Saints Go Marching In

Saints Go Marching In

Mini Teaser: Somalia. Bosnia. Sierra Leone. Kosovo. Armed intervention is on the rise. Libya proves once again that humanitarian adventurism is a mere shroud for Western imperialism.

by Author(s): David Rieff

CONSIDER THE following capsule versions of diametrically opposing views about what it is reasonable for human beings to expect from historical change—or the lack thereof. The first is the work of an Irishman, the mid-twentieth-century poet Ewart Milne, who, having spent the Spanish Civil War delivering medical aid to the Republic, knew something about the subject. “History,” he wrote in “Thinking of Artolas,” “is a cruel country.” Milne’s is surely the traditional view, espoused by most people in most periods. In contrast, the second is unmistakably contemporary, progressive (one might even say revolutionary). It, too, was delivered by an Irishman, in the instance His Excellency John Paul Kavanagh, the permanent representative of Ireland to the United Nations, in 2009 in support of the responsibility to protect (R2P), the new international-security and human-rights norm for determining when and how the world should intervene in the affairs of states abusing their own populations. “If we truly wish to consign genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing to the history books,” Ambassador Kavanagh insisted, “[instituting this norm] is a path we must take.”

Can there be any doubt about which side of this argument most decent people today would find themselves on? In a world in which pessimism about the human condition is viewed as mere cynicism, the tragic sense of life expressed by Milne reads like willful defeatism, wholly inappropriate to our times, however much it may have applied to the Europe of the 1930s. After all, we live in the age of the fall of Communism, the color revolutions and now the Arab Spring. And aren’t these events, when taken in aggregate, commonly supposed to vindicate Francis Fukuyama’s claim that liberal democracy is the only “legitimate,” “viable” form of government and Michael Ignatieff’s suggestion that in the last half century, there has been a “revolution of moral concern”? Indeed, in such a world, there are no preordained limits on what international society can accomplish. For most of human history, Ambassador Kavanagh’s proclamation would have seemed as nothing so much as a fairy tale. But today, such ambitions not only seem possible, they have become the conventional wisdom of those pondering and forging policy. In Saul Bellow’s inspired phrase, “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.”

The development, dissemination and UN acceptance of R2P is a perfect illustration of both the power of the illusion and the extent of the investment. In the beginning of the year, the Security Council invoked it in Resolutions 1970 and 1973, imposing sanctions on the Libyan regime and authorizing military force to protect civilians from attacks by Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government forces. According to Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister who was one of the principle architects of the doctrine, and who remains one of its most impassioned advocates, the use of R2P set “a hugely important precedent.” A little over a month later, he developed this remark, arguing that the Security Council’s action, and the subsequent military moves against Libyan government forces and military assets, had given “extraordinary new momentum and authority” to R2P, whose implementation in practice had been “far from assured,” despite its having been endorsed by the UN World Summit in 2005, and reaffirmed by the General Assembly in 2009. And then Evans went even further than Ambassador Kavanagh had done, insisting not only that the acceptance of R2P held out the prospect that “genocide, ethnic cleansing and other major crimes against humanity and war crimes can be stopped, once and for all, in our time” but that its implementation in Libya meant that the second half of the journey toward this human-rights promised land was at last under way.

As Mark Twain once said, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” When Evans speaks of bringing an end to genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes in our time, he is ostensibly talking about ending the criminal excesses of war. In reality, the project that he is outlining is the end of war itself. Mr. Kellogg, Mr. Briand, call your offices. Sarcasm aside, over the past half century a radical transformation of war has taken place. One need not oversimplify the matter, as, regrettably, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) did when it argued that whereas in 1914 there were ten military deaths for every civilian one, today there are ten civilian deaths for every military one, to see that a majority of the wars being fought now are intrastate conflicts. This is a (one hopes at least unconsciously) Eurocentric statistic that entirely ignores the fact that so many of the colonial wars of the great European imperial powers were in fact campaigns of extermination. Furthermore, in many battles of today the desired end state is ethnic cleansing—and the method for getting there is terror. Certainly, there is still a distinction to be made between war and war crimes, but whether there is much of a difference is highly questionable.

