By Richard Falk
Prefatory Note: The post below is a revised and modified version of my chapter in David Held & Kyle McNally, eds., Intervention in the 21st Century – Online by Durham, UK: published by Smashwords for Global Policy Journal, 2015]
Participating in the intervention debates that have raged periodically ever since the Vietnam War in the 1960’s, and of course earlier in less contested settings, I have been struck by the defining encounter between those who are dogmatically opposed to intervention per se and those who rarely confront a call for intervention that they do not feel persuaded by, limiting any doubts as to matters of feasibility and strategic interest.
The traditional focus of policy discussion proceeds on the assumption that it is about forcible intervention by governmental actors to coerce some kind of change in a foreign sovereign state. Those in favor usually rely, at least in part, on a rationale that such an undertaking is necessary and desirable as it would rescue a captive people from a regime responsible for massive crimes against humanity or genocide, or operate as counter intervention (currently the controversy over intervening in the Ukraine to offset and discourage alleged Russian intervention) or as in relation to ISIS where the stated objective of the American led coalition is to destroy or defeat a non-political actor that is exercising governmental control over territory in portions of Iraq and Syria.
Four developments over the course of the last half-century are radically reshaping the debate on the viability and advisability of forcible intervention as a diplomatic option.
The first and most important, is the collapse of European colonialism, which has often motivated the West, and especially the United States, to assert its goalsf and protect their interests by way of intervention in what were formerly colonies or states whose sovereignty was curtailed by hegemonic authority. A feature of this post-colonial global setting is that the intervening state, if Western, will tend to justify its actions by setting forth an altruistic and self-justifying argument with strong moralizing overtones.
Related to this matter of motivation on the side of the intervener is the prospect of effective and persevering national resistance creating formidable obstacles to succeeding with an intervention even with the benefit of military dominance. The combination of motivation and anticipated resistance helps explain why so few major interventions have been viewed as successful. One notable continuity linking colonial memories to post-colonial realities is the invariable geographical location of the intervening political actor in the West and that of the target society being in the non-West.
The second development is the rise of human rights as a dimension of world order and a central feature of the foreign policy rationalizations relied upon by liberal democracies, which in a globalizing world makes boundaries seem less inhibiting from the perspective of international law for a prospective intervener. The implicit major premise of the human rights framework is an affirmation of species solidarity.
This means that responsibilities for the wellbeing of others extends beyond the boundaries of one’s own state, and reaches to the most remote parts of the planet. In other words, intervention is supposedly undertaken mainly for the sake of securing the rights of others, and territorial ambitions and the quest for economic benefits are denied.
The 21st century intervener claims a purity of intentions, but the configuration of interventions and non-interventions is far more ambiguous, and is more convincingly explained by strategic priorities than by the protection of human rights, especially given the cartography of intervention as situating the locus of intervention in the Global South while identifying the intervening political actors as invariably from the West.
The third development is the increased reliance on military technologies that reduce sharply the casualties of the intervener while shifting the burdens of death and devastation to the target society. This reflects thin political support that accompanies subjecting citizens of Western countries to risks of dying, especially for undertakings that are justified as ‘humanitarian’ rather than ‘strategic.’
This discourse of justification places a premium on weaponry and tactics that minimize the likelihood of casualties even at the cost of battlefield effectiveness. The Kosovo intervention under NATO auspices in 1999 was expressive of this new war fighting paradigm, with the military campaign consisting exclusively of air attacks from fairly high altitudes that increased the casualties on the ground but spared the intervening side altogether from experiencing combat deaths or injuries.
A similar pattern was present in Libya in 2013 employing NATO airpower to tip the internal balance of forces in favor of an anti-regime uprising without casualties, the new paradigm being dubbed ‘zero casualty wars.’
The fourth development is the acceptance of the validity of a positive international law rule prohibiting forcible intervention by a sovereign state regardless of justifying circumstances. The only exceptions to this prohibition involve a use of force that can be justified as self-defense against a prior armed attack or an intervention that has been authorized by a Security Council decision.
Since controversial interventions tend to involve non-defensive or aggressive uses of force that have been neither authorized by UN procedures nor can be convincingly categorized as instances of self-defense as defined in international law. The result of this pattern of ‘lawlessness’ in recent decades has been an erosion of respect for international law and the UN Charter as constraining the behavior of major sovereign states, and especially the United States in relation to the core norm of the UN Charter (Article 2(4)) regarding recourse to force.
