Book Review: Powerless by Design

Critiquing Western Foreign Policy and its Progressive Pundits in the 1990s

A Review of Powerless by Design: The Age of the International Community, by Michel Feher (Duke University Press, October 2000).

by Christopher S. Fitz

Cover of Powerless by Design by Michele FeherThe 1990s ushered in a new and chaotic period for those seeking to advance or simply protect the rights and dignity of people around the world. Without the familiar, dominant discourse of superpower rivalry, a great number of common ideological reference points disappeared for politicians, journalists and activists. It is this formative period that concerns author Michel Feher in his critical work, Powerless by Design published by Duke University Press.

In the opportunistic space of the new post-cold war era, Feher argues that leaders of prominent Western states, especially the United States (US), Great Britain and France, promoted themselves as representatives of an “international community” whose doctrine eventually positioned them as benevolent humanitarian mediators and judges of the world’s unfolding ethnic conflicts. Offering a serious challenge to the foundation of this doctrine, Feher goes on show how prominent would-be critics in the “Western Left” wavered and divided in the face of fluctuating official Western policy discourse of the decade’s three major foreign policy crises – “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992-1995, genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and human rights violations in Kosovo in 1999. As a result, the Western Left failed to offer effective critique of the doctrine of the international community.

Part of the Public Planet Books series exploring “narratives of public culture” to “challenge sophisticated readers,” Powerless by Design attempts to straddle popular and academic audiences in a concise, fairly readable work encapsulating a number of fresh insights. In less than two hundred pages it outlines several largely ignored issues fundamental to the human rights community in the post-cold war era, exposing the utilitarian functions of the discourse proffered by Western leaders and the problematic responses by an assemblage of progressive activists. While the problems raised are essential to a critical discourse of international human rights, the style and format also lack a systematic depth that may do little to persuade skeptics of either liberal or conservative persuasion unfamiliar with this type of discursive analysis. Nevertheless, this focused critique of prevalent Western post-cold war paradigms has wide-ranging implications and certainly deserves both thorough reading and continued discussion.

Feher begins his work with a contradiction. He contrasts the 1999 unilateral military operation against Yugoslavia by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with the military inaction of leading Western states in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1992-1995. Underscoring the contradicting policy decisions and accompanying rhetoric to not intervene in Bosnia-Herzegovina but to force a peace onto Yugoslavia, Feher places this reversal beside the responses it provoked in the Western Left. Primarily citing writers and editors of The Nation as representative of this critical group, Feher observes that it advocated decisive intervention to stop “ethnic cleansing” in the Bosnian war but condemned the Clinton Administration for such decisive intervention employed to protect Kosovar Albanians in 1999. The shift of rationale in the latter war, he claims, had negative subsequent effects: it muffled criticism of the 1999 Russian invasion of Chechnya and it squelched calls to intervene in the 1999 massacres of East Timor. Such an introductory claim may prompt instant retorts among many who identify with the Western Left, and that seems to be precisely his point. Far from being the most crucial assertion of the book, however, it simply places the foreign policy discourse explored in later chapters in the context of a wary and seemingly fickle domestic opposition. Feher insists only that such contradicting arguments at least need to be acknowledged because the discourse itself proved to shape subsequent policy in unexpected and unwanted ways.

At the core of the book is an outline of the “doctrine of the international community” and an examination of its problematic foundations. Following the 1991 Gulf War, a different kind of rhetoric and policy gradually filtered into the practice of leading Western states. Shifting from the triumphant “new world order,” the Clinton Administration and other Western governments began to speak about a vaguely defined “international community” of which they were implicit representatives. Feher names four tenets that eventually characterized the discourse, policy and practice of this international community by its self-proclaimed leaders: 1) the international community’s interest in post cold war conflicts is foremost humanitarian; 2.) the appropriate role of the international community in conflicts is as neutral mediators to help “both sides” negotiate an agreement; 3.) post-conflict economic and military assistance is conditioned upon the demonstration of the rule of law exemplified by multiparty elections and other democratic institutions; 4.) justice and normalization of society is eventually achieved by holding individuals criminally responsible for the obscene violence enacted in the previous period. Departing from a discourse that clearly identified inimical regimes and national interests – of which the Gulf War was the last major example – Western leaders began to define the international community as a benevolent cultivator of democracy and free markets ready to lend a gentle hand especially in places of strife featured by major international news media.