Despite the ICRC’s determined efforts to deny this, at least some of its delegates will tell you privately that the Geneva Convention, with its rigid distinctions between combatants and noncombatants, simply no longer describes how most of the wars that are going on today are actually being fought. It is a commonplace that in any arena of the law, legal norms that stray too far from reality are more likely than not to eventually fall into desuetude, and in the case of international humanitarian law, the changing nature of war makes this a real possibility, if not in the short then certainly in the medium term. Fearing this, a number of major charitable foundations have held various private meetings over the past decade to discuss how the convention might be at least tweaked to reflect some of the new realities of war fighting. But because they also understand that it is quite unlikely that any revamped mores could be ratified today were they to be presented anew, there is enormous reluctance to reopen the question publicly—for now anyway. Yet Evans and other leading R2P advocates do not see defending the gains of international law that have already been secured as most urgent. Rather than going on the defensive, as the reality of the situation would seem to demand, with R2P they have raised the ante radically, reviving the old utopian project of abolishing war, presented under the flag of convenience of abolishing or preventing war crimes.

AS WITH so many absolutist projects that make up in vehemence what they lack in nuance and realism, it should probably come as no surprise that R2P is a doctrine borne of a combination of institutional crises and guilt, conceived in the offices of then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the thirty-eighth floor of the UN in New York and largely fashioned in Ottawa at the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). For Annan, the global failure to respond effectively either to the war in Bosnia or to the Rwandan genocide was both a moral stain and a potentially grave threat to the legitimacy of the UN-based international system. Not unreasonably, he believed that one of the principal reasons for these devastating and tragic failures was the absence of any international consensus over how to reconcile respect for a nation’s sovereignty (on which the international system has been based, at least in theory, since the Peace of Westphalia) with the need for outside “humanitarian intervention.” That somewhat misleading term had been attached to various outside efforts at least since the UN went into Somalia in 1992. At times the armed missions were imbued with the goal of preventing states from systematically committing crimes against their own people—as had been the case with Belgrade’s rule in Kosovo; at others, with stepping in when governments were too weak to prevent such crimes from being committed—as had been the case in Sierra Leone when the Revolutionary United Front guerrillas came close to destroying that country. R2P, which began to take shape in 2000, was an attempt to remedy what had become an ad hoc interventionism.

Already in 1999, Annan had published “Two Concepts of Sovereignty,” an essay in which he argued that whether states liked it or not, globalization was transforming the substance of national sovereignty. The world simply was no longer prepared to stand by “when death and suffering are being inflicted on large numbers of people.” The needed interventions had to be based on what Annan called “legitimate and universal principles.” But these were still sorely lacking. In Kosovo, Annan wrote, a group of states had “intervened without seeking authority from the United Nations Security Council.” In Timor the council had authorized intervention but “only after obtaining an invitation from Indonesia.” And then there was Rwanda, where “the international community stands accused of doing too little, too late.”

The secretary-general could not act directly; too many member states, particularly among the G-77 countries of the developing world, would have been outraged. Instead, he wisely chose to approach the Canadian government to see if it would sponsor a study that could begin to develop an acceptable new norm. In early 2000, he asked David M. Malone, formerly Canada’s number two at the UN and at the time head of the International Peace Academy in New York, to convene a Canadian-funded private meeting of leading specialists in international legal affairs to see whether criteria for intervention (if only of a preventive nature) could be developed that would command a wide consensus among UN member states. But the group failed to reach agreement. It was after that failure that Malone, Lloyd Axworthy, then Canada’s foreign minister, and Robert Fowler and Paul Heinbecker, the outgoing and incoming Canadian permanent representatives to the UN, decided that Canada would take a more ambitious (and more public) approach, launching the ICISS, chaired by Gareth Evans and the distinguished Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun. The report they issued a year later was called The Responsibility to Protect. Its central theme was that “sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens from avoidable catastrophe . . . but that when they are unwilling or unable to do so, that responsibility must be borne by the broader community of states.”

As Ronald Reagan famously said, “Trust, but verify.” It is casting no aspersions on the idealistic purposes and high moral and political seriousness of Secretary-General Annan, of the Canadian government, and of Evans and his colleagues at the ICISS to insist that it is almost always a mistake to believe idealism is a sufficient explanation of a new démarche in international affairs. Moreover, the fact that the démarche in question is well intended, and seeks to remedy a real difficulty, does not put questions about its advisability and legitimacy beyond the boundary of licit inquiry. The context is important. The failure to intervene in Rwanda may rightly be viewed as a moral catastrophe. Yet many of us (including some, like myself, who had been staunch interventionists in the early part of the decade) had come to believe the supposed humanitarian military interventions of the 1990s were being called for with such frequency that no one could now credibly assert intervention was a remedy of last resort. Instead, it was becoming the favored normative response of humanitarian groups (with a few notable exceptions like Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières after 1994). If there were complaints from those quarters, they tended to argue there were too few—not too many—military interventions. And this was simply too close for comfort to the prevailing attitudes in Europe during the so-called “second imperialism” of the latter part of the nineteenth century, when the colonial powers justified their annexations of what remained unconquered in Africa on the basis of humanitarian concerns—an attitude well summed up by Cecil Rhodes’s assertion that imperialism was “philanthropy plus five percent.” Whether these wars of altruism were undertaken under a UN flag or with utter indifference to the UN Charter, somehow the intervenors almost always turned out to be the United States and the former European colonial powers (in Liberia, an obvious exception, the armed force of the Nigerian-led Economic Community of West African States had made a dog’s breakfast of the operation); and the intervened-upon, the countries of the previously colonized world plus the former Yugoslavia.

