International Relations and the Batman, Part 2

Posted: July 24, 2012 by J. Dana Stuster in Uncategorized
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Editor’s note: Yesterday we ran the first of guest author J Dana Stuster‘s two-part piece on Batman and International Relations. Today he continues where that piece left off, with how a multinational network of Batmen and Batwomen would be addressed by institutions meant to protect the interests of states. We hope you enjoy!

The United Nations:

China can wage its own diplomatic battles with the United States, but what recourse does tiny Mtamba have in fighting Batman’s crimefighting imperialism? Chances are they would turn to the paragon of multilateral institutions: the United Nations. This could start with the Mtamban delegation introducing a resolution in the General Assembly condemning the actions of the American vigilante and his financier. They would probably have several significant supporters. Countries with comparable problems of corruption, human rights violations and domestic unrest – ideal countries for new bat-franchises – would be inclined to support the resolution in the hopes of preempting further threats to their regimes. The resolution would probably also garner some significant supporters by capitalizing on the issue of state sovereignty. China and Russia took a stand in February of this year against a resolution before the U.N. Security Council that would have called for an immediate ceasefire and the start of negotiations in Syria; the Russian delegation argued that to do so would violate Syrian sovereignty and constitute an intervention in what they considered a domestic Syrian affair. China and Russia would be similarly supportive of measures to counteract the foreign meddling of an American agent provocateur. Many rising nations in the international arena have also made state sovereignty a hallmark issue. India, after decades as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, is still wary of any actions that would link it too closely with the United States. If Indian leaders have anxieties about importing American airpower icons like F-16s and F/A-18s, they would likely have similar concerns about importing a batman, or encouraging it elsewhere. (Besides, India can always fall back on its Bollywood counterfeit of Iron Man.)

This doesn’t mean a resolution condemning Batman, Inc. would pass, though. Most countries are wary of challenging the United States directly. While a resolution that explicitly condemns an American citizen would find some backers – Russia, China, Cuba, Iran and North Korea, among others, have few qualms about taking a diplomatic jab at the United States – many others that sympathize with the issue of guarding against violations of sovereignty would choose to abstain from an explicit criticism of the United States. The Mtamban government could try to garner more support by phrasing its resolution in more diplomatic language, perhaps condemning internationally financed terrorists broadly. Even the United States would find it difficult to vote against a critique of one of its citizens if it were couched in such agreeable terms.

And then? Not much. There still would be nothing to compel the U.S. government to close down Batman, Inc. General assembly resolutions expressing condemnation are toothless and non-binding. A statement of condemnation would be little consolation to autocrats facing the existential threat of bat-franchises that could potentially destabilize their countries and depose their regimes – to them Batman constitutes a genuine terrorist threat. The United Nations has the authority to target sanctions against individuals associated with terrorism and violations of peace and human rights agreements. Instead of just criticizing, these countries could press for sanctions to be levied against Bruce Wayne and his businesses. However, sanctions can only be approved by the U.N. Security Council, where only one veto by any of the five permanent members (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China) will derail a resolution. The reward for states like Mtamba – and sovereignty advocates like Russia and China – are increased, but it is also significantly more difficult to achieve an agreement.

Oh God, there could probably be an entire post about the contract this had to involve.

Oh God, there could probably be an entire post about the contract this had to involve.

France would be unlikely to embargo Nightrunner, the Parisian batman it has already condoned. Even if the French delegation chose not to oppose such a resolution, they would probably not support it either, and instead choose to abstain. The biggest challenge, and the biggest conflict of interest, though, would be to the United States. Batman is a vigilante who violates U.S. law, not only international norms and agreements – would the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations veto a Security Council resolution to protect an American criminal?


U.S. Domestic Response:

Bruce Wayne would likely find allies in the U.S. administration, regardless of the party in office. Advocates of liberal interventionism and the “responsibility to protect” doctrine (often abbreviated “R2P” like a late ‘90s pop song), which was used to justify NATO assistance to Libyan rebels last year and has as an antecedent in the deployment of NATO peacekeepers to the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, would likely be supportive of Batman’s efforts to protect embattled civilian populations. Neoconservatives would also find much to admire in Batman’s assertion of American preeminence to preempt global threats. Neither would be likely to approve a sanctions regime that would impugn Wayne’s efforts, even in the face of international pressure. But any administration would resent being placed in the humiliating position of vetoing a resolution with significant international support.

An American president, regardless of party, would have to chastise Wayne for provoking an international incident that implicated an American citizen in foreign terrorism. The president would have to take care in doing so, though. This is America, after all, where election season never ends and the adage that “all politics are local” holds true. Criticizing the efforts of a populist hero has a cost in ballots. To the extent that the administration could chastise Wayne’s Batman, Inc. endeavor, it would have to be private and muted, like the NSA’s conversation with Superman in Action Comics #900, in which the NSA accuses Superman of having “gone rogue” and committing what the Iranian government has perceived as an act of war.

The administration would be reticent to do even this. Wayne is a billionaire, and politically active. In The Dark Knight, he hosts a lavish fundraiser (attended by Batman enthusiast Sen. Patrick Leahy) for Harvey Dent’s campaign for Gotham district attorney. Any criticism by the president, private or public, would run the risk of alienating a substantial and influential campaign contributor.


