Tyrants should be left free to tyrannise their own people



This is the topic that the enrichment class is dealing with, and they came into contact with it for the first time last Friday. The topic seems to be a slightly ridiculous one, doesn’t it? Tyranny is never a good thing, you say. Of COURSE tyrants should not be left free to tyrannise their own people. But do you notice that the statement is in the passive voice? WHO should leave the tyrants free? Also, what does it mean to leave them free? And if you say that they should not be left free, then what is the alternative course of action, and again, by whom should that course of action be taken? Above all, what should be the accepted definition of a tyrant, and who should decide whether to intervene when he is tyrannising his own people?

Are these questions giving you a headache? Then you will know how the group felt last week. We listened to an audio recording of a debate by Intelligence Squared (for more information on Intelligence Squared, check out the link below), in which 4 eminent people- all widely respected as experts in their respective fields- argued the motion that tyrants should, in fact, be left free to tyrannise their own people.

What is interesting about the IS debates is that unlike our school debates where teachers stand in judgement on the speakers and arbitrarily decide who is the best (you can tell from the words I use that I do not agree with this, because teachers have their own biases regarding any topic, and the audience has no vested interest in how the debate turns out), the IS debates follow the Oxford style of debating, where the audience vote as they come in, and then vote again after all the speakers have put forth their arguments. What typically happens is that there will be a large group that is undecided, and this group shrinks to a very small one by the end of the debate. The topics are usually ones that people are already discussing intensively within their own circles, so they are pretty sure which side they are going to vote on. The undecideds are the ones who will get swayed by the arguments.

The core difference is this: in school debates the decision centres on which team wins. In the IS debates, the decision centres on whether the motion stands or falls, as seen from the way the audience votes. And that is what makes it so exciting. Add to this the very enthusiastic audience participation, and you have a winning formula that any debate-lover would applaud.

The arguments themselves are very persuasive, and you find yourself changing sides as you listen. Before the debate, the votes were as follows:

For: 178

Against: 291

Undecided: 224

After the debate, this was the result:

For: 245

Against: 393

Undecided: 78

Of course with a result like this, the motion was declared to have fallen.

But how did the arguments actually go? Luttwak opened with the point that when forces come from  outside to liberate a country from a tyrant, the problem can actually get worse, because the situation is complex, and there are basic cultural differences that make the newly ‘liberated’ people resist any kind of change to the running of their country. Rubin countered by suggesting that intervening in a country does not have to be restricted to the use of force, and given this wider definition of intervention, tyrants must not be left free. The position that Rubin took was that any country with a conscience would have to do its utmost to help the people being tyrannised.

It might interest you at this point to know that Luttwak is an academician who advises the US government, while Rubin was actually a part of the Clinton administration. So while the former is committed by profession to question what the US government is doing, the latter is equally committed by profession to support its principles.

After listening to Rubin, many of you were persuaded to vote against the motion. Then along came Skidelsky, whose elegant argument convinced all those who could understand it to change their minds. At the core of his stand was the belief that adherence to International Law is all the stands in the way of international chaos. The moment one state decides that it is justified in invading another in the absence of any evidence of imminent threat of attack, then that state becomes an aggressor, and it is no longer a question of self defence. Lord Skidelsky’s point was that, given the mess the US made of Iraq,  it is better to let some tyrants go free when they are not breaking International Law than to risk the huge losses incurred when one state invades another. He did make an exception in the case of genocide, but he asserted that the costs of continued tyrany within the bounds of a country should be balanced against the costs of removing the tyrant.

Ian Buruma’s argument hinged on actual examples of revolution with tyrannised countries. In almost all cases, he said, when the US backed the tyrant, the whole country became violently anti-American when the tyrant was deposed (as is bound to happen eventually). Not intervening at all when you are a superpower who obviously has the ability to do so shows that you support the tyrant.

Of course this is only the nutshell version of each argument. There were many supporting details that made the debate a very satisfying one overall.

The other thing I like about this debate is the active role of the Chairperson, who does not act as just a signpost for who goes next, but actually shapes the course of the arguments, especially when it is time for the audience to participate.


Debate Chairman Jonathan Freedland- a columnist for the Guardian newspaper who has written extensively on international relations and the dilemmas of intervention


1st speaker for the Proposition Edward Luttwak- Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies of Washington, an associate of the F&M Institute of the Japan Ministry of Finance and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations


1st speaker for the Opposition James Rubin- former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs under President Clinton and Chief Spokesman for the State Department. Now a Visiting Professor of International Relations at the LSE


2nd speaker for the Proposition Robert Skidelsky- Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick, author of ‘The World after Communism’ and Chairman of the Centre for Global Studies.


2nd speaker for the Opposition Ian Buruma- a political and cultural commentator on Asia and the author of several books including ‘The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West’.

For information about Intelligence Squared, go to http://www.intelligencesquared.com

I have put together a set of readings for the enrichment group based on this debate. If you would like to have a look at them, click on the link below.


If you have any comments please do post them. I will be very happy to hear your opinions.

Also, mystery gift for anyone who gives a credible explanation about how the cartoons are related to the topic!


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