In Defence of Liberal Interventionism

Francis Cardell-Oliver on liberal interventionism.

I am regularly grateful, when considering the affairs of other countries and the history of our own, and those like it, that we live in a liberal democracy. True, Australia is far from perfect, but crimes of irrational intolerance or insufferable repression are far less frequently committed by Australian individuals or governments than in many other countries. Perhaps more importantly, when such discrimination does occur here we as a society condemn it. Let me be clear: I am not in any way impugning the history, culture or people of the countries in which these things do occur, except insofar as the way in which they are currently governed (or were in the near past in several cases) contravenes certain fundamental principles of universal application to all human beings, with the results noted. Irrespective of other strands of the cultural milieu with which they cohabit, there are certain principles regarding the governance and social relations of human beings which I would argue are equally applicable to persons and nations of all backgrounds: ideas such as representative government, an impartial legal system, freedom of thought and expression and the equality of persons of different sexes, classes, races and creeds. I am not implying some sort of Western monopoly on these ideas. Furthermore, and most importantly, I could not be at greater pains to distinguish these universal principles from the cultural baggage that surrounds them in certain contexts: religion, race, nationality etc. To tie these factors in with what are more fundamental principles, quite capable of existing by themselves, is a mistake. As citizens of a country in which we enjoy the benefits of the application of such ideals as democracy, equality and liberty of expression, we should not be ashamed of saying that freedom (if one may, for convenience’s sake, bind up so many ideas in a single, oft-abused term) is good, and that it is good for all people. That is certainly not to adopt the arrogance of saying that what one might call Western culture is superior to others; indeed it is to acknowledge the equality of all peoples in their capacity for the adoption of universal ideals which supervene cultural differences.

The importance of these principles in shaping a fair and functional society has been evidenced by both the forceful arguments of various influential thinkers and the experience of history. It would be otiose for this author to examine the arguments in depth, but I shall cite a few examples. On the subject of personal liberty, one could do worse than to turn to J.S. Mill’s On Liberty (1857), the works of Thomas Paine or the United States Declaration of Independence. It is, however, the human evidence that is perhaps the most compelling. It was a desire for equality (albeit at times of a limited scope) and a say for all in the common future which led, in part at least, to some of the most powerful movements for change in human history: the English Civil War, the French and American Revolutions, Indian independence (and that of a great many other former colonies), and the end of East European Communism. Today, a desire for political and personal freedom is prominent among the causes of the popular resentment being expressed in the Middle East. In spite of the ultimately political causes of war, it was in the defence of liberal democracy that a great many combatants were prepared to lay down their lives in what was perhaps the defining conflict in modern history: the Second World War. To cite these examples is arguably trite. However, they do go some way to demonstrating the import, the power and the universal application of the principles on which modern Australian society ultimately rests.

The above conclusions have particular relevance in the area of foreign policy. In a September 2008 article in the Monthly Review, American leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky summed up US, and, more broadly, Western foreign policy since the middle of the last century in the following terms:

From the origins of the Cold War, there was a reflexive justification for every resort to force and terror, subversion and economic strangulation: the acts were undertaken in defense against what John F. Kennedy called “the monolithic and ruthless conspiracy” based in the Kremlin (or sometimes in Beijing)… The formula covered just about every imaginable case of intervention… But with the Soviet Union gone, either the policies would have to change, or new justifications would have to be devised. It became clear very quickly which course would be followed…

Chomsky continues to forensically examine a litany of interventionist episodes mired in hypocrisy and self-interest, in which, as Chomsky would have it, a false humanitarianism became the new façade for imperialism. This essay is not intended as a critique of a specific point of view, but rather as a defence of the concept of intervention, the idea that it is right in some circumstances for one (or many) states or supranational organizations to intervene, both diplomatically and with economic measures and, ultimately, force, in the affairs of another state in the name of common humanity. This is a case for both the practical necessity and the moral justification of doing something where no one else will. I use Chomsky’s argument as an example because its cynical and ultimately counter-productive stance is representative of a portion of contemporary political discourse which, under the banner of skepticism and self-examination, essentially attacks the very ideas from which it springs whilst turning a blind eye to the gravity, complexity and contradictions of the bigger picture.

