Thursday, 24 March 2011

New Statesman: Ethical dimensions of interventionist foreign policy

John Stuart Mill (lived 1806-1873)
Jason Cowley in today's New Statesman has an excellent article pointing up the dangers inherent in the idea of liberal intervention—such as we have seen in Libya today.

Cowley suggests that an essay by the key liberal thinker John Stuart Mill, first published in 1859, offers keen insight into the thinking behind the west’s UN-backed air strikes...

Offering an argument against this particular intervention, Cowley joins the long-dead Mills in doubting the necessity, the utility and the altruism in going to war against the Gaddafi regime:
The art of successful foreign policy is the art of measuring competing objectives; of knowing when to intervene (as in Kosovo in 1999 and Sierra Leone in 2000) and when not to (Iraq in 2003). Under Tony Blair, liberal interventionism itself became a kind of absolutist dogma. For Blair, there was a "moral obligation" to intervene "to make the world better". Emboldened by the success of his action in Sierra Leone to defeat the militias that had laid waste to an entire nation, and the Nato-led assault on Serbia during the Kosovo war, Blair wrongfully supported the Americans in their illegal war in Iraq. The inconsistencies of his positions abounded. Why intervene in Iraq and not in, say, Iran or Darfur? Similarly, why now should we intervene in Libya and not in Yemen, where civilians are being murdered by an autocrat every bit as repugnant as Gaddafