Hey man, nice shot: interventionism as foreign policy


There has been a lot of talk lately regarding politics of interventionism. Be it regarding Israel’s firing of a single, lonely rocket out into Syria or France sending highly trained troops into Mali, the debate always surrounds two concepts: is the intervention morally justifiable? Or more importantly, is the intervention ethically acceptable? In fact, the question is – is interventionism as foreign policy legal?

Interventionism is treading a very fine line. It is, in itself, a moral justification for violating the once unbreakable rule of national sovereignty. The flip side of post World War II isolationism, based on the fact one country could not simply sacrifice its troops, resources, equipment, and defense budget to go run to the rescue of a European country at the mercy of tyranny , was constantly challenged by the human rights violations and humanitarian disasters taking place across the globe. Interventionism, as a concept, exists because no matter how supreme we believe national sovereignty to be, no nation is an island, and there is indeed a moral impetus to intervene when a conflict takes a turn to the disastrous pandemic. But let’s not be fooled – interventionism certainly isn’t an act of legal selflessness, of political kindness. It is more often than not tainted with self-interest. And in a post 9/11, in a state of perpetual war against countries that have never actively, legally declared war on one another but are plagued with a new brand of disorganised and non-pyramidal terrorism structure, the concept of interventionism became loose, undefined, and thrown into national debate just to permit military presence where none is clearly needed, let alone requested.

On February 26, 1999, Clinton exposed what will later be soppily referred to as the “Clinton Doctrine”:

It’s easy … to say that we really have no interests in who lives in this or that valley in Bosnia, or who owns a strip of brushland in the Horn of Africa, or some piece of parched earth by the Jordan River. But the true measure of our interests lies not in how small or distant these places are, or in whether we have trouble pronouncing their names. The question we must ask is, what are the consequences to our security of letting conflicts fester and spread. We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.

In short, nation-states intervene when they believe that, through direct or indirect action, a lack of interference on their part could threaten their own safety, domestically or abroad. However, it has been long decided that interventionism could only take place in the wake of a humanitarian disaster; to avoid occupation, long-lasting intervention, unlawful government interference, and frankly, neo-colonialism, international law has framed interventionism, in a way that is often perceived as intrusive and in opposition to a state’s right to decide of their own foreign policy. Modern diplomatic history, though, is riddled with tales of failed intervention, with foul motives or poor judgement of governance. Is interventionism still absolutely necessary in global foreign policy?

In a remarkable piece of research presented by Ryan Goodman for Harvard Law, the question of interventionism in cases of conflict – Unilateral Humanitarian Intervention (UHI) rises the issue of whether international law, and by extent its executive body, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) should permit military intervention based on criterias which, regardless of how specific they might be, could still give way to an empirical act of aggression for ulterior motives. If anything, the very existence of modern international law should be made to discourage war, even those considered legal under the Geneva Convention; the role of international governing bodies is to promote the use of diplomatic and mediation tools prior to a conflict. Ideally, there should never be any UHIs; intervention should be investigated, approved and sanctioned by the UNSC, provided the case has been brought to their attention in a timely manner. A direct definition has been provided by Sean D. Murphy: “humanitarian intervention is the threat or use of force by a state, group of states, or international organisation primarily for the purpose of protecting the nationals from the target state from widespread deprivation of internationally recognized human rights.

If it wasn’t for Bernard Kouchner responding to the crisis in Bosnia and Kofi Annan developing the concept of “individual interventionism” – as opposed to the regular state variety – to consider an international response to mass atrocities, the concept of national sovereignty over humanitarian intervention would prevail. Already severely eroded by the supraconstitutional (thus supranational) creation of international organisation with legal interference in domestic law, Kouchner’s principles were secured in 2001 when an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) sought to distinguish the overbearing nature of national sovereignty from a moral compass pointing in the direction of the “responsibility to protect”. Drawing the line further away from Kouchner’s “right to intervene”, the “responsibility to protect” not only refers to collective responsibility – from a united, consensus-led international community – but also the growing need to not respond individually and economically in the face of human rights violations. Where nation-states used to express their disagreement with a trade partner with economic sanctions (South Africa under apartheid, Iraq under Saddam Hussein), Tony Blair, in a famous Chicago speech, outlined five questions one nation or organisation must answer before deciding on intervention: 1) verification of data collection 2) exhaustion of diplomatic recourse 3) “prudent” and “sensible” military intervention 4) long term consequences and 5) national interest.