I should add at this point a few clarifications as to the bounds to within which my argument should be read. When Christopher Hitchens broke with many of his colleagues on the left (including Chomsky) and expressed his support for the Iraq war on the grounds that it was morally acceptable to take action to topple a brutal dictator who, in his view, had been justifiably regarded as having or pursuing weapons of mass destruction, he was attacked by many who were quick to brand him as a neo-conservative, in an attempt to discredit his views as reactionary and uninformed. Particularly when action is taken by Western states against régimes in other parts of the world, it is easy to draw parallels with historical imperialism. The fundamental difference between imperialism and liberal intervention is that imperialism is at its very core all about the conqueror (the very word, after all, derives from the Roman acclamation for a conquering general). Imperialism was a process of self-aggrandisement; it consisted of one party serving itself at others’ expense. That is why it was necessarily productive of exploitation and accompanied by the imposition of political and cultural dominance. Liberal interventionism is at its heart not about nations or politics. It is premised on the idea of common humanity, of helping others because it is right, and not because it is necessarily productive of gain for the intervening party. That is where Chomsky makes his biggest mistake: in estimating our selfishness above our humanity.

As for the situations in which intervention is warranted, there are obvious examples which it seems trite to state exhaustively: cases of genocide, mass murder or where there has been a complete disintegration of social and political structures resulting in unchecked anarchy. However, I would go further than this. If one really accepts that representative government, personal freedom and equality are better to live under than the alternatives thereto, then the argument for intervention in each case should be directed by the pursuit of these principles. The accusation of neo-imperialism might well be levelled at such an approach. There is certainly a temptation to view such ideas as coloured by Western values, and intervention in support thereof in non-Western countries as an arrogant imposition of foreign tastes. However, as I have argued above, these principles can and do exist quite distinctly from the baggage of Western culture and are thus capable of universal application. It does not come down to a matter of taste, perception or culture – these ideas have objectively beneficial consequences for people who are governed in accordance with them.

In defining the circumstances warranting ‘intervention’ as I have above the bar of justification appears to be set rather low. However, that is because I would take a far broader approach to the concept of intervention than traditional interpretations might contemplate. The concept of ‘intervention’ as I would advocate it is by no means limited to the use of force. Such a definition would ignore the important variety of mechanisms at hand in today’s world with which to bring about change. In spite of their weaknesses (to which I shall come), organizations such as the UN have an important role to play. Smaller, arguably more effective organizations such as the EU are perhaps yet more important. Every means available through diplomacy should be used as a first resort. Military action in many cases causes far more problems than it can ever hope to solve. It nearly always causes irreversible damage. Force should therefore be reserved for situations where no other approach has any realistic hope of resolving the situation. I say realistic because the promise of a diplomatic solution is frequently held out as an excuse for inaction in situations where diplomatic channels continue to operate only nominally and where such a solution is simply unrealistic on an objective analysis of the circumstances. An example may be found in Libya of late, where even now some commentators (notably in China and Russia) are advocating diplomacy with a government which has demonstrated itself to be quite capable of lying through its teeth.

Chomsky essentially concludes that because the Western world has a far from squeaky clean record it lacks the moral authority to intervene in other countries. It would be foolish to try and deny the hypocrisy and double standards evinced by the examples on which he relies. I shall come to the moral implications of his argument shortly. The first problem is that his reasoning leads to an untenable position in practical terms. Let us take the example of the US, which Chomsky uses: a liberal democracy with a powerful military and a history of interventionism. There is no denying that the US has meddled in other countries’ affairs for aggressive and utterly self-serving reasons, Vietnam and the Iran-Contra scandal being amongst the most famous examples. Nonetheless, on any reasonable interpretation of the history of US foreign policy, it is simply inaccurate to argue that its government might conduct military actions in any way qualitatively comparable with the chemical warfare conducted by Saddam Hussein, the torture, murder and utterly ruthless repression under the Taliban in Iraq or the mass rape and genocide committed by the likes of Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia. There are certainly disturbing incidents: the use of chemical weapons and the My Lai massacre in Vietnam for instance, but if one takes a look at the broader context: US history at large, the underlying motives and ideologies behind the actions, the circumstances and institutional mechanisms which led to the events and the means of redressing those problems, it is fairly clear that the irresponsible, callous and stupid actions of a government subject to popular censure are simply not comparable to calculated, state sponsored repression, terror or genocide, fuelled by ideologies of hate or by a sheer disregard for the norms of human relations and the rights of fellow beings. If the blood which America has on its hands meant that it could not act, then who would? We must ask ourselves: do the transgressions of a country such as America mean that it is so irresponsible that it cannot be trusted to know fairly fundamental rights from wrongs? Surely if no one with sin could throw a stone, justice would be insurmountably impeded.

