Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Is Zeal For Interventionism Right Or Wrong?

By Cernig

Simon Jenkins in the Guardian today argues that "This zeal for intervention is imperialism in new clothes" championed by those, like UK Foreign Secretary David Milliband, who are "part of a political generation with no experience of war and little sense of history". He argues that democracy, while a superior method of governance, can only be shown and not imposed and his comments are at least as relevant to the current American political debate as they are to Britain's foreign policy.
David Miliband loves democracy. We all love democracy. We also love capitalism, social welfare, child health, book learning and leatherback turtles. We would like the whole world to love them too, and we stand ready to persuade it so. But do we shoot anyone who refuses?

It is hardly credible that two centuries since Immanuel Kant wrestled with this oldest of ethical conundrums, a British government still cannot tell the difference between espousing a moral imperative and enforcing one.

Yesterday in Oxford the foreign secretary decided to update the 1998 Chicago speech of his then mentor, Tony Blair, in which Blair tore up the UN's sovereignty provisions in favour of the new "liberal interventionism". He proposed a doctrine of international community, which he claimed, like St Teresa, to have "witnessed". This required Britain to attack sovereign states unprovoked if this would end a violation of human rights.

...Miliband brushes aside the blundering into Iraq and Afghanistan as errors of implementation rather than principle and takes the Blair doctrine into new territory. He wants his pan-democratic world to be achieved by peaceful means, by trade, multilateral action and - his new soundbite - a "civilian surge".

Should soft power fail, Miliband wants to use sanctions and send in troops, for instance through offering security guarantees to regimes that "abide by democratic rules". Such measures would need to embrace internal and external security, and be of universal application if, as Kant warned, they are to go beyond opportunism and carry moral force. They would have guaranteed Dubcek's Czechoslovakia against the Soviet Union, and Allende's Chile against America. The regimes in Baghdad and Kabul would need guarantees indefinitely, as would an elected regime in Pakistan - guaranteeing it against insurgent Taliban and lurking generals.

...There is no text in international law that justifies ramming a system of government down the throats of others. Self-determination, warts and all, has been the defining essence of the nation-state throughout history, which is why the UN charter qualified it only in cases of cross-border aggression and humanitarian relief. The robustness of this doctrine is shown in half a century of relative peace worldwide. Collapsing it has been disastrous.

Democracy everywhere has emerged when individuals give or withhold consent and rulers are confident enough to accept their verdict. Besides western Europe in 1945 (when democracy was not created but restored), there is almost no example of democracy imposed by external force. Russia, with no experience of it, appears to be rejecting it. The concept of consent in countries such as Egypt, Pakistan and Iran is hesitant, but western pressure, soft or hard, aids the reactionaries.

...The west can invite the world to witness the virtues of democracy. It can deploy the soft power of education, exchange, publicity and aid. But a true democrat cannot abandon Voltaire's respect for the autonomy of disagreement, let alone seek to crush it. Britain can shine its beacon abroad but it cannot impose its values on the world. It has tried too often, and has failed. This is not isolationism. It is fact.
Milliband would call Jenkin's argument a "retreat into realpolitik", and perhaps it is. There's certainly a powerful body of argument to say that standing by and watching a crime makes one a complicit accessory to that crime, and guilty of a crime thereby. Much of Western law is built on that precept.

Yet over the past seven years we've seen where a lack of real-world connection and an ideologically driven interventionist policy can turn what appears moral into a worse crime. If someone tries to fight fire with fire, they better know exactly what they are doing or the conflagration will blow up out of their control. Surely, those who lose their loved ones or livelihoods in that wider fire would have only the misguided or incompetent interventionist to blame for their woes.

In a purely utilitarian sense, the question is a variant of "who watches the watchers". Who checks the interventionists if their intervention is already doing or will do more harm than good? Unfortunately, if international law and international bodies are sidestepped and sidelined then in the case of powerful Western nations the answer is "no-one". That's why the UN and international agreements which set out the limits of interventionist policy were drawn up in the first place. It is itself a flawed system plagued by competing national interests and maybe would have been better if Churchill's ideas hadn't been watered down by American and Soviet leaders intent on preserving their own power, but it's the best system we have.

So what do Newshoggers readers think? Is interventionism always right, always wrong or a bit of both? And if the latter, what's the best way to ensure we select for the good but leave out the bad?

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