In the wake of the controversial US-led bombing of Serbia in 1999 the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) – created under Canadian aegis and consisting of members of the UN General assembly – drafted a report which introduced the concept of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). The document declared that state sovereignty ought not to be considered absolute and that it is the responsibility of the international community to intervene in cases where sovereign states were failing to protect their citizens from large scale atrocities. Advocates of the doctrine suffered a severe blow with the disastrous illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, but the concept of R2P has proved remarkably resilient and continues to be invoked at the UN and by the Western commentariat to justify Western military interventions. During the Arab Spring the notion was revived to legitimise NATO intervention in Libya which, while helping to topple the Gaddafi regime, also led directly to the collapse of the Libyan state and to the present parlous situation in that country. The memories of Western advocates of military intervention are though, rather short, and the consequences of military action in Iraq and Libya have not prevented R2P advocates arguing in favour of intervention in the Syrian civil war and, most recently, in support of yet another intervention in Iraq to combat the rise of the Islamic State (IS).
Famously ascribed to Immanuel Kant, the dictum “ought implies can” expresses the view that the injunction to carry out a particular act entails the capacity to do so. If it were the case that the so-called international community, were capable (at relatively little human and material cost) of intervening to prevent catastrophic violence internal to other states then it would be difficult to object to the assignation to those states of the responsibility to carry out military intervention. However, whilst it may be possible for military intervention to have temporarily beneficial human consequences in a discrete case (bounded from its longer term and broader normative effects) there are serious reasons to more generally doubt both the capacity, and the will, of the international community to intervene to terminate major atrocities.
A Post-colonial World?
Much contemporary international relations theory takes it as axiomatic that the era of European colonialism definitively came to an end with the collapse of formal European colonial rule in the early Cold War era. This view in part depends upon the exceptionalist conviction that the United States, the dominant society of the post-war world, was fundamentally opposed to European colonialism and defended continued European control in certain areas of the world (most conspicuously in Indochina) purely due to the necessities of Cold War superpower rivalry. For liberal IR theorists we now live in an expanded Westphalian system in which, in spite of disparities of wealth and power, the relationship between the West and the global south is not imperialistic, and where state sovereignty is evenly distributed.
There is of course a quite contrary position that articulates the view that, while formal colonialism was superseded during the cold war, it was not replaced by a system of fundamentally equal sovereigns. Rather an informal imperialism persisted, superintended by the United States and its allies, which consisted of the continued domination of the so-called developing world by the advanced industrialised economies and the economic elite that in turn dominate those societies. In spite of the West’s impressive rhetoric regarding aid and development, enormous annual capital transfers from the global south to the north mean that the underdeveloped world is in effect further developing the advanced societies. The imperial system comprises a highly inequitable trade system that largely serves to enrich a narrow elite sector of the developed nations, their MNCs and financial institutions, and an overarching economic architecture which imposes often devastating “development policies” (quite contrary to the policies pursued by the Western states during their own period of industrialisation) on the underdeveloped world and the punishment of any state that threatens the American-led economic order. To those who hold this latter view it is no accident that extraordinary levels of poverty and a scarcely believable degree of economic inequality characterises the early 21st century – rather these are the inevitable outcomes of an imperial system that has sought to integrate the global periphery into the capitalist system largely on the terms of the latter day metropoles.
The external imperialism of the advanced industrialised societies flows from their internal structure. According to conventional liberal contract theory, the democratic societies are genuinely representative polities in which, if somewhat imperfectly, the public will is expressed. However, Marxists and other left critics contend that a democratic polity cannot properly function, or express the public will, in the context of extreme concentrations of private economic power. In this view a capitalist economy has an inherently corrosive and subversive effect upon the democratic polity of a given society. The absence of political economy from the analysis of R2P advocates leads to serious flaws in their understanding of the contemporary world. For instance in their initial report the ICISS authors blithely asserted that in the twenty-first century catastrophic internal state violence cannot be hidden from the forensic gaze of the international media. However such simplistic statements ignore empirical evidence demonstrating that, due to their institutional structure, the Western mass media largely serve to enable the crimes of the United States and her allies whilst focussing intensively on the crimes of official enemies. Amongst the countless examples of media service to power we might include the media’s relaying of unsubstantiated claims of “genocide” in Kosovo, the huge attention devoted to Iraqi crimes against the Kurds following the Persian Gulf War (whilst actions of a similar scale carried out by Turkey, a member of NATO, received minimal coverage) the downplaying of the scale of death in post-invasion Iraq, and the extraordinary paucity of coverage regarding the devastating war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – perhaps the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the post-Cold War period.
