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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.

International Relations and the Batman

Posted: July 23, 2012 by J. Dana Stuster in Uncategorized
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Christian Bale as Batman from Dark Knight Returns

When the movie “The Avengers” was released in May 2012,’s Danger Room blog reported that the U.S. military had opted not to cooperate with the film’s production because it found the subject matter too unrealistic – not because of the plot involving a half-dozen superheroes fending off a trans-dimensional alien invasion, but because Pentagon liaisons could not determine how the paramilitary organization S.H.I.E.L.D. fit in the chain of command. If it seems ridiculous that such a pragmatic concern would be the deciding factor in Pentagon advisers giving up their willing suspension of disbelief, well, it really is. (Steve Saideman did a great job dissecting this at the time.) But it is often the pragmatic issues in superhero comic books that have the most interesting implications.

The intersection of international politics and superheroes is infrequent, but reliably raises difficult questions for observers of international relations. Superheroes are almost always vigilantes, acting without any sort of government authority – they are non-state actors. (There are notable exceptions to this. Wonder Woman is the ruler of the Mediterranean isle of Themyscira. In the Marvel universe, exceptions include the “Fifty State Initiative,” a nation-wide effort by the U.S. government to sponsor domestic superhero teams, and a recent X-Men storyline in which, after decades of government persecution, a band of mutants secede and establish the independent nation of Utopia on an island in San Francisco Bay – no one ever said comics were subtle.) A number of recent plotlines have addressed the issue of nationality, particularly the fact that, though individuals with no formal ties to the government, characters like Superman or Batman cannot go abroad without being perceived as de facto American ambassadors. This was addressed in a brief (and non-canonical) vignette in Action Comics #900, in which Superman tells the U.S. National Security Advisor that he plans to renounce his American citizenship after the U.S. government chastises his show of solidarity with Iranian Green Movement protesters. “‘Truth, justice, and the American way’ – it’s not enough anymore,” he explains. “The world’s too small. Too connected.” In the 1970s, Captain America briefly followed through on this premise. After the Watergate scandal, and in what is truly a high-water mark for political disillusionment in comics, Captain America witnesses the suicide of a disgraced government official, prompting him to rename himself Nomad, “the man without a country.”

One of the most grounded approaches to this subject has come from one of the most grounded superheroes: Batman. The premise of Batman Incorporated, the climax of Grant Morrison’s run on the Batman title, is simple. Bruce Wayne publicly announces that he is Batman’s financier and establishes an organization to fund batmen and batwomen around the world. His motives are two-fold: to counteract a clandestine global terror network called “Leviathan,” but also to engage and empower local vigilantes fighting regional crime around the globe. The goal is “to fight ideas with better ideas,” he explains. “The idea of crime with the idea of Batman. From today on, Batman will be everywhere it’s dark, no place to hide.” (Yes, the sentence structure here drives me crazy.) The potential implications of this would be more complex and would affect every tier of international relations.

Bilateral Relations:

Let’s suppose for a moment that you are the embattled field marshal of a military junta in the generic central African country of Mtamba, trying to maintain what territory you control against rival warlords, armies of child soldiers, the machinations of a family of deposed royals, and corruption within and without your “government,” if you feel generous enough to call it that. Billionaire entrepreneur Bruce Wayne visits your country, and you help facilitate this visit because your country is a great investment opportunity – a polite way of saying, “really needs some capital.” Instead, he sets up a bat-franchise in your backyard. The situation is worse than you realize – you suspect that, behind the mask, this new superhero backed by foreign funds is actually a member of the former royal family. (In a spin-off title, this character is rewritten as Batwing, a former child soldier and the only clean cop in his police department in a fictionalized capitol of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The fictional city is named Tinasha instead of Kinshasha – again, not ones for subtlety.) How many seconds would it take for you to issue an arrest warrant – if you care for such formalities – for Bruce Wayne, in the event he ever returns to your country? Would you impose a tariff on imports of Wayne Enterprises goods to disincentivize Wayne’s business in your country? How quickly would you call the President of the United States to complain about the American-financed terrorist threatening your government?

The junta tries a remarkably light hand with Batwing

Impoverished African countries have limited leverage with the U.S. government. The field marshal might huff and puff, but it is unlikely that an administration would do much on his behalf. But take for instance the scene from The Dark Knight (2008; spoilers ahead) in which Batman travels to Hong Kong to abduct the financial manager of Gotham City’s mob bosses. The banker is essential to a criminal investigation that could implicate Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, but as Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent explains to Batman, “We need Lau back, but the Chinese won’t extradite a national under any circumstances.”

We need Lau Back

So Batman goes to Hong Kong and forcibly extradites Lau, as only Batman can (with fighting, base jumping and a midair rendezvous with a plane, of course). In the world of Batman, Inc. incidents like this are even more likely to occur with a bat-franchise operating in Hong Kong and Moscow. (There’s not enough written about the “Batman of Moscow” to draw any conclusions about his relationship with the Russian government – he makes a three page appearance in Batman and Robin #1 before being unceremoniously killed off by a vigilante.)