Whatever its authors’ intentions, one of the principal effects of R2P was to move the (increasingly skeptical) focus away from the intervenors and onto the intervened-upon, who were defined as victims in the strict sense of the term—that is, people entirely at the mercy of others. This infantilizing rhetoric had always been a moral Achilles’ heel of the humanitarian perspective. At the time of the Kosovo intervention, British Prime Minister Tony Blair dubbed the war one that was waged “in defense of our values, rather than our interests” and promised that this would not be our last such war of altruism (significantly, Blair was vague about just who that “our” stood for). For Blair, and the many in the West, including large constituencies within the worlds of human rights and emergency relief, who welcomed his commitment, the only question then was whether the benign action of the outside intervenor could either protect the victims from harm or, if it was already in train, at least halt the harm being done by the malign local actors, whether governments or, as in the case of a largely anarchic place like Somalia, warlords and guerrilla formations.

Secretary-General Annan, the Canadians, Evans and the other members of the commission that devised R2P were absolutely correct that in the case of a Rwanda, a Sierra Leone or (for all its ambiguities) a Kosovo, large numbers of people would die or be ethnically cleansed if there were no outside intervention. And, at least as Evans conceived it, R2P was meant to bridge the gap between what he called “the absolute-sovereignty and limited-sovereignty brigades,” that is, between many nations in the Global South for whom humanitarian intervention, 1990s-style, was worryingly reminiscent of humanitarian imperialism, 1880s-style, and the enthusiasm for interventions wherever and whenever needs were not being met. The latter, more malleable view of sovereignty was developed in the late 1980s by professor Mario Bettati and one of the founders of Médecins Sans Frontières (and, later, French Foreign Minister) Bernard Kouchner, who sought to establish a new international “right of interference” (the phrase in French is “droit d’ingérence” and has no exact equivalent in English) for humanitarian NGOs operating in war zones. The genesis of this new doctrine lay in Kouchner’s frustration with governments using sovereignty as a pretext to prevent relief organizations from treating victims of atrocities within their borders.

In many speeches and articles, Evans has steadfastly denied that R2P can legitimately be considered a reworking of this conception of humanitarian intervention. Where, at least as Evans sees it (Kouchner would almost certainly disagree), humanitarian intervention was exclusively coercive, and most often militarized, the R2P is different because its fundamental emphasis is on preventive action, preferably as early as possible, and on using every possible nonmilitary means. Resorting to force is a last recourse. And it is certainly true that it was by de-emphasizing the military aspect of the new norm, and instead focusing on early warning and preventive action, that Edward Luck, current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special adviser for R2P, succeeded in securing the General Assembly’s endorsement in 2009 over the objections of at least some representatives of the Global South who feared it would provide a legal pretext and a moral warrant for a revival of a neocolonial world order. Luck has called such claims a canard, writing in 2009 that R2P was developed precisely to provide an alternative to what he dismissed as “the largely discredited notion of unilateral coercive intervention for humanitarian purposes.” But even Evans has recently conceded that the current debate on Libya has raised the possibility of “this being obscured again.”

