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Intervention - imperialism or human rights?

Are we caught between support for liberal intervention which often has disastrous, unintended, but often foreseeable consequences, on the one hand, and an anti-interventionism where we simply ignore the repression faced by many people, on the other? 

Ray Kiely
20 October 2014

The issue of intervention, and more specifically of altruistic, liberal intervention has regained its prominence in the post-Cold War era. Interventions—their forms and their justifications—have varied since the early 1990s, but they have usually involved some recourse to the argument that the human rights of individuals are more important than the sovereignty of states. Critics reject intervention irrespective of circumstances, on the grounds that state sovereignty is paramount, cosmopolitanism is instrumentalised by powerful actors in order to impose their will on weaker ones, and that the morality of intervention is undermined by double standards.

Many liberal interventionists contend that such arguments might have applied in the Cold War, but they are far less applicable now. In the past, Western interventions were often carried out to protect authoritarian regimes on the grounds that this was unavoidable in the context of Cold War power politics, but now intervention is said to be less self-interested and targeted at undemocratic regimes with poor human rights records. Sometimes the argument is made that these interventions remain self-interested and ethical justifications are simply ideological covers for Western interests. However, too often what it is not made clear is what these interests are: for instance, the claim that the war in Iraq was really a war for oil is hardly convincing as the US easily meets its oil requirements irrespective of Iraqi oil, and in any case it is less dependent on Middle East oil than other nations. The argument that interventions are hypocritical because they involve double standards might be true but for interventionists it is beside the point, as it is impossible to intervene in all places at all times. Moreover, the exercise of double standards is a lesser evil than simply allowing dictatorial regimes to continue. In effect cases against intervention made by so-called anti-imperialists all too easily become apologies for dictatorships.

There is plenty of evidence to support this last accusation. The trajectory of the Stop the War Coalition, formed to oppose intervention in Afghanistan and then Iraq is but one example, as its statement on the Ukraine crisis and implicit support for Russia (as my enemy’s [US imperialism] enemy is my friend [Russia]) showed. On the other hand the anti-imperialist argument concerning selectivity and double standards cannot be as easily dismissed as the liberal interventionists make out. It is one thing to say that each individual intervention must by its nature be selective, but it is quite another when the US or Britain actively court allies to the cause of ethical intervention. The coalition of the willing in Iraq in 2003 contained a number of states that had poor human rights records, and too often the US and its allies have made alliances with states or political movements only to then deem these same allies as evil when circumstances change. This cannot simply be dismissed on the grounds that ‘that was then and this is now’. Historical amnesia runs the danger of producing an ever recurring cycle of violence in which yesterday’s contingent friends are today’s necessary enemies, and today’s contingent friends may end up being tomorrow’s necessary enemies. Serious questions therefore have to be asked about ‘the West’s’ perception of itself as being the purveyors of freedom and justice, a fact reinforced by a far from noble history of colonialism and bloody intervention.

This latter point brings us to some of the most difficult issues for liberal interventionists. First, as David Runciman’s brilliant deconstruction of Tony Blair demonstrates, there is the assumption that good intentions alone are sufficient to justify supposedly unintended actions and outcomes, such as the curiously named ‘collateral damage’. These outcomes are then supposedly ‘excused’ by good intentions, as if the problem—say, civil war in Iraq, or the rise of IS—lies with reality, and not the judgement of the liberal interventionist. This distinction between intention and outcome is central to certain strands of liberal political thought, and neoliberalism in particular, but it ignores the question of foresight, in this case the existence of political forces that do not embrace liberal democracy. To recognise the reality of undemocratic outcomes is not to apologise for it, but clearly the moralisation of politics carries with it all kinds of dangers when reality is all but ignored.

Second, liberal interventionists are very naïve about the conflict-ridden realities of capitalist (and non-capitalist) development, both in the past and the present. Interventionists should be realistic about the outcomes of interventions, all too often assuming that a foreign military intervention will rapidly be followed by a period of peaceful development. This assumption betrays a key characteristic of neoliberal thought, namely a methodological individualism which in this specific case reduces the problem of a rogue or failed state to the existence of a single evil individual or political movement. Finally, the overlap between liberal interventionism and neoliberalism can be seen in terms of the further assumption that intervention will be followed by the rise of a politics which naively embraces actually existing  globalisation as if this was simply a policy choice without constraint. Liberal interventionists thus often support forms of exclusion, exploitation and marginalisation which are the product of structured hierarchies and inequalities rather than the deliberate action of an identified individual, but these hierarchies are no less coercive for that.     

Where then does this leave the debate? Are we caught between support for liberal intervention which often has disastrous, unintended, but often foreseeable consequences, on the one hand, and an anti-interventionism where we simply ignore the repression faced by many people, on the other?  In some respects that depends on what we actually mean by intervention, for much of the debate has focused almost exclusively on military intervention. Much of the debate is polarised around ‘the West’, either as the saviour of oppressed peoples from rogue dictators (liberal interventionism), or as the oppressor responsible for all the ills of the developing world (anti-imperialism). This displaces agency in those countries in the developing world, reducing it to being the passive recipient of an omnipotent West. This is not a useful starting point for debate, and instead we need to place people in the developing world at the centre of the analysis. Only then can agents in ‘the West’ start to re-think the question of solidarity, and thus reconstruct a far more modest and humble understanding of what intervention might bring about and above all what intervention might be.  

This article is part of the Human rights strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Kate Nash's introduction to this strand here. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

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