Real-World Corollaries:

Analyzing the international politics of a global syndicate of crimefighters might seem a bit out of touch with reality. It is. It’s a reductio ad absurdum means of analysis, but in truth, it’s not that absurd. There is real value to these explanations through analogy – the emerging genre of PoliSciFi (examples of which include Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies and, related to this post, the Law and the Multiverse blog, which focuses on legal technicalities in comics). The reason to think through the implications of Batman Incorporated is because it demonstrates an extreme of transnational non-state action. Non-state actors are proliferating, and their role in global politics is growing. Terrorist organizations act with the tacit support of national governments, creating the situation of unofficial proxies (as with Superman in Tehran). These groups have provoked crises that have escalated tensions to the brink of war, as was the case with the massacre of civilians in Mumbai in 2008 conducted by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group partially supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. This is also the case in Syria, where Iran, Turkey, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are funneling support to proxy forces, though it is unclear just who, exactly, those forces are.

Al Qaeda, the most infamous franchised terror organization, has prompted a decade-long war in Afghanistan, copycat terror attacks and a clandestine program of airstrikes from Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia. Al Qaeda is not terribly dissimilar from the League of Shadows, featured in the movies Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, or Leviathan in Batman Incorporated. The League of Shadows and Leviathan are nihilist international terrorist organizations that seek to humble opulent Western cultures through violence and destruction. Indeed, the parallels between Batman’s enemies and America’s were enough to develop a plot in which Batman hunts down Osama bin Laden – ultimately, the project used a different character (“the Fixer”), and the resulting publication, Holy Terror, became a bizarre, Islamophobic screed that never should have been committed to the page. To the governments it challenges, though, Batman, Inc. is the transnational terrorist, with a global structure that mirrors other terrorist groups. Indeed, this highly-reactive, disaggregated network approach is increasingly an inspiration for U.S. special operations as well.

While autocratic and oppressive governments would probably be eager to perceive Batman as a terrorist, perhaps he is more comparable to a non-governmental organization that promotes the rule of law, though taking liberties with the law himself. Many rule of law advocacy NGOs exist in contemporary international politics – Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group, among many, many others. These organizations face numerous challenges, particularly from governments not open to criticism. Just this past January, the Egyptian government raided the offices of 17 NGOs, including Freedom House, and these organizations have faced similar challenges from unreceptive governments in countries like Russia and China. The inability of these organizations to operate freely in certain countries is indicative of the challenges that Batman, Inc. would face, especially given Batman’s more hands-on approach.

More relevant to Batman’s role as an unofficial ambassador is The Elders, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s organization of retired statesmen, which includes former president Jimmy Carter. Like Batman, Jimmy Carter cannot go abroad without being perceived as a formal instrument of U.S. diplomacy, and his independent actions, out of keeping with administration policy, have rankled the State Department at times. Upon his return from an Elders visit to North and South Korea, during which he criticized U.S. food aid procedures, State Department officials refused to meet his delegation in a clear rebuke of his rogue diplomacy. Secretary Clinton, when asked if she would like to meet with Carter, is reported to have replied, “Hell no!” The State Department’s reaction to potentially needing to defend an American vigilante at the United Nations would certainly be more severe.

Is Jimmy Carter Batman? No, but they are both de facto ambassadors.

Is Jimmy Carter Batman? No, but they are both de facto ambassadors.

Missing the Point

The comics don’t go in to the details of international politics, nor did The Dark Knight explore the legal battle with China that no doubt followed Batman’s extraordinary rendition of a Chinese citizen, which is something of a missed opportunity. International politics has all the qualities of good drama: great power struggles, conflicts of interest, moral ambiguity. Batman Incorporated is instead a good idea executed poorly. It is at times needlessly convoluted and, along with its spin-off series, Batwing, prone to some of the crass stereotypes, especially of women and Africa, that are far too common in the comic book medium. And this is to say nothing of the complicated issue of where Bruce Wayne’s operations fit in what Teju Cole has called “the white savior industrial complex.”

Still, it is a bold step. Superheroes have gone abroad before, but usually to fight the enemies of the United States – in the 1940s, Superman and Captain America both landed punches to Adolf Hitler and fought Nazis regularly, and Iron Man (2008) reinvented the character’s origin story with a confrontation with the Taliban in Afghanistan. (As others have noted, hurling a ball at a carnival is the closest Batman ever came to taking the fight to Hitler, and he was actually aiming for Mussolini anyway.) Batman Incorporated’s tack is markedly different; it hinges on global engagement and local empowerment instead of military adventurism. In so doing, it makes a perceptive, if sometimes clumsy assessment of the ways in which the world is shrinking and the power of individuals is growing. The global order and its governing bodies do not preclude the internationalization of the Batman, but they do discourage it. And that is well and good. The U.N. Security Council will never have to vote on sanctions against Bruce Wayne. In the years to come, though, countries will have to confront transnational non-state actors more and more, and as they do, they will follow many of the same patterns that govern all of international relations – just as they would to confront a fictitious superhero syndicate. All of politics may still be local, but they are increasingly global, too. Even the local vigilante in Gotham City has noticed.

  1. […] International Relations and the Batman, Part 2 […]

  2. […] than a shell, which both superheroes and villains may evade with ease. J. Dana Stuster has artfully outlined the storyline of Batman Incorporated, a global network of batmen and batwomen that both combats […]

  3. […] a shell, which both superheroes and villains may evade with ease. J. Dana Stuster has artfully outlined the storyline of Batman Incorporated, a global network of batmen and batwomen that both combats […]

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