WHAT EVANS has never been willing to entertain is that whatever outcome he and the other architects of R2P might have wished for, its military aspect remains the most usable element of the doctrine because it is the only one that is both coherent and practicable. All the rest—the prevention, the diplomacy, the raising of alarms, the economic and political carrots and sticks—depend for their efficacy on the ability of international actors to identify states at risk and to focus on ameliorating the situation before the horrors R2P was devised to try to prevent begin to occur. That is all very well and good in the abstract, but in reality the list of states where genocide and the like is possible is very long, and the resources needed to attend to all of them are simply unavailable. In his book on R2P, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All, Evans concedes that prevention requires “detailed knowledge of the countries and regions at risk,” and the “capability to deliver the appropriate responses and the necessary political will to apply those resources.” Indeed it does. That is why, as a practical matter, it is as out of reach as immortality. McKinsey & Company consultants sometimes speak of “blue skying” a problem—that is, trying to imagine what an ideal version of a given institution, corporation or economic sector would be if it could be created from scratch. But this is more end-of-history nonsense. What Evans is positing are commitments and resources that do not exist and that it is unreasonable to suppose ever will exist. In this, his nostrums are rather too reminiscent of the common specialist prescription that poor country “X” or “Y” needs a Marshall Plan. Assume for the sake of argument that it does: even if the political will were there—and it isn’t—the money is not.

If anything, the opposite is far more likely to be the case for the foreseeable future. Barring some extraordinary transformation of the economies of the developed world for the better, there is likely to be proportionately less aid on hand a decade from now, when there will probably be somewhere around 400 million more people in the world and the economic dislocations brought on by climate change will almost certainly exacerbate the conditions that lead to war and mass atrocities. By then, China will be the world’s largest economy, and it is already clear that in Beijing’s development policies, making aid conditional on good governance, the rule of law and compliance with human-rights regimes is of no significance. One of the signal intellectual failures of R2P (and, if raising false hopes, as R2P has unquestionably done, is an ethical solecism, then moral failures as well) is its insistence that we all agree on its conceptual framework of when, how and why to intervene—with the real prospect of what Evans once rather worryingly called “a reflex consensus reaction” coming into being globally. While everyone concerned with international relations at one point or another uses the term international community, the architects of R2P based their doctrine on the idea that such a thing exists. The diverging perceptions of the European Union and China about the importance of human rights and development, for instance, show such a concept is a chimera.

As a former practitioner, Evans knows better than most of us that a UN General Assembly resolution may formally be claimed to incarnate the will of the global community (to use another variant of the self-congratulatory fiction) but is in fact nothing of the sort. But I guess once you believe the world stands at the threshold of abolishing war as it has been fought for most of human history (that is, without restraint or respect for a protected status for noncombatants), the rest must be comparatively easy to swallow. After all, if we can beat the swords into plowshares—except, of course, the swords of those countries willing to enforce R2P—why shouldn’t enough money be found to pay for a Marshall Plan for half of the Global South, and why shouldn’t policy makers in the rich world make heading off cruel wars and otherwise mitigating the sufferings of the poor one of their highest priorities? After all, development has been such a success over the past half century, hasn’t it?

The question, of course, is why do so many intelligent, and in quite a few cases brilliant, people believe such absurdities, and, indeed, present them as methodologies for transforming the human condition? The answer, I suspect, lies in two misconceptions. The first is the narrow legalism that, from its inception, has been the dominant strain in the human-rights movement. It assumes that once a new norm is firmly established in international law, reality will eventually (though not, of course, without difficulties or setbacks) migrate to this utopia. The second is a narrow institutionalism. It holds that there is consensus on what constitutes good governance and the rule of law and that therefore the challenge of building (or rebuilding) failed states or, at least, states in danger of failing is in reality a technical one, albeit in the broadest sense of the word. What both ideas share is a profound inability to think ideologically (not to mention self-critically), which is to say politically in the classical use of the term. Rather, there is a tendency to insist that there are formulas for engendering that consensus reflex reaction Evans evoked. The problem is that Francis Fukuyama was wrong: liberalism is not the last form of government, as surely contemporary China has demonstrated. Fukuyama may prefer it, and perhaps he is right to do so. But his historical assumptions and ideological preferences, like those of the human-rights movement and, now, those embodied by R2P, hardly constitute proof, any more than idealistic longings constitute reality—no matter how luxuriously they are dressed up in the language of international relations, the UN Charter and international humanitarian law.

In truth, the legal and moral consensus on which the authors of R2P based their new norm does not exist. A hundred years from now, their faith in such posthistorical times will almost certainly prove to be as misplaced as the conviction, common among intelligent, enlightened people in Western Europe two generations ago, that religion had had its day. The cognitive failure of rationalism is consistent, whatever the era, because rationalists refuse to recognize the extent to which they are prisoners of their own progress narrative—a narrative in which, for all the challenges, history moves only in one (ever more enlightening and emancipating) direction. The title of Evans’s book with its “Ending of Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All” would make an excellent prosecution exhibit were such rationalism to be called to account. And yet historical precedents for such utopian conceits abound: in this, the authors and advocates of R2P are in much the same situation—and are as blind to it—as people like Norman Angell, who wrote in The Great Illusion, first published in 1909, that is, five years before the beginning of the First World War, that a major European conflagration had become impossible for economic reasons having to do with what in retrospect, it is now clear, was the first great era of globalization.

