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

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.

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