Advocates of Western intervention such as Samantha Power are typically critical of the United States for playing the role of a “bystander” in humanitarian crises. However the United States and her allies have been, far from bystanders, key enablers of major humanitarian catastrophes both during the Cold War and since. It is only in the context of the media and the academy’s successful obscuring of crimes for which the imperial societies bear heavy responsibility that the bystander thesis of humanitarian intervention advocates such as Power can be taken seriously. Given that those states most capable of launching military intervention preside over an economic order that causes untold suffering across the globe, support major human rights abusers when it is convenient for them to do so, and are themselves responsible for major crimes it is hard to see what it can mean to suggest that such states ought to assume responsibility for the termination of humanitarian catastrophes within other societies. It is rather as if the Italian mafia were enjoined with the solemn duty of preventing a provincial yakuza boss from breaking the law.
There are a number of other reasons why, as Tim Holmes puts it, opposition to intervention may be “a good rule of thumb”. Predictions of the consequences of any military intervention are inherently difficult to determine (few for instance predicted the scale of the Iraq insurgency or the ferocity of opposition to the American intervention in Somalia in 1993). However there is empirical evidence to suggest that, at least in the short term, military intervention typically leads to escalation of violence and a hardening of divisions within a given society. Christine Gray, an advocate of ‘humanitarian interventionism’ describes the escalation of Serbian violence in Kosovo following the beginning of NATO bombing as “perverse” yet this was a perfectly predictable consequence of the intervention (and indeed was predicted by NATO leaders). Similarly it is reasonable to suppose that one consequence of the Libya intervention was to encourage the militarisation of the Syrian conflict as rebel groups came to believe that Western intervention on their behalf was highly plausible in the wake of Gaddafi’s ouster. These examples point to the way in which, however much the West may claim that a given intervention is sui generis, the effects of military intervention are diffuse and exceedingly difficult to contain. For instance another proponent of R2P points to the effectiveness of Western intervention in the creation of the so-called safe havens in Iraq to protect the Kurds and Shia from Iraqi state violence in the wake of the first Gulf War. However whilst these actions may indeed have had some temporarily beneficial effects for the victimised populations they also led to the normalisation of the erosion of Iraqi sovereignty, which led from the no-fly zones to the highly aggressive UN weapons inspections process and terminated with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
A further dangerous consequence of intervention is the long term erosion of state sovereignty – leading to the creation of states where sovereignty is “shared” between the state and international institutions. Typically this has led to the creation of highly dysfunctional states where the will of the public is as attenuated as under highly authoritarian regimes and where the local polity is oriented, not towards the needs of the local population, but to fulfilling the demands of international institutions. As M. Ayoob notes the development of quasi-protectorates which are to be maintained in a state of dependence until the society in question is adjudged to be capable of self-government carries ugly echoes of the imperialist notion of the “standard of civilization”. The integration of third world states into a mesh of international institutions that limit and police the economic and political options of their polities represents the developed world’s partial reversal of post-war decolonization.
It is one of the great ironies of the modern world that the expansion of human and political rights of the general public, achieved by popular movements against elite opposition, within the imperial societies are used as evidence of the apparent moral superiority of the West and a license to intervene in the global south. Rather than allying with the political progeny of those popular movements, theorists of R2P are all too ready to identify with elite elements instead. Through this elite framing solutions to humanitarian catastrophe are invariably asserted to be in the hands of the powerful. Yet given the nature of the imperial societies, the dangers of escalation inherent to military intervention, and the potentially catastrophic consequences of further erosion of the system of state sovereignty, it is absurdly utopian to suppose that the best response to humanitarian catastrophe is outside intervention. If R2P advocates are serious about their desire to see a serious reduction in human suffering in Iraq and elsewhere they might do better to put themselves at the service of popular movements seeking to restrain the violence of the imperial societies, and their maintenance of a catastrophic economic order, rather than providing fresh rationales for imperial violence.
Alex Doherty is a co-founder of New Left Project and a graduate student in the War Studies department of King’s College London. He has written for Z Magazine and Open Democracy amongst other publications. You can follow him on twitter @alexdoherty7
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