In an ideal world, all international disputes would be settled by diplomacy and multinational bodies such as the UN. However, experience and common-sense have shown the futility of such processes where one or more parties are lacking in sincerity, good faith or an appreciation of the basic norms of international relations, as have been, for instance, Iran and North Korea in recent nuclear talks, and as are most régimes whose actions warrant intervention, by their very character. Furthermore, even the more select decision making bodies of the UN, such as the Security Council, are fettered by so many competing allegiances, courtesy of the complex interests and alliances of the five permanent members, not to mention the rotating members, that it is nearly always incapable of reaching a decision to do anything drastic, even in the most clear cut of cases. In these situations, unilateral action is the only practical solution. It is simply not good enough to sit back as slaughter or abuse continue unimpeded, content in the knowledge that the world has done its best.

I now turn to a moral examination of interventionism. As I have intimated above, Chomsky’s analysis of the examples he selects is not unfair. There is no denying that the US administration (to use the most obvious example) is guilty of fairly gross moral misconduct in many cases amounting to direct contravention of principles it purports to support. From the Vietnam War to more recent activities in the name of the ‘War on Terror’ (terms such as ‘extraordinary rendition’ and ‘enemy combatant’ spring to mind) the US government has been complicit in and vicariously liable for conduct ranging from the inappropriate to full blown war crimes. A defender of these activities might turn to the proverbial omelette and eggs dilemma. To thus justify such behaviour is both misleading and dismissive as regards the gravity of the conduct and is hypocritical and morally reprehensible when one considers the standards to which other régimes are, and properly should be held (historical examples, notably Nazi Germany in the eyes of history, are apposite comparators, though I hasten to add that I am in no way making qualitative or quantitative comparisons between the crimes themselves of the Third Reich and the US government). However, that explanation, although insufficient as a justification, or even as an excuse, does go some way to explaining the wrongs perpetrated by the world’s sole superpower, and nations like it, as something other than a product of evil. They might be better classified as gross overreactions to largely acceptable objectives. Essentially, the difference between civilian casualties in Vietnam or even torture of suspected terrorist detainees and Serb concentration camps in the Bosnian war or Pol Pot’s reign of terror is this: one is the product of systematic failures – it is a drop in standards – and the other is the calculated and deliberate product of a system that has been set up for the purpose of inflicting such evil – it is the standard. That does not justify or excuse such crimes – the end result is still, in some cases, just as bad – but it does provide a qualitative moral difference between American bombing of civilians or torture of detainees in Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s mass murder of Kurds or Iranian suppression of political dissent. Ultimately, it is what Christopher Hitchens has called (in the context of the notorious abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq) “the difference between night and day”.

The justification for ‘l’impérialisme humanitaire’ (as Jean Bricmont has called it): the moral duty of nations as organisations of human beings to other humans does not arise because one state has a better record than another. To simply weigh one nation’s body count against another’s does not give the lesser sinner moral authority to intervene in the other. If that were so, a fundamental assumption of superior moral judgment might come down to a very small margin indeed; defined, perhaps, only by semantics or subjective opinion. The reason for which nations are empowered to act in support of equality and freedom, to throw the first stone in the face wrongdoing is because in the act of throwing that stone they are indeed without sin. That is not to say that it would be right for a dictator to kill some innocent dissenters one day and invade his neighbour the next for the same crime. The act of intervening should not be judged by some arbitrary analysis of a state’s actions in the immediate, split-second context of its acting, but by its motivations, its record: whether, in a broader context, the act can be seen to be in genuine support of the alleged ends. In such an analysis it becomes clear that, contrary to Chomsky’s assertions, unilateral action, military or otherwise, by nation states for the sincere purpose of aiding an oppressed or brutalised people can and does exist. It is what we would have urged in Nazi Germany, what we saw in Bosnia and arguably what we are seeing now in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

The issue of how we react to the behaviour of other nations undoubtedly has an impact on the world at large. However, it is in many ways also about us: who are we? What do we stand for? And, more to the point, will we actually stand up for it in adversity? There are many occasions when it is easy to avoid issues which don’t directly involve us. It is in those moments that we have a chance to define who we are. I am in no way advocating arrogance or recklessness, but there are times when we need to stand up, without fear or prejudice, and do the right thing when no one else will.


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