Feher goes on to explore the development and application of this new doctrine in the war of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Rwandan genocide. In both cases, he argues, the practiced doctrine had devastating consequences. In Rwanda, the doctrine of humanitarianism served to protect the architects and perpetrators of the genocide when the French-led Operation Turquoise established a “security zone” harboring politicians, armed military officers and Interahamwe militias. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the doctrine of neutrality called for Western leaders to constantly deny the existence of a primary aggressor, leveling “all sides” and legitimizing the dubious achievements of ethnic cleansing. Essentially the nucleus of the book, Feher expands on how both crises were decisively shaped by this four-part doctrine. In a severe critique of Western policy, especially that of the United States, France and Great Britain, he thus argues that that its leaders effectively facilitated genocidal aggression in a portrayal of benevolence.

Claims condemning the acquiescence of the West in the genocides of the past decade are not new. As Feher notes, human rights activists, engaged journalists and regional scholars have leveled equally serious charges since the public “discovery” of systematic killing, terror and expulsion in Bosnia-Herzegovina in July 1992. But most of this criticism has been couched in the same ethnicized terms promoted by Western leaders and the political regimes perpetrating aggression, alleging a “pro-Serb” or “pro-Hutu” bias, for example. At best, such critiques highlight the attempted political neutrality that characterized Western indifference to these crises, but leave untouched their implicit construction as both novel and ancient intractable quagmires. Feher takes an important and bold step beyond this critical literature. In what is probably the most unique contribution of his book, he problematizes a crucial foundation of the doctrine of the international community – that post-cold war conflicts had pre-cold war origins, namely the resurgence of “ancient ethnic hatreds,” that rendered reasonable policy measures ineffective for intervention.

If a critique of the doctrine of the international community forms the nucleus of the book, the analysis of its underlying claims of ancient hatreds equals the discovery of a subatomic particle. Staking out new territory in foreign policy literature, Feher decisively asserts that the ancient enmity claims proffered by regional aggressors and Western diplomats clearly represented a local or foreign policy interest, not a pre-existent cultural animus that led to atrocity. He argues for a focus on the political regimes that organized such violence and continues with dramatic implication that this Western ethnic rhetoric became a self-fulfilling prophecy as policy formed around it. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, the explicitly ethnic character of the negotiations and later reconstruction efforts established both a military competition and a new political system that ultimately justified the “ancient hatreds” that Western leaders claimed from the start. Similarly in Rwanda, tacit US support for the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) that defeated the Rwanda Army in the wake of the 1994 genocide coupled with paradoxical French “humanitarian” protection of the Hutu Power perpetrators in Zaire prompted the RPF to launch a Tutsi-friendly regime to replace Mobutu in Zaire, thus ethnicizing the entire region. Feher thus establishes his critique of the doctrine of the international community by elucidating and subsequently undermining one of its fundamental premises. By framing unwanted crises as problems without rational solutions, leaders of the West created increasingly intractable problems. In effect, he argues, the international community had created a paradigm in which it was “powerless by design.”

Assuming we can accept such a radical proposal – the abject hollowness of the international community as a benevolent, humanitarian, impartial international mediator and judge – where does this revelation leave the conscientious human rights activist? Feher concludes by observing how the Western Left was divided first by its response to the Bosnia-Herzegovina crisis, then by its response to that in Kosovo. In the former case, he contends that “traditional liberal activists” who had worked for a principled Western foreign policy were unwilling to seriously undermine the basis of a potentially authentic benevolent international community while, on the other hand, “militant anti-imperialists” were unenthusiastic about offering a critique that would promote Western military intervention. The Kosovo crisis, Feher argues, effectively deepened the divide. While liberal activists were in the unfamiliar territory of actually supporting a unilateral NATO military action, radical anti-imperialists found themselves in the uncomfortable place of championing the state sovereignty of a brutal dictatorial regime. Unlike ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, neither wing could ignore a NATO air war for Kosovo. And as result of such division, the doctrine of the international community continued to dominate public discourse largely unchallenged.