It is clear that in the current context, #3 and #5 are the biggest concerns. In an era where the European Union is collapsing upon itself after failure to economically investigate Greece and where the United States is resurfacing as the world’s police force, reanimating Cold War rhetoric,  national interest’s wolf disguised in humanitarian intervention’s sheep clothing is the disgusting flip side of the interventionism coin.

in 2012, Kofi Annan turns to Iran’s Ahmadinejad for help in the Syrian conflict

Kofi Annan himself raised doubts and concerns over humanitarian intervention and its future as early as 1999. Interventionism is now seriously decried as being merely a facade for occupation. The “intervention” of the US in Iraq led to many other nations to become more prudent when interfering in foreign countries, the way France intervened in Mali (shortly to be joined by UN peacekeeping forces). The ghost of colonialism past hangs heavy in the balance; the decision to intervene in one place and not another seems not just arbitrary, but also motivated by the national interests mentioned by Blair in his speech. Places like Chechnya, suffering a war for over 10 years in a destroyed, god-forsaken way that defies all rules of humanity and hope for resolution; or in North Korea, where, despite the seemingly deterrent use of nuclear weapons, the population has been starving for over a decade and is lacking proper medical care. Because of the complexity of the game theory that governs modern international relations, it is becoming increasingly hard to believe in the possibility of intervention not justified by financial, economic, or political interest. It’s as if the über interventionism of the Cold War followed by the over isolationism of the 90s could only be matched by a hardcore cynical point of view – that what is widely considered a disaster should only be met by caritative and non-profit response. Governmental intervention is motivated by geopolitics, and it’d be foolish of the citizenry to expect their representatives to vote on financial expenses on the simple belief that one must do good. The US has been decried, denounced and protested against for acting on its dependency on fossil fuels. It’s response: so what?

Lets take the case of Syria. For almost a year the international community witnessed Bachar Al-Assad repress a rebellion in blood, with disproportionate use of force and an indiscriminate target policy. This is definitely not shocking from Al-Assad, who built his entire regime based on tyrannical surveillance and brutal use of force. When the rebellion took shape, form and political rhetoric, nation-states across the globe took a more pronounced interest, but intervention wasn’t on anyone’s plate. NGOs and humanitarians worldwide were keeping track of the death toll. Was intervention justified? While the world pondered a UNSC resolution and/or a NATO presence, Israel fired into Syria. UN rapporteurs were sent to investigate the use of chemical weapons, a clear violation of international law that would justify an ethical intervention. When Israel intervened, in a more or less sudden manner, a portion of activists claimed that finally someone had taken upon themselves to show Al-Assad we would not sit idly by. It was however hard to believe Israel would ever follow Blair’s rule of humanitarian intervention. In fact, it appeared that Israel’s actions had been led by an endless desire to provoke Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Sadly, Syria wasn’t the world’s focus because of the bloodshed, but because of its unique role in middle eastern politics and the buffer zone it had become among the Arab League.

So, if we have indeed turned the page on the short chapter that is the right to intervene on legal / moral / ethical grounds, should we simply follow Ron Paul and succumb to primal isolationism?  Is there no middle ground between policing every nation we – as a fellow state or an international organisation – believe to be misbehaving (lest you catch me use the adjective “rogue”) and withdrawing inside our own borders, letting gross human rights violations unattended, bearing witness to military coups live on CNN, expecting a flood of refugees from Gaza to bleed into Egypt, and letting it go, in the name of either financial constraints or our need to clean up domestic policies as a priority? Both are legitimate concerns. Both need to be addressed. In fact, both need to be an argument against massive, across the board, unaccountable, global interventionism. The War on Terror™ has become the poorly theorised leitmotiv for interventionism everywhere (*), in the name not of humanitarian access, but of safety, security – and once again, not global safety, but one specific nation’s safety. National interest is now overwhelmingly and obnoxiously dominating the interventionism sector in a way that neither Kofi Annan nor Bernard Kouchner could have foreseen. This is state terrorism at its finest. This is precisely the reason why isolationism is now so famous amongst political dissenter; if Sen. Ron Paul has become famous for his positions against wars, any wars, he sparked the debate on the threading the fine line between isolationism and non-interventionism. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer from 2011, Ron Paul is quoted as saying:

