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…

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10 thoughts on “The Humanitarian Empire

  1. You folks are pretty quick with the posts around here! I have not been part of earlier conversations on this topic here at the site, so excuse me if I reiterate points made previously.

    You are right E.D., in that interventionism is far from dead. While “neoconservative” has come to mean any position advocating interventionism, many of its critics are quick to realize that the United States still must use its military force overseas, both to protect its tangible interests and defend rights and liberty elsewhere. Francis Fukuyama has Realistic Wilsonianism, Robert Wright says Progressive Realism, John Hulsman argues for Ethical Realism. Some NeoCons have clarified their specific position in the face of recent changes, like Charles Krauthammer and his Democratic Realism. All of these arguments offer a different view of America’s foreign policy, but all of which make the case for interventionism in one form or another.

    I find the isolationist argument Freddie used previously not representative of how intervention has operated throughout history. I recommend a book by Gary Bass titled “Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention.” He reminds us that many nations working for independence have been midwifed by foreign powers; critics of interventionism may wish to believe that national liberation movements achieved their ends without the “meddling” of another force in their affairs, but history tells a different narrative. The very existence of the United States was made possible by foreign European powers intervening in British affairs. Hitchens, reviewing the book wrote, “remember what most people forget: how much international humanitarian intervention the United States had required in order to get that far. Not all of the aid to the fledgling 13 colonies was entirely disinterested — the French monarchy’s revenge for its earlier defeats in North America being an obvious motive.” Freddie argued that interventionism has produced far more failures than successes; a dubious estimation, but one I am willing to accept in this discussion. Even if we grant interventionism will fail more often than it succeeds, have the successful cases justified the application of the principle as a legitimate prospect on the world stage?

    None the less, even the most idealistic interventionist must recognize that over-extension is a reality, and that our ability to maintain long nation building operations will be limited in the coming years. Discussing the failures in Iraq and democracy promotion as a whole is worth having, but don’t fall into the naïve trap of believing the United States (or any world power) can plainly turn away from military intervention abroad.

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  2. Call me naive. I’d much prefer to lead by example. When all federally mandated programs are fully funded, when trade is balanced and debts have been paid, I’d be willing to re-look at intervention on an extremely limited level.

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  3. Empire builders have always labored under the (not totally false) belief that they are engaging in a sort of humanitarian venture. You know, civilizing the barbarians and all that jazz. As I said, it’s not 100-percent bunk, but it allows them to ignore or excuse away the massive evils inherent with engineering foreign peoples. “We might have destroyed 1,000 years of traditional culture, but we gave them roads and hospitals!” Maybe it can be worth it, but too often the imperialists, not the imperialized, are the ones who judge whether or not it is.

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  4. What president would be stupid enough to undertake a humanitarian intervention? It might take five years to succeed instead of three and thus be a complete failure, marking its initiator as the worst president in American history. I mean, that’s the standard, right?

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  5. “Success seems to be connected to action. Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes, but they don’t quit.” –Conrad Hilton, great grandfather of Paris.

    And, it should be added, a man nearly destroyed by the Depression. He was mere inches from losing everything. But he persevered and went on to accumulate great wealth. It wasn’t luck that got him through the bad times; it wasn’t luck that saw him explode in the good ones, not mostly, at least. It was the power of his mind and spirit and will.

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  6. E.D., dead? No. But in for some pretty vehement skepticism? I think our comment section on the topic bears that out (insofar as it’s a useful barometer at all, and I think it is). And i don’t take that to be an unhealthy thing. Roland is right by my lights that notions of neoconism and interventionism have become fused and need to be untangled. But I think ppl need cathartic time to cleanse their blood of the fusion and get some perspective so that they can reengage the issue of untangling with clearer heads.

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  7. Phillip, that street goes two ways. We westerners can also romanticize other cultures/regions from afar without really understanding or bothering to ask what the reality on the ground and ppl’s desires are. Isn’t the whole Latin American revolution about attaining a level of prosperity on greater par with North Americans but on their own terms? Do we really believe that some African villages think that clean and running drinking water or adequate and accessible medical care is wholly at odds with their culture? Part f what i was trying to articulate was a process of modernizing that doesn’t necessarily mean the destruction of culture and what role we priviledged might play in helping to bring that process about.

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  8. Roland, the US did indeed need a bit of help from the French and Dutch to get our feet off the ground. Then again, one might argue that the revolution was itself a hastily maneuvered war, that the colonies may have been wiser to work longer and harder at peaceful means of separation. Canada, to my knowledge at least, was able to grow into a healthy, autonomous nation without shedding any blood at all. I’m not passing judgment on the founders by any means, but there is always another option to war. Or at least, there is almost always another option.

    Scott and Roland are both right, however, that there is always more nuance to all of this than meets the eye. I’m not utterly against intervention of the military variety, I just think it requires a great deal sounder reasoning than what I’ve heard so far. Typically humanitarian interventionism is backed by a good deal of emotional response and not a whole lot of complex understanding of the geopolitical/historical realities of the conflict. That’s a problem.

    Now, should we as wealthy nations do more to aid those in the developing world, and is there a place for us to do our best to help oppressed people the globe over find a better way to live? Sure. Certainly. But military means almost always make those efforts worse.

    Do you imagine the French would have helped us if the situation had been different? If say we’d been an African tribe battling it out with a couple other tribes over the false borders constricting us all to a superficially shared nation-state? Probably not. The fact is, our rebellion was in fact a pretty straightforward conflict. And the French had a very real, very immediate interest in aiding us against their enemies, the British. There is simply no parallel whatsoever to the Iraq debacle or to hypothetical interventions in Darfur or Zimbabwe or Burma etc. etc. etc.

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