But viewed unsentimentally, there seems no more reason, at least none that is empirically verifiable rather than being based on hope and good intentions, to put one’s faith in Kofi Annan’s argument in “Two Concepts of Sovereignty” that the globalization of this age has fatally undermined a strict Westphalian conception of the state and that this has been over the long term a positive development than there was in 1909 to share Angell’s irenic sense of what the future held for Europe. To the contrary, this was only possible if one did indeed believe that the past was no longer relevant, and that history is bunk, to use a phrase commonly attributed to Henry Ford, just as it is really only possible to take R2P with the same seriousness its proponents do if one believes that war, the constant for all of human history, is on the verge of being abolished, and that an international community that has come to an ethical and legal consensus shares common values, as well as a determination to at long last right the wrongs of the world.

INSTEAD, AS the Libyan case illustrates, R2P’s most immediate relevance is that it can be used quickly and effectively as a legal and moral justification for military intervention. Evans is correct when he insists that the doctrine’s ambitions are far larger. Where he is wrong is in continuing to claim that, in practice, there has been all that much movement away from the “droit d’ingérence.” Some of his recent speeches suggest that Evans himself realizes this. Having greeted the passage of Resolutions 1970 and 1973 with profound satisfaction, noting on March 24 that the Security Council had “written exactly the right script,” Evans has since worried publicly that as NATO action failed to dislodge Qaddafi, its military operations began to stretch the UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians to its “absolute limit.” For Evans, the great danger is that this mission creep will accelerate the risk “of buyers’ remorse from those who did not oppose Resolution 1973, and of a backlash when the next extreme [responsibility-to-protect] case comes before the Security Council.”

Had Evans not gone to such lengths to present R2P as not just a further refinement of the idea of humanitarian intervention but instead as a competing way of thinking, he might have seen this coming. After all, this is the lesson that humanitarian emergency-relief agencies learned in Somalia in the early 1990s, when, after they had called for military forces to help them get food aid and medical treatment to starving people, they discovered that when these forces (largely from America and other NATO member states) deployed, the operations they conducted were not to their liking—that is, the military behaved according to its own criteria and its own deontology. They did not see themselves as facilitators for the relief agencies, whatever the NGOs may have imagined beforehand. The “stretching [of the] mandate” that Evans now bemoans was entirely predictable. Indeed, it was ushered in with the statement in May by General Sir David Richards, the UK’s chief of Defence Staff, that if NATO did not up the military “ante,” there was a risk that Qaddafi might remain in power. “We need to give serious consideration to increasing the range of targets,” the general said.

For Evans, such declarations imperil R2P. Having written at the time of the passage of Resolution 1973 that the international military intervention in Libya was “not about bombing for democracy or for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s head” but, rather, had only one justification, “protecting the country’s people from the kind of murderous harm that Qaddafi” had already showed he would inflict, Evans was confronted with the fact that assassinating the Libyan leader was clearly one of the aims of the bombing campaign—as NATO’s nonapology for the killing of one of Qaddafi’s children and three of his grandchildren made quite clear. With General Richards’s statement, it is now equally apparent that regime change is precisely the end state NATO is trying to secure, despite all the bluff talk about political change being a matter for the Libyan people not foreign military forces. No wonder Evans recently wrote that “there is a real concern that events in Libya, far from setting a new benchmark for future commitment, will prove to be the high water mark from which the tide will now recede.”

This militarization may not be what Evans and the other architects of R2P intended. But then it is rare that a doctrine with the power to command people’s hearts and minds ever survives in the pure form those who first promulgated it imagined. Anyone doubting this need only look at the history of Christianity. R2P may not have been designed as the latest version of humanitarian intervention, but with the Libyan action, that is what it has become. It would have been better for all concerned, for the UN as an institution, for the countries deploying military forces and, above all, for the Libyan people, if rather than pouring the old wine of humanitarian military intervention into the new bottles of R2P, we could have simply stayed with the concept of just war, which remains as valid today as it did in the time of Thomas Aquinas. As Libya shows, war and utopia should not be mixed up. War is too serious, utopia too unserious, for that.

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Image: Pullquote: For the Global South, humanitarian intervention, 1990s-style, was worryingly reminiscent of humanitarian imperialism, 1880s-style.Essay Types: Essay