The authority of international law in these settings has also been undermined by the extent to which the most pronounced forms of conflict are no longer be territorially circumscribed and involving normal sovereign states as principal antagonists. The most important adversaries in the present world order setting are the United States as a global, non-territorial state and various non-state political networks and formations (such as Al Qaeda and affiliates, and Isis and affiliates).
Assessing the Debate
Participants in debates about a prospective intervention are influenced by a variety of considerations that shape their assessments. The pro-interventionists frame their public arguments mainly or exclusively by reference to humanitarian concerns, insisting that when a state severely abuses its own people it inflicts harm on the whole world, and that intervention should follow regardless of its country of origin or its mix of governmental motivations.
Ideally, such an intervention should be mandated by the United Nations so as to comply with international law, but if political obstacles prevent such a green light from being obtained, intervention should go ahead anyway if seen as likely to be effective in ending such patterns of severe abuse. Such so-called liberal hawks as Samantha Power, Michael Ignatieff, Susan Rice, and Anne-Marie Slaughter are illustrative North American exponents of interventionary diplomacy, but there are Europeans who take similar positions.
One characteristic of the pro-interventionists is their unquestioning good faith in maintaining the claim that interventions are genuinely about helping vulnerable or suffering people, and not about protecting access to oil reserves or ensuring market access.
Another feature of such lines of advocacy is its rather blind confidence that if military superiority is brought to bear it can be translated into desired forms of political outcome at acceptable costs in blood and treasure. This confidence in military solutions overlooks the record of repeated failure associated with interventionary diplomacy in the period since 1945, especially in relation to large-scale interventions that generate a strong nationalistic resistance.
The anti-interventionists approach these policy issues differently. They look below the surface of humanitarian rationalizations for the use of force to discern what they believe to be the real motives. They are quick to distrust and dismiss humanitarian explanations for intervention, and search for the presence of strategic interests as revealing the true explanation of a proposed intervention.
Most anti-interventionists are extremely suspicious of the justifications given by the pro-interventionists, especially government officials and think tank experts, and skeptical about the claims that positive results will be achieved even if the question of strategic interests is put to one side. Such skeptics, often self-identifying as leftists or progressives, are likely to refer to the failures of past interventions such as Vietnam, or more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan, as cautionary reminders of how often interventions failed from a policy perspective in the period since the end of World War II.
They also oppose the tendency of those advocating intervention to ignore the past, seeking to devote their primary attention to questions of feasibility, thereby ignoring the notoriously bad track record of intervention. Since 1945, few of these Western interventions have reached the goals set by their advocates, especially if the target country has a population of over three million and mobilizes a national resistance movement.
For anti-interventionists, such as Noam Chomsky, nearly every intervention that is politically endorsed by the West is a poorly disguised example of ‘military humanism,’ and should be viewed as unacceptable. From this perspective, one cost of such interventions is to weaken international law and the UN, as well as respect for sovereign rights. Such a selective use of force imposes the stigma of ‘double standards’ and hypocrisy on the practice of intervention.
Chomsky, for instance, asks rhetorically why intervention was undertaken in Kosovo but not on behalf of the large Kurdish minority in Turkey who in the same time period were enduring a cruel counterinsurgency campaign conducted by the Turkish government.
The pro-interventionist tends to stress the moral responsibilities of the United States as a global leader and intervening liberal democracy. In contrast, the anti-interventionist generally dismisses such moral claims as a cover story for the pursuit of strategic interests in a post-colonial world order where the rules of the game are the same, or similar, but the language of justification has changed to make it more acceptable to rely upon ethical rationalizations when seeking to legitimize the use of international force.
It is no longer permissible or prudent to admit selfish national motivations, and for this reason a humanitarian and human rights discourse has become fashionable, but it has also obscured the true wellsprings of policy. Anti-interventionists are sometimes so beholden to their suspicions about the maneuvers of the powerful that they can be oblivious to the depth and reality of suffering or the severity of abuse being endured by a people entrapped in genocidal circumstances.
