A Conversation Continued: Interventionism Is Dead

A Conversation Continued: Interventionism Is Dead

In response to Ivo Daalder and Robert Kagan’s recent Washington Post op-ed ,

In response to Ivo Daalder and Robert Kagan's recent Washington Post op-edChristopher Preble and David Rieff critiqued the interventionist consensus, TNI associate publisher Paul J. Saunders responded in Monday's Washington Post, Nikolas Gvosdev chimes in and now James Poulos offers his thoughts.

According to some foreign-policy pundits, interventionism after Iraq has a whole new lease on life. In an op-ed entitled "The Next Intervention", Ivo Daalder and Robert Kagan make this case. With the compelling evidence of history on their side, they begin convincingly enough with the observation that "America has frequently used force on behalf of principles and tangible interests, and that is not likely to change." Unfortunately, this is not the conclusion but the jumping-off point of an argument that fails to muster the force of logic. Though interventions may live on, interventionism is dead, and its passing is certain to diminish starkly the number of interventions launched by liberal democracies.

Daalder and Kagan wish us to believe that America is likely to continue using force frequently on behalf of its principles and interests, because the United States has a long track record of "bipartisan" interventions. "Between 1989 and 2001", they argue, "Americans intervened with significant military force on eight occasions-once every 18 months. This interventionism has been bipartisan-four interventions were launched by Republican administrations, four by Democratic administrations." It is telling that Daalder and Kagan draw this list of interventionism's greatest hits from the golden age of American interventionism. More significant is the role of bipartisanship in the logic of Daalder and Kagan's argument. "To sustain broad, bipartisan support for interventions", the United States must "rebuild a domestic consensus" based upon the shared conviction that American interventionism is fundamentally legitimate.

Without doubt, the general support of American citizens and policymakers is vital to launch and sustain "significant" military campaigns in foreign countries. Even broad but shallow support may collapse suddenly, as it did in Somalia, or conditionally restrict war-making, as happened in (or rather over) Kosovo. But Daalder and Kagan ignore how practical is our support for armed interventions. Americans like to win, and fast. Slow, costly and ineffective campaigns bleed support along with lives and treasure. As Iraq has resoundingly proven, legitimacy does not become the most important index of American war support until military interventions turn sour. In this our people are not unique.

The most persuasive case that Daalder and Kagan can make about the weight of legitimacy upon U.S. intervention concerns not the mood of the American people but that of other countries around the globe. This is not happenstance. Indeed, part of the frustration Americans vent over protracted unilateral campaigns stems from the worldwide irritation that such ventures cumulatively attract. Americans like to be liked. They like to be proud of how their country relates to the world. But because it grows in importance according to the length of the mission, Daalder and Kagan's emphasis on legitimacy reflects an emphasis on precisely those kinds of interventions most likely to lose early support at home and tolerance abroad.

Far more audaciously, and centrally to the logic of interventionism, Daalder and Kagan claim that the centerpiece of domestic legitimacy is in fact international legitimacy. They argue that substantive international legitimacy matters-a clear threat, a just cause and a sound response-but maintain that procedure is paramount in international legitimacy. Because not all of our fellow liberal democratic allies accept American interventions, often the judgment of U.S. policymakers that a threat is clear, a cause just and a response sound is not good enough. The intervention takes place anyway, but without the benefit of burden-sharing that any successful hegemon should be able to shift to the friendly nations that benefit from its stabilizing leadership.

According to the logic of interventionism, American military campaigns abroad must be bipartisan, because domestic legitimacy is critical to success; because domestic legitimacy is indispensable, international legitimacy must be obtained; and international legitimacy requires that our friends and allies fully respect the procedural rules and regulations by which the United States decides when it can (legitimately) use military force.

Only, Daalder and Kagan adopt the posture of a certain realism. They recognize that the international political system "no longer suffices" when it comes to procedural legitimacy. The UN Security Council, they argue, "has not been able to agree" on what is a threat and how to act. Divisions run too deep among the great powers over the sovereign authority of national and international intervention for interventionism to function as a foreign policy.

The answer for Daalder and Kagan is not the simple one-that a lack of international consensus naturally should translate into a lack of international interventionism around the world. Instead, since security threats are to be defined procedurally and not substantively, whatever the "right" group of powers decides is a threat in the "right" way is, by definition, a threat justifying armed attack. Substance takes second place. A course in constitutional law could teach Daalder and Kagan just what happens when legitimacy is handed over entirely to the wisdom and justice of liberal-democratic proceduralism: in the hands of powerful elites frustrated with the inability of "due process" to generate the "right" answers, the perverse doctrine of "substantive due process" develops, masking value judgments as necessities of proper procedure.

No, for Daalder and Kagan, the output of wrong answers means the procedural input must be changed. The failure of the Security Council to agree means the terms of agreement must change. Granted, Daalder and Kagan are helped in this claim by the inability of the Security Council even to agree on its own terms. (France struck as fatal a blow to UN legitimacy as the United States ever could in its pre-emptive veto of any coercive enforcement of Resolution 1441.) But their argument is harmed by the poverty of their replacement regime-a concert of democracies. It is embarrassingly simplistic to note that France is likely to oppose American interventionism whether aired in the Security Council or the Democratic Council. This is to speak nothing of democracies like India, Nigeria, South Africa or Brazil.

Revealingly, Daalder and Kagan's concert of democracies would only include what they alternately describe as our "democratic partners in Europe and Asia" and "the world's great democratic nations." Perhaps Daalder and Kagan would have no trouble informing Iraq coalition partners like Georgia, El Salvador and Mongolia that they are not great enough of democratic nations to join the Council, but they-or, more likely, someone else-would have to do so. This after explaining why exactly every NATO member counts automatically as a "great democracy." How quickly procedure becomes substance!

The truth is that "interventionism", the policy of legitimating and using military force anywhere in the world when liberal democracies agree it should be used, is already dead. A council of democracies would be its funeral and wake. The utter lack of consensus among even our allies as to when an undeclared war is acceptable cannot be overturned by expecting nations with similar systems of government to conform to a single policy over the propriety and justice of selective invasion. The future, if anything, belongs to small, ad hoc interventions-brief triage operations like the American operations in Panama and Grenada. But fleeting police actions do not an ideology make. What Americans and the world desire is not so much fewer interventions but much milder and shorter ones-heralding the death of interventionism, talk shop of democracies or no.


James G. Poulos is an essayist and blogs at The Postmodern Conservative and The American Scene.