Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ruminations 10: On a Fundamental Rule of International Relations

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer)

This is another in what I hope to be a month long series of aphoristic (ἀφορισμός) essays, meant to provoke thought rather than explain it. The hope is that, built up on each other, the series will provide a matrix of thoughts that together might lead the reader in new directions. Though each can be read independently of the others, they are intended to be read together and against each other.
International relations within vertically ordered states the community among which is ordered on a premise of horizontal equality produce a certain perverseness in their relationships. Sovereign lending and sovereign debt tends to functionally undo in global markets what lofty language and organizational frameworks seek to built within formally ordered structures

Gaius Valerius Catullus (84 B.C. - 54 B.C.) may have inadvertently provided a most insightful statement of a fundamental rule of international relations, and especially the relations between the creditor and debtor states.
AVT sodes mihi redde decem sestertia, Silo,
deinde esto quamuis saeuus et indomitus:
aut, si te nummi delectant, desine quaeso
leno esse atque idem saeuus et indomitus.
Catullus, Poem 103 (PRITHEE, Silo, either give me back the ten sestertia, and then you may be as violent and overbearing as you like; or, if the money gives you pleasure, don't try, I beg, to be a pimp and be at the same time violent and overbearing). The origins of the poem are quite humble. E.T. Merrill's Commentary explained: "To an arrogant pander who had received a large sum for his services. Apparently the epigram is prompted by the manner of Silo's reception of some complaint on the part of Catullus." E. T. Merrill, Commentary on Catullus (E. T. Merrill, Ed.).

Horizontally equal relations will not be possible between debtor and creditor states in fact, whatever the formal arrangements within international organizations otherwise suggest. The value of lending includes a power to silence the borrower in law and power relations. Backer, Larry Catá, Ideologies of Globalization and Sovereign Debt: Cuba and the IMF. Pennsylvania State International Law Review, Vol. 24, 2006.

But that has long been the usual state of things. Yet, there is a lesson here as well for the United States as it begins to borrow its way out of its economic crisis using the money of other states. It will hear versions of this poem in increasingly more direct ways as it continues to borrow funds and invoke principle against its creditors. There is also a lesson here for those entities seeking public funds to ameliorate their financial distress. Backer, Larry Catá, Odious Debt Wears Two Faces: Systemic Illegitimacy, Problems and Opportunities in Traditional Odious Debt Conceptions in Globalized Economic Regimes. Duke Law School, Law & Contemporary Problems, Vol. 70, 2007. 

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