Such dogmatic anti-interventionism rejects on principle practical pleas to rescue entrapped and victimized peoples even in situations of genuine emergency. They are so distrustful of authorizing uses of force by those few political actors that possess long distance force projection capabilities and accompanying political will that they refuse to consider the context or weigh the pros and cons of the particular case.
Five Sets of Conclusion
Against such a background of antagonistic views about interventionary diplomacy, I would support several general propositions in seeking to develop an approach that was not ideologically predetermined and sensitive to context, yet overall leans toward the adoption of an anti-interventionist position:
• assess the pros and cons relating to a given situation, including taking due account of the radical uncertainty that arises from unknown and unknowable aspects of the national context and an inability to assess accurately the risks associated with a prospect of national resistance to intervention; such considerations on balance in most situations uphold policies reflective of the presumption against intervention;
• such a presumption can be only overcome by solid evidence suggesting that a true humanitarian emergency exists, that the persons and communities facing a dire threat can be rescued by a proposed scale of intervention that is effective without encroaching upon rights of self-determination, and to the extent possible, that the intervening political actor receives authorization from the UN Security Council;
• in situations of exceptional danger to a civilian population as posed by a genocidal campaign the presumption can be put aside even without UNSC authorization, provided there exists a regional consensus supportive of intervention of the character as existed in the Middle East in reaction to Iraq’s occupation and annexation of Kuwait in 1990 and in Europe in relation to Kosovo in 1999; the quality of the regional consensus is inescapably a matter of interpretation, although formal endorsement of or opposition to a proposed intervention by a constituted regional organization deserves serious respect in the absence of clear signals at the global level from the UN Security Council;
• such a presumption deserves deference if the intervention seems contrary to the wishes of the people engaged in a struggle or if the intervention will tip the internal balance in civil strife contra popular will and the dynamics of self-determination or if it is likely to give rise to proxy wars of regional and global scope as has been the tragic fate of Syria since 2011;
• it may be possible and desirable to support nonviolent initiatives shaped and carried out by civil society actors. In such circumstances, the presumption against intervention should remain in the background, yet relevant to the avoidance of militarizing the conflict. Even then it is important that civil society actors are independent of government influence and not vehicles for an intrusion upon unresolved civil strife. It is also relevant that there exists convincing evidence of a humanitarian crisis and a realization that the territorial government is incapable of acting protectively or is guilty of crimes against humanity; a strong precedent for such intervention from below was exemplified by the global anti-apartheid campaign that exerted major pressures on South Africa in the early 1990; a more controversial example is the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement currently challenging certain Israeli policies and practices involving Israel’s unlawful settlements, continued occupation of Palestine, and overall interference with Palestinian rights under international law.
These five propositions are rough guidelines for reaching a contextual assessment in relation to any debate proposing a specific intervention or civic action aimed at achieving change in a foreign state.
By its nature, there is an imprecision associated with such a framework, but it is an alternative to the sort of doctrinaire approach that has been so common in the polarized public debates about intervention during the past 20 years. Relying on these guidelines I opposed the 2003 intervention in Iraq because of the absence of either a Security Council authorization, an existing humanitarian emergency, and the likely prospect of sustained national resistance.
In relation to Libya in 2013, I favored a limited humanitarian intervention to protect the civilian population of the city of Benghazi because there was a UN authorization and a genuine humanitarian emergency, but strongly opposed the NATO enlargement of the mandate to encompass a regime-changing mission. Syria has been the most daunting of challenges as there has existed for several years a severe humanitarian emergency, but there is neither a global nor regional consensus supportive of military intervention.
Worse than this, the Syria strife has been greatly intensified by become the scene of multiple interventions by political actors from the Middle East and beyond. Additionally, the uncertainty factors depicted in the first guideline have made it impossible to have sufficient confidence that any foreign military intervention in Syria would not intensify the violence and work against achieving a sustainable peace based on inclusive governance respectful of the human right of all inhabitants.
The complexities of the dynamics of self-determination makes it often impossible to reach any kind of clarity with respect to proposed initiatives by external actors. It is important to recall that self-determination remains the most significant anti-intervention norm in a post-colonial global setting, and is so often marginalized in debates for or against intervention. This neglect of the relevance of self-determination has often deepened the tragic plight of state-building in the aftermath of political independence.