Blood, a modern encouraging manifesto by philosopher Leif Wenar, a book that takes us through some of the most relevant episodes of modern history leaving us face to face with the challenge of our time: eradicate might makes right. Written with optimism and also providing realistic ideas about how to overcome one of the biggest injustices still alive, this book will not only help you better understand the world we live in, it will restore your faith in the human race. Because “the world now is a thoroughly awful place compared to what it should be. But not compared to what it was.”
To put it simply, you will be a better person after you read this book.
Javier García del Moral is a civil engineer, avid reader and dive bars diver. The kind of person who always knows how a moment should sound like. He’s co-founder of The Wild Detectives along with Paco Vique.