The Humanitarian Empire
Scott wonders again whether there isn’t a place for humanitarian intervention, or a sort of anti-imperialist version, and asks if perhaps the problem is not so much the idea behind such a foreign policy, but rather the timing:
If there is one thing that trumps all it is context. And the context right now is that with the devastating mistake of Iraq and the complexity of Afghanistan so squarely in view, notions of interventionism are so entangled with notions of neoconservatism that meaningful discussion about separating the two and reformulating our notions of interventionism seems all but impossible.
Earlier, Scott quotes Lawrence Kaplan, whose opinions on Darfur seem to nicely align with this evaluation.
I also think that the Iraq experience has set back the cause of idealism in American foreign policy and the willingness of Western countries to intervene for humanitarian reasons. Take Darfur: I think it’s because of Iraq that nobody wants to intervene there.
First, Kaplan is wrong–about this, and about so much more. The reason nobody is intervening in Darfur is China, plain and simple, though Iraq certainly has rendered the option even less palatable. As others have, Kaplan also brings up the notion that other non-Middle-Eastern peoples were once considered inhospitable to democracy, like the Germans (who had already successfully implemented democracy) or the Catholics of South America. This argument fails to note that these people were never forced into democracy against their will, or that Germany and the South American countries in question all had some piece of democracy in their traditions, or some connection to democratic patron states, etc. Everything is situational, and the complexities of any given people or conflict are almost inevitably too diverse and culturally impenetrable for a foreign power to fully understand.
I think the trick with interventionism, even of the most idealistic, “humanitarian” variety, in practice, if not in theory, is that we’re always playing with one house of cards or another. Remove one piece, and who knows what will fall? This is something I struggled with for a long time in my own political evolution. Seeing the crying babies or burned villages in photographs from from whichever war-torn African country, or hearing of one genocidal struggle after another, how could we not want to intervene in this or that nation’s brutal, futile civil war? Of course we feel compelled as the richer, stronger nation, to let our might be felt, to topple dictators and implement our own sense of justice and freedom.
Here’s a good bit from Larison that speaks to this sort of Western idealism:
We should remember that Westerners in particular tend to valorise one side in an internal struggle and act as if their acquisition of power will resolve conflicts that may be rooted in much more enduring structural divisions based on ethnicity, tribe or religion that are obscure to us and hidden behind simple labels of democrat and dictator. The international complications that would arise with any intervention in Sudan or Burma are also there in Zimbabwe as well, since everyone knows that Zimbabwe has become one of China’s clients in Africa.
In other words, the conflicts in question, no matter how noble attempting to stop them might be, are almost always more complex than we imagine. And our instinctive need to take sides, or create archetypes (the villain, the freedom fighter, etc.) can also hinder the sort of necessary objectivity needed to properly sort them out. In the end, our good intentions still pave roads to more war, prolonged conflicts, or temporary respites, the likes of which we see now in Eastern Europe. Our intervention in Kosovo, for instance, is all noble in the gilding, but is a futile gesture in the long haul, unless we aim to be some sort of humanitarian empire, forever garrisoning the world in order to stop up its various leaks. All I can say is if it keeps on raining, the levies gonna break. And I see no end to the storms of human tragedy, to the war or suffering, at least not by sticking our military into whichever arbitrary maelstrom erupts. We can hope to lead through example. We can maintain healthy trade with all those who seek to trade with us. We can come to the aid of an ally who is threatened, though as trade has matured throughout the world, few major powers seek to actually wage war on one another. The US saves its forces for lesser missions, against broken combatants like Hussein’s Iraq, and even then we’re met with failure.
So perhaps a callous optimism would be to look at Darfur as an example of how trade and power can lead to less total war, that globalization will lead to a sort of indeterminable stalemate. The US will not intervene in China’s backyard. War is averted. Innocent people still die. But would lives be saved from an intervention? Or would we merely prolong the inevitable?
I doubt intervention is so out of style, however, as Scott believes. Neoconservatism will be re-branded. The neo-Wilsonian impulse will remain undeterred, if slightly changed, if perhaps a little more cautious. One can hope it will snuff out altogether, but that would be a fool’s hope. And yet, here’s hoping…