An isolationist is a protectionist that builds walls around their country, they don’t like the trade, they don’t like to travel about the world, and they like to put sanctions on different countries. So some of the people who call me that, are actually much more in favor of sanctions and limited trade, they’re the ones who don’t want to trade with Cuba and they want to put sanctions on anybody who blinks their eye at them. And yet, the opposite is what we believe in, we believe Nixon did the right thing by opening up trade doors with China, because that is when we quit killing each other and we are more at peace, which we better be, because they have become our banker. So non-intervention is quite a bit different since what the founders advised was to get along with people, trade with people, and to practice diplomacy, rather than having this militancy of telling people what to do and how to run the world and building walls around our own country. That is isolationism, it’s a far cry from what we believe in.

Based on strict foreign policy grounds, Ron Paul is, in fact, an isolationist – but one who has watered down the Fortress of America principle in order to open up the economic grounds that strict isolationism would forego. What is interesting in this speech is his use of the world “militancy”, which implies that the United States has been a belligerent, warmongering state – a situation that has been severely exposed during the Bush Administration, was said to be diminished under Obama, but has instead violently increased. Interventionism is not just a ideological tool of foreign policy under Obama; it is the policy itself, and is more or less called upon under imperatives of national security that somehow supersede the very concept of international law, which clearly calls on non-intervention unless granted by an international organisation claiming rights to intervene for humanitarian purposes.

Maybe the key is to re-focus on the very principles that started out international organisations with supranational goals. Maybe it’s time to reframe the concept of interventionism. Maybe Kofi Annan was right in his “responsibility to protect”:

Building on our evolved understanding of sovereignty, [right to protect] asserts that when states cannot or will not protect their populations from the worst crimes, other states, acting through the UN, should do so. The endorsement of this principle by UN Member States in 2005 was a momentous step. It made clear that hand-wringing and appeals to conscience by the international community are not enough.  We must be ready to use all diplomatic, humanitarian and other means — including targeted sanctions against the leaders responsible — to protect populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It also means that, as a last resort, the international community will be prepared to take collective action, including military force, through the Security Council to protect populations from these crimes. We must be clear, however. Military action really must be the last resort.  It may be necessary in some situations but the decision must never be taken lightly. War, even when waged lawfully and in defence of threatened populations, is destructive and inherently unpredictable. Once engaged, the resort to force has its own logic. Hostilities may escalate quickly beyond a limited objective or outside intended boundaries. War waged against “terror” or to protect civilians may, unintentionally, have disastrous consequences. We also have to be realistic. Only on rare occasions will there be an international consensus in its favour or an international coalition willing to act.

Kofi Annan’s earlier reference to Wallenberg (not quoted) is a call to act in the name of courage, to stand up – individually or as a group – against crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and torture. The golden age of the Empires is long gone; there is now prescription on the treaty of Westphalia, and we have become, through trade partnerships, free circulation of peoples and global media, an international community that can no longer pretend to turn a blind eye on atrocities committed in the name of what can only be considered outdated and outrageous values. Interventionism through military action and indefinite, unspecified and unaccountable use of force in countries in which one intervenes is nothing short of an act of aggression. The concept of just war still prevails, regardless of whether one agrees with it or not, and it is possible for a nation to undergo military presence in the name of defense – one of the most prevalent and unlikely to be ruled out prerogative of a nation-state. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that any interventionism in the world right now from western military power is anything envisaged by Kofi Annan or foreign policy theorists in the early 90s, when we all gaped in horror at the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The United Nations’ Blue Helmets ought to be reformed; the possibility of an armed peacekeeping force must be debated; the necessity of expanding the right to protect once qualification by data from UN rapporteurs need to be enforced.

Unilateral use of military power belongs in the past.


(*) See upcoming review of the documentary Dirty Wars.


About K
bastard banshee. devious lawyer. Lucille Bluth. probably jetlagged.

One Response to Hey man, nice shot: interventionism as foreign policy

  1. lucas says:

    I’m impressed, I must say. Really rarely do I encounter a blog that’s the two educative and enjoyable, and let me tell you, you have reach the toenail on the head. Your concept is fantastic; the issue is something that not enough people are speaking intelligently about. We are very happy that we stumbled across this specific in my search for something with this.

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