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To Intervene Or Not?

Posted on the 29 January 2013 by Charlescrawford @charlescrawford

To Intervene or Not?

Over at Backbencher Lee Jenkins takes a look at some issues surrounding 'international intervention' from a libertarian-inclining standpoint:

Yet international relations is a sphere refreshingly free of ideology. States are motivated less by values and ideals, and more by a narrow set of objectives and interests...

Once you acknowledge what motivates a country’s actions, international relations become comparatively predictable. It is a zero sum game of medium to long term power and influence, quite different from domestic politics which seeks to alter societies. If you want a brief run down of what I think Britain’s national interests are, you can find them here.

Putting ideology, any ideology, at the heart of your foreign policy is to place yourself in a policy straight jacket. To use another analogy, it is the equivalent of going to a night club and nailing yourself to the middle of the dance floor; you are unable to walk away from confrontations you don’t want, yet you are prevented from pursuing opportunities that may present themselves.

The mistake many libertarians make is to assume that if you’re not a non-interventionist, then you must be a war-hungry Neo-Con, seeking to reorder the world by force. This is a deliberately simplistic false dichotomy. You can pursue and defend your national interest without bombing your way to a new empire.

As someone who has not entered a night club in some 40 years, I'll gratefully take his word for what happens if you get becalmed on the dance floor.

The problem with any political philosophy (including Libertarianism) is how to work out what it is and isn't in principle, and then see how that definition applies to real life.

As I understand it, hard-core libertarians want a world with far less government and perhaps even none at all. They believe that in such circumstances personal autonomy will soar to the point where people trade freely and social rules for reasonable shared living will naturally emerge. See Galt's Gulch passim.

That supposedly halcyon state of affairs looks to be some way off, and in any case attracts all sorts of obvious objections as to how far it could possibly work in real life and how far such a state of affairs would be morally desirable anyway.

So a new question emerges: given where we are now (namely a situation where we seem to get more and more worse and worse government every day), how should libertarian-minded people approach specific policy areas in the hope of nudging things in a direction they favour? And, specifically, what about foreign affairs?

Foreign policy is a tricky one for all political persuasions, as it raises a simple profound question: who is my neighbour, and what obligations if any do I have towards her/him? Even for domestic policy issues this is almost impossible to answer:

The point is that once we have a decision to make about our own money, we are capable of fine-tuning it to suit different cases.

We might decide to help those who are likely to really benefit from our help. Or we might say that those who inflict harm upon themselves need to take responsibility for their own bad behaviour, and not draw down on the good behavior of others. Or we might give help but with robust conditions.

If these decisions are aggregated up, a general view will emerge as to how society looks at responsibility, and at cause and effect.

But look what happens when the state nationalises all those decisions.

Fecklessness, selfishness, stupid risk-taking and incompetence are then subsidised indefinitely. This may create strategically ruinous long-term disincentives, which start to skew huge resources in weird, accumulating, even system-threatening directions. (See eg the 'European Social Model'.)

How to measure the costs and benefits of that, not only in financial terms but also in what it does to relations between people, and the deepest capacity of us all to behave responsibly and generously towards each other?

 The problem can be put another way, thanks to new technology:

It is one thing for the UN Security Council solemnly to debate the abstract principles of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Quite another to listen to the screams and watch live video beamed to those diplomats’ iPhones in New York from a village somewhere in Africa or the Balkans, as genocidal killers work their way along the rows of houses.

In today’s networked e-diplomacy world, who exactly isn’t my neighbour?

So I tend to look at the issue of intervention from that point of view, rather than trying to work out how states 'pursue their interests'. And as an ex-practitioner I put emphasis not on the clever arguments for or against 'intervening' but rather on how it is done in practice:

Recently a British newspaper reported the views of young British Muslims, all in good jobs, whose hero is Osama Bin Laden: “I would like to see the Mujahideen coming into London and killing thousands, whether with nuclear weapons or germ warfare. It will be a day of joy for me.

If all of us in this hall were blown up tonight by Al Quaida these neighbours of ours would be happy, even dancing. Is this politics, religion, or mental illness?

So some neighbours at home are not very lovable. But who are our foreign neighbours? Bad Governments? Or the millions of victims of a cruel regime? At what level of misery do we decide that we must intervene to protect our foreign neighbours? And if we do decide to intervene, are we any good at it?  

Diplomats focus on three questions:  

What is Legal? What is Achievable? What is Wise? They do not focus enough on a fourth: What is Done Well?  

Even if our policies are Legal and Achievable, they may not be Wise. And even if our policies are Legal and Achievable and Wise – what if they are just not Done Well? The public can live with disagreements on policy. That’s democracy. What the public really likes is success. A tough job done well. And what it really dislikes is incompetence. Things not Done Well.  

After years in post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina and post-conflict Serbia and Montenegro, I have bad news. Democracies and international organisations, European and American, EU and UN alike, are not good at interventions. Nor are they good at learning lessons from their failures and successes. There are dozens of things I could say on why this is the case. But let me mention just two.  

First, a core problem after you intervene successfully to topple dictators is what you do with all the nasty people who did well from the previous regime. If you marginalize them they sabotage reform. If you incorporate them they get rich at our expense and frustrate change; you seem to be rewarding bad behaviour, which dismays moderates.  

There is no principled answer to this. Each case is different. But it needs to be thought through and prepared and explained in advance. The neighbours you are liberating know that their oppressors are dangerous people. They want to know if you really mean it, or whether those oppressors will be coming back in smarter suits we have paid for.

Second, we bang on about a market economy but our interventions are strikingly ‘socialist’. They are driven by governments and bureaucrats, paternalistic, top-down, all about rules, about “we know best”. I have attended many conferences and senior seminars about bringing peace to the Balkans. I almost never see a single business person there. People at these events say: “Oh, it would be nice to hear what a businessman thinks” as if it was some kind of exotic optional extra.

The Backbencher piece not unreasonably looks at trade - if the UK government does not help UK business sell stuff overseas, those UK businesses may simply lose out. Then what?

But that is not the hardest intervention conundrum. The hardest choices come when we have to decide whom we want to stop being killed by foreigners, and whom we won't protect in any way likely to make a difference. Some neighbours are more neighbourly than others.

Here the sheer awfulness of oppressive regimes as well as their propinquity (or not) work in their favour. No one dares intervene in North Korea or Iran or even Zimbabwe despite the manifest cruelty and stupidity of the ruling elite there. They are so crazy that you don't know what they'll do. Look at Afghanistan!

Syria is different, as the regime there may be wobbling thanks to pressures from within, so we can throw some fuel on the fire in the form of active support for rebels or insurgents or 'the opposition' or whatever they are called today, and hope that the ensuing blaze does not spread too far in our direction.

Mali is an impoverished dustbowl, but we don't want it overrun by Islamist lunatics, plus it is fairly easy terrain to attack using hi-tech weapons. Plus the French seem keen. But it's one thing blasting these vile militias. It's another thing to stop them re-forming like some mutating virus and sneaking back again. It's bad enough working out where it all starts. Where does it end?

Libya was a small place just over the road, so it clearly qualified as a Neighbour. But hmmm - how is that one playing out? Better the devil you know?

Bosnia is even smaller and is in the European family. Kosovo is even smaller than Bosnia. In each case the results of the interventions have been, ahem, mixed. It turns out that for good libertarian-type reasons people in such places have a mind of their own and may not cooperate with benign outsiders and all their 'development initiatives' and other clever ideas.


We can't work out who our neighbours are at any level of society, national or global. Nor can we pin down what obligations we have towards them, or they have to us.

So it's all a great big messy muddle.

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