Monday, December 09, 2013

Conflicting ideas

This post is a spin-off from both work in progress on a paper on Peter Kropotkin's stance in the First World War (he supported the allied effort to the dismay of many of his anarchist colleagues) and some debates with friends over Syria. It is an attempt to create a rough and ready typology to categorise the responses to wars and conflict. I am interested in the way that, though circumstances are different and are never analogous, the intellectual arguments about how to respond are unchanging. There is a spectrum that runs through from non-intervention into some form of full engagement. As always, the real world is not as neat as that and there are areas of overlap. Nevertheless, it helps me, at least, find my way through the mountains of articles that conflicts generate. Let's start with non-intervention.

One of the founding documents on liberal thinking about conflict is Kant's essay on Perpetual Peace. One of his preliminary articles contains the following:
No State Shall by Force Interfere with the Constitution or Government of Another State
For what is there to authorize it to do so? The offense, perhaps, which a state gives to the subjects of another state? Rather the example of the evil into which a state has fallen because of its lawlessness should serve as a warning. 
Although Kant qualifies this, "But it would be quite different if a state, by internal rebellion, should fall into two parts, each of which pretended to be a separate state making claim to the whole. To lend assistance to one of these cannot be considered an interference in the constitution of the other state" (in other words saying that you should take sides in a civil war), it has been taken as an absolute principle by non-interventionists.

Non-intervention is the policy of anti-war activists. Its justification spreads from anti-imperialism on the left, through the isolationism of the right, to the anti-statism of libertarians. Such pure abstentionism is not neutral. Non-interference when you have the power to influence the outcome of a conflict always favours the strongest side and generally ensures that it can prevail over the weaker. As such, it can be based as much upon realpolitik as principle.

The idea that one can simply stand aside from any conflict and let it take its course, however many innocent victims there are, is amoral as a general principle. This is one reason why it is often justified by elaborate sophistries. More practically, non-intervention has been diluted by forms of limited engagement intended to avoid participation in a conflict, mitigate its worst effects and to steer it to a peaceful resolution. The two main ones are appeasement and containment.

Appeasement avoids entanglement by using diplomacy to remove the causes or worst effects of an existing conflict in order to avoid military action. It recognises the legitimacy of the aggressor and seeks to strike a deal that would give it limited gains in return for some restraint. Containment again recognises the legitimacy of an aggressor, but only on the territory it currently holds. 'Thus far and no more', is its mantra. Both involve the threat of military force against transgression, but both also leave a tyrannical regime in place, free to oppress its own people.

There is a final strand of non-intervention, one that sounds nice and civilised, humanitarian aid as an alternative to military and diplomatic action. It is a demand to help refugees, support the displaced, provide medical aid and do nothing about the cause of that displacement. In many cases it is all that some nations can do and it is most welcome. However, limiting all action solely to that, even when more can be done, may enable its advocates to claim the moral high ground, but is the continuation of abstentionism by other means.

All these are conservative doctrines, in that they do not challenge the status quo or seek 'regime change'. But that does not mean that they can never be wise. Everything depends on the specific circumstances and the potential risks involved.

As for interventionism, there are several very different types of interventionist ideas. I am going to start by being provocative by arguing that pacifism can be interventionist. I can say this because I would always make a big distinction between anti-war sentiment and pacifist thought. Pacifists adhere to a concept of positive peace. Peace is the outcome of just social relations and the absence of violence, not merely the avoidance of war at any cost. And so pacifists do not indulge in the apologism of anti-war activists. They want to change the status quo, they do want to overthrow tyrants, it is just that they see the use of war to do so as, at best, counter-productive and, at worst, the greater evil. Instead they propose non-violent action.

Non-violent direct action and organisation to confront oppressors requires extraordinary courage, self-sacrifice and a commitment to social change. Seeing a unity between means and ends, pacifists refuse to use violence to achieve peaceful ends. It is heroic, but I am not a pacifist and I think that pacifists have got it spectacularly wrong on many occasions. Pacifists have to pick their enemies carefully too, some would treat them with murderous contempt.

There are times that force has to be used to confront the overwhelming violence of despotic states and psychopathic insurgencies. Kant's narrow criterion has been widened now to include, rightly in my view, the responsibility to protect, armed intervention to prevent the abuse of human rights. Intervention involves one or both of two policies, economic sanctions and military action. Both inflict suffering on the people who are the victims of the regime as well as on the regime itself, but may well be necessary to bring down the regime or to end a war by aiding the victory of one side over another. Again, the scope and extent of the action depends entirely on the situation and the prospects for success. Of course, what happens next is an equally crucial question and involves more than a commitment to policing, but to reconciliation and nation building. And, again, intervention can be both wise and foolish. We can never escape the need to make judgements.

Interventions can also be conservative in intent. For instance, the Soviet Union's interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were designed to preserve deeply unpopular regimes against the actions of the people. The United States, too, has propped up many a dictator. With the end of the Cold War, and especially after 9/11, we have seen a difference, with American action to overthrow tyranny and replace it with democracy. It was a welcome change, not that anti-imperialists appear to have noticed.

So, from my perspective as a 'keyboard warmonger', I would tend towards advocating intervention where it aims to protect people from the brutality of their own governments or fascistic militias and, where possible, to support the people's hopes to escape oppression. It is not conservative. And so to Syria.

Syria gives us examples of the failure of both intervention and non-intervention. When demonstrations broke out against Assad's police state, he turned the tanks on the demonstrators and transformed a protest into a revolution. Seeing that Assad was in trouble, his main allies, Russia and Iran, poured in weapons and sent Hezbollah fighters to his aid. Whilst the regime certainly had the brutality, it had neither the popular legitimacy nor the competence to put down the rising. This intervention turned the revolution into a civil war.

The only other power that mattered, the USA, sat on its hands. And in its absence, the space left vacant was filled by jihadis opening a third front. Then came the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta. It appeared that the US was about to take an interventionist stance. It hesitated, as if paralysed by caution, then jumped at the opportunity that was opened up for it by Russia and, later, Iran; appeasement. A limited deal on Syrian chemical weapons and on Iranian nuclear development allowed it to step back from military intervention. The jihadis grew in strength, the killing continued unabated, the humanitarian catastrophe got worse and Syria imploded. It is a classic example of policy failure. The victims are the hundred thousand dead and the millions displaced, lives lost and devastated as the world looks away.

Action has become more difficult and we do not know the consequences that will flow from a failed state in the strategic heart of the Middle East. Somehow, I don't think that they will be what any of the decision-makers would have hoped for.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a truly well thought out post! I will bookmark this and return to it at somepoint...