On its own merits, the book aspires to modest goals. Its unapologetic focus on the Western Left acknowledges a limited audience although its focus on The Nation as mouthpiece of the Left may further offend those who resist such a centralized characterization. Furthermore, the use of an explicit discourse-oriented analysis in the arena of foreign policy can be seen as both daring and precarious since writers associated with this field have generally relied on familiar structural and quantitative analyses. Indeed, such methodology may further limit its accepting audience when coupled with sometimes sparse citations for contentious assertions, generalizations of the Western Left and similar sweeping characterizations of the discourse of Western leaders. But Feher did not produce a work to meticulously detail Western discourse on foreign policy and human rights in the 1990s. Instead, he has ventured into new waters with an essay for a divided progressive community to consider, explore and test. While a number of assertions are worth more elaborate investigation, now at least they have been articulated in broad strokes to rouse other writers to dispute, amend or fill in the many blanks.

An undermined ancient hatreds discourse may be one of the most valuable contribution of Powerless by Design. It is also certain to be one of the most hotly contested – or completely ignored – in the academy. Owing to the reams of political science literature devoted to ethnic conflict as one of the prominent global features of the post-cold war era, a majority of pundits may quickly write off an assertion that ancient hatreds were foremost a discursive strategy that abetted Western nonintervention. Indeed, critics such as David Campbell[i] who have systematically debunked the primordial ethnic roots of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina and genocide in Rwanda still stand as a tiny minority to a host of authors who are either enamored with a mystified primeval hatred such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan[ii] or simply assume its inherent volatile character such as Donald Horowitz.[iii] In a sensationalizing news media, the balance is tipped even more overwhelmingly in favor of the romantic primordial notions. Unfortunately, such a weighted backdrop practically requires that Feher produce an inordinate amount of new, systematic evidence to substantiate his minority view in the face of such disbelief. In this regard, Powerless by Design falls short. While not purporting to be a careful compilation of evidence debunking the causality of cultural enmities in post-cold war conflicts, the virtual absence of other prominent, systematic works supporting this constructivist claim does make the book a fat target for detractors.

Feher avoids direct challenges from the popular questions of the “root causes” of such horrific violence by focusing instead on the discursive strategies and their respective logics. While not wholly disavowing the possibility of a cultural dimension in the 1990s violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda, he instead emphasizes that Western leaders borrowed the same historical arguments with which the aggressor regimes justified their aggression. And instead of directly addressing the plethora of arguments assuming an inherent ethnic nature of the respective crises, Feher touches on widely available evidence to emphasize that the political regimes of Slobodan Miloševic and Juvenal Habyarimana had the central role in organizing violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda respectively. He quickly moves on to demonstrate how and why this political organization was downplayed by Western leaders, emphasizing ancient hatreds in order to avoid responsibility. Some skeptics may balk at such this intellectual jujutsu, but the generic evidence for blaming respective political programs and the bald instrumentality with which Western leaders ignored such programs renders an argument that, while perhaps not rock solid to positivist skeptics, still deserves to be taken seriously.

According to Feher, the discourse of Western leaders laid aside ancient hatreds only when NATO began its undeclared war to free Kosovar Albanians in 1999, at last recognizing the aggressor regime of Miloševic. Such recognition is not lost on Feher who wonders perhaps rhetorically if it entails a shift in the doctrine of the international community – a shift that tepid responses by Western leaders to the 1999 Russian invasion of Chechnya already appeared to reverse. More essential to this work, he questions how the continuance of the doctrine of the international community – in any case – will affect the already divided Western Left. Contrary to what might be expected in a book both generally sympathetic and unsparingly critical of the Left, Feher does not conclude with an innocent appeal for progressive unity. Indeed, his somewhat more ambiguous finale may frustrate those who have painfully experienced the contradicting concerns illuminated in such distant and not-so-distant crises. More importantly, Feher situates readers as activists who will in any case confront the next predicament with greater awareness of the discursive landscape on which they are acting. With the proliferation of essays such as this, we can only assume that such activism will also include a renewed commitment to challenge falsities in that landscape.


[i] David Campbell, National Deconstruction: Violence, Identity and Justice in Bosnia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

[ii] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[iii] Donald Horowitz, Ethnic, Groups in Conflict (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

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