China has considerably more influence in Washington than the field marshal of Mtamba. Lau would stand trial in Gotham City after Batman’s extrajudicial rendition (the legality of trying persons who were captured illegally has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court), but there would be considerable effects for China-U.S. relations. China prizes its sovereignty and the irregular rendition of a Chinese citizen would provoke a diplomatic crisis. China would almost certainly request that the United States extradite Batman for trial in China. This was the response of an Italian prosecutor, who brought charges against a group of Americans believed to be working with the CIA in the 2003 abduction of a radical Egyptian cleric with political asylum in Milan (the United States refused to comply with the request and the Americans were tried in absentia). China would also prove less cooperative with joint efforts. For example, after the United States seized and transported to the United States a Mexican national suspected of killing an American DEA agent, Mexico halted its cooperation with the DEA and threatened to arrest any American law enforcement officials operating without the explicit consent of the Mexican government. Sovereignty has already emerged as a point of contention with China this year, when Chinese activist Chen Guangchen took shelter in the U.S. embassy in Beijing in late April. The incident precipitated an international crisis over whether he would be returned to China or be granted asylum in the United States. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell and State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh were dispatched to broker a compromise and defuse tensions. Though a very different circumstance, Batman pulling Lau out a window to stand trial in Gotham would prompt a diplomatic crisis of at least similar scale and create lingering tensions.

Multilateral Relations:

Most multilateral organizations would be unconcerned by the international proliferation of batmen and batwomen. Multilateral organizations tend to focus on issues of trade, which would be mostly unaffected, and security. The establishment of bat-franchises does constitute a transnational threat to some countries; in his own title (and a separate continuity from Batman, Inc.), Batwing, though based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, chases his archnemesis across Africa to the Great Pyramids in Egypt. However, convincing a multilateral treaty organization to take action against a transnational security threat is difficult. NATO certainly wouldn’t step in to shut down a bat-franchise, first and foremost because of the diplomatic cat herding always necessary to will NATO to action, and second because of its membership. The United States is and always will be the most important country in NATO, and it would not be eager to court the international embarrassment of a joint military operation against an American enterprise. France also hosts a bat-franchise, an Algerian immigrant and parkour-master with the nom de guerre Nightrunner, that operates with the knowledge and support of the French government, so French officials would be similarly opposed. Many other European countries would simply not have their interests affected enough to justify the expense.

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.

Regional human rights courts might be more successful. For example, the European Court of Human Rights (an organization of the Council of Europe) could present legal challenges to bat-associates like Nightrunner and British-based characters Knight and The Hood. The ECHR hears cases about violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, with charges brought by individuals against governments or between governments. If The Hood detains a person in a way that involves torture, unlawful killing or the violation of other fundamental rights, and the British government does not prosecute The Hood, charges can be brought against him at the ECHR. If any Council of Europe country is involved in an extrajudicial rendition, this too can be challenged at the ECHR as a violation of individuals’ rights to liberty and security. The most high-profile instance of this was when Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish Worker’s Party, an organization responsible for terror attacks against Turkey, accused the Turkish government of illegally abducting him from Kenya to face trial in Turkey (the case was ultimately dismissed on account of the Kenyan government’s complicity in Öcalan’s enforced departure from Kenya). If Batman had abducted the Gotham mob banker, Lau, from Frankfurt instead of Hong Kong, he too could be indicted by the ECHR. Whether Batman would be likely to care is another matter – the ECHR’s decisions have at times proven difficult to enforce, with Russia frequently taking umbrage with the court’s decisions.

Concerned governments might try to work through other regional organizations. The Mtamban junta, if it is in good standing with the African Union, could argue its case to the AU assembly or press charges through the AU’s equivalent of the ECHR, the African Court of Justice. If Arab governments were concerned enough by the incident at Giza or a pair of incidents involving Batman in the Persian Gulf, they could present the issue at the Arab League (though no bat-franchise discussed in the comics has been established in the Middle East). Both of these organizations, though, are known for their infighting and stagnated politics. The AU has deployed peacekeepers in extreme cases, but barring a massacre or a civil war that can somehow be tied back to Batman, it is unlikely that the AU would intervene. The Arab League has a history of non-intervention – indeed, its approval of (but not necessarily participation in) the NATO intervention in Libya and sponsorship of a observer mission to Syria, while not particularly effective, have demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to critique the internal affairs of member states. However, it is unlikely the League could achieve even a toothless resolution or observer mission for what is only a peripheral threat to the Arab states.

Batman's presence in the Arab world

Batman’s presence in the Arab world

Smaller, less formal international partnerships would fare no better in forging agreement on a course of action. Various groupings of developing nations – often including Brazil, India, South Africa, China and sometimes Russia – have leveraged their economic and political strength to increase their influence. However, this cooperation has generally been on matters of trade, finance and climate change, and it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which this would change while Batman, Inc. directly affects China only (though Brazil could be concerned about its border with Argentina, the base of operations for bat-affiliate El Gaucho. Then again, the Brazilian government seems to be on exceptionally good terms with Batman).

NEXT TIME: Batman at the United Nations, and domestic responses! Same bat-time, same bat-channel!