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 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.

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