What Saif Gaddafi's capture means

Saif Gaddafi's luck has run out. It's now been confirmed that he was captured in southern Libya. His arrest is another important moment in the dismantling of the previous regime, but it is also setting up an important test for the still young International Criminal Court and its mainly Western backers. In June, the court issued an arrest warrant for Saif, along with his father and the regime's intelligence chief. Saif is charged with helping to organize the repression of unarmed protesters.

ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has followed the hunt for Saif closely. He was reportedly in contact with intermediaries at various points and he publicly warned Saif that any plane he sought to flee on could be forced down (this threat was very likely a bluff or, at best, an aspiration). The prosecutor's focus on Saif is natural: his arrival in the Hague would be a major coup for a court that has struggled to get its hands on its most prominent targets, including Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and Lord's Resistance Army commander Joseph Kony.

Saif's capture now makes a trial in the Hague possible, but not at all certain. Libya's new authorities have said on several occasions that they plan to try Saif at home, and they will be understandably reluctant to shuffle their prize prisoner off to Europe. Formally, Libya is under a legal obligation--imposed by the UN Security Council--to cooperate with the court. If the Libyan authorities are determined to try Saif at home, the proper procedure would be to send him to the Hague and then argue to the judges that he can be tried at home.

A key element in the Saif endgame now will be the position of the Western governments that ensured the NTC's victory and still have important leverage. And here the ICC has cause for concern. Key Western officials have often appeared agnostic as to where the Gaddafis should face justice. For the court, those signals raise a disturbing possibility: that the institution has been used as an instrument in the broad Western push to isolate, delegitimize, and ultimately remove the Gaddafi regime. With that accomplished, will the West still make the ICC a priority?

Update: The Associated Press is reporting that the ICC prosecutor will travel to Libya to discuss where Saif should be put on trial.

The Multilateralist

American decline and global governance

At the Lowy Institute's Interpreter blog, Sam Roggeveen argues that American conservatives (and liberals, for that matter) should embrace international institutions for one powerful reason: they're going to need them more in the future:

The international environment is moving away from US hegemony and toward a balance of power, yet the tone of much right-wing American commentary is that this change can be resisted through an act of sheer will on America's part.

Not only is this unlikely, it would be undesirable for America to even try, because such a stance will face resistance from China, in particular, which wants to take a more prominent place in the Asia Pacific and on the international stage. It would be far preferable for the US to accommodate the rise of China and other powers in a way that suits America's long-term interests. And that entails enmeshing these rising powers in a rules-based international order so that the inevitable competition between the great powers is tamed or sublimated.

When you're a hegemon, you can afford to ignore international institutions which bring a degree of order and law to the anarchical international environment. When power is shared, it is far preferable that international relations are conducted within a framework laws, conventions and traditions to which all players grant a degree of authority.

A couple of thoughts. First, I'm not willing to concede that American conservatives are broadly hostile to the network of existing multilateral institutions. They have a particular beef with the United Nations (as I've argued here) and they have major qualms about the broad "global governance" project (as I hope to address soon).

Second, an argument for multilateralism that is premised on American relative decline is not going to win over American conservatives precisely because they hotly dispute the inevitability of that decline. And I'm not sure they don't have the better of that argument. Given the frightful political, demographic, and institutional challenges facing China, Russia, and India, it may well be that America's power remains essentially uncontested several decades from now.

None of this is to say that Roggeveen's central point--that international institutions can be useful in buffering the rise of new powers--doesn't have merit. But an approach to American conservatives premised on decline won't be effective, and may not be right.