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The Eichmann Problem and Liberal Institutionalism

Source: National Post

There’s a tendency for every generation that tries to reconcile ideas and philosophies to a basic endpoint and considers themselves successful in doing so, to obtain an image and pass a value judgment on themselves as the best endpoint that mankind has to offer. They fail to realize the subjective and dynamic pattern of the moral principles in a society that is constantly changing with time. A static understanding is always bound to be outdated. We’re also a generation that puts labels ourselves as ‘contemporary’, ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’. Still, we fail to recognize that no theory or philosophy exists in its absolute. Ever since the ‘Great Debates’ in the discipline of international relations, where liberals and realists have clashed in an intense and fundamental manner, the only conclusion one can infer without any doubt or argument is that neither of them is absolutely right or wrong, and that’s where we stand today, and we probably always will.

The arbitrary but ‘moral’ kidnap of Adolf Eichmann

Otto Adolf Eichmann (19 March 1906 – 1 June 1962) was a German-Austrian SS-Obersturmbannführer and one of the main culprits of the holocaust. At the end of the second world war, as Germany tasted another defeat, Eichmann was captured by the US armed forces but somehow managed to escape. He was living in exile in Argentina until the 1960s where he was ultimately captured by the Israeli government and put on trial and essentially executed for crimes against the Jewish People. The way Eichmann was blatantly kidnapped by the Israeli government was in violation of all international frameworks and extradition regulations. Even still, based on how Eichmann’s background didn’t do him any favours, there were huge polarized arguments internationally on the account that the Israeli government’s action was ‘illegal but morally legitimate’.

This is exactly where the Eichmann Problem lies. The contesting ideas are whether you need to go through the correct international norms to reach your end goal no matter how legitimate and moral that goal is, or can you get to that morally legitimate end goal at any costs possible. This debate could’ve been put to rest as soon as the spectrum of moral legitimacy was institutionalised in the structure of international relations, but sadly, that never properly happened.

Role of liberal institutionalism

This is where liberal institutionalism comes in. It essentially is a neo-liberal school of thought in international relations that affirms its belief in the non-state overarching international institutions as it believes that these can lead to better cooperation and understanding between states, which in turn means peace and harmony. Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye through their book Transnational Relations in World Politics (1972) became the main observers and theorists of the impact of international institutions in world politics.

Now as an international structure is somewhat institutionalized through examples like the United Nations, there arises a proper propensity and potential to embed moral foundations of the status quo in the rules and regulations, making a clear demarcation as to what’s justified and what’s not. It still would give rise to debate as it is inevitable for interventions to happen but then the debate would be if an action is morally legitimate/justified or not rather than it being a tug of war between morality and illegality. Still, little headway is made towards this direction because personal gain and vendetta eventually triumph over the common moral good. This is why it’s not a completely impossible scenario to imagine a reconciliation of both the neo-realist and neo-liberal traditions of international relations as none of them are, or anyway can be, true in its absolute sense. Neo-realist tradition talks about the sovereign state as the prime actor in international relations and even though it acknowledges non-state actors, it still considers the unitary state primary in the structure. Ever since the classical theories of liberalism and realism, it is particularly unimaginable to think of any reconciliation between them to happen because of the fundamental difference they share, but the trends their neo-theories share is a that they now show a certain level of proximity and acknowledgement in high contrast to their two polar opposite ancestors. That is why a convergence between the two, keeping in mind the fundamental differences, is not a far-fetched idea. It’s a phenomenon that is representative in the behaviour of the Israeli government in the way they acted in complete disregard of the international system but they had liberal wilsonian and social contract tendencies to their nature to do as well which was ‘to do just by their people’.

Ambiguous principle of humanitarian intervention

Even in fundamental issues like humanitarian intervention, the uncertainty and ambiguity in the international rule of law is problematic to the extent that it even contradicts the UN Charter. State behaviour, especially of the US, since 1945 suggests a tendency of intervention in affairs of other countries on the ground of humanitarian principles irrespective of the extent of its legality. What this does is to give a hint of a laid-back attitude and nature of the UN, suggesting that it has considered its work done when it comes to providing a framework of regulations and legality in the anarchic international system and now it’s up to the perceptions of the people to frame an understanding of what is to be done. This leads to so much ambiguity and added generalisation in an already fluid structure that it compromises justice. The grave incompetence of the UN in several humanitarian issues like the Rwandan genocide, the Syrian crisis and the added refugee crises are examples of its consequence; on the flip side, illegitimate interventions like that of the US in Iraq get a clean chit because of moral ambiguity. The ineffectiveness of liberal institutions will lead to a rise and reaffirmed belief in the structural neo- realist theory and the fall of liberal institutionalism because one of the basic assumptions that Keohane and Nye make is that international institutions are neutral, and that’s why the UN sometimes falls short of being a competent representative of the neo-liberal theory which puts so much faith in non-state actors.

A Structural Way Forward

So at this point, as there is a rise of consciousness of each other’s sovereignty, radical tendencies are bound to follow and each country will have its own justification for its actions. It’ll be a mirroring of the Mahabharata character analysis where you can’t point a finger or vilify one particular individual in the absolute sense. That’s why the way forward is to make initiatives like the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which in all honesty should’ve already been a legally binding regulation. According to this theory, the international community has not only a right but a duty to protect the citizens if the concerned state is oppressive and dictatorial, abusing people's rights or if it is a failed state. The very famous International Commission on Interference and State Sovereignty has established this concept and since they had adopted this idea, the west was also continuously trying their best to get it legalised in the UN framework of international law. The UNGA fully endorsed this principle by a clear majority of the resolution in 2005 but due to the fact that it is not endorsed by the Security Council, it is not a legally binding regulation. It’s politically recognised, but not legally binding and that can be a classic example of the big five’s monopoly in the UNSC contributing to the ineffectiveness of the UN. Moreover, there needs to be cognizance between the less developed nations to balance the power that is exercised by nations like the US, the UK, France and Russia in the global framework by still being exploitative under the veil of being victors of the Second World War. Until then, every initiative of a supposedly neutral international institution would either crumble due to the non-participation of these major powers or if they do take part, it’ll meet the same fate as the UN and just be their platform to exploit and dominate other member countries.

Glimpses of a structured international order were seen through the humanitarian intervention principle and the R2P resolution, but there’s still a long way to go if we want to establish an understanding and come to a conclusion of the long drawing Eichmann Problem that continually presents itself to the global world order in the shape of different contexts and perspectives. Until then, an anarchist structure will continue to dominate the global outlook, which consequently means either a hesitant nature of states to act, in which their actions remain a facade, or for them to selectively do whatever they want because there is no right or wrong, there is realistically no moral compass for them to adhere to.


  • Keohan and Nye. Transnational relations in World Politics: An Introduction. University of Wisconsin Press. 1972

  • M. Mushka. The Problems of the Eichmann Trial. Yad Vanshem- The World Holocaust Remembrance Center

  • Ian Hurd. Is Humanitarian Intervention Legal? The Rule of Law in an Incoherent World. Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. 2011


By Akshat Sharma (Guest Writer)

BA (Honours) Political Science at Hindu College

Akshat is not your average next-door kid, he likes to immerse himself cheerfully in curious information and tries to infer his own conclusions from his observations. Authenticity and integrity of what Akshat writes are immensely important to him, and at the same time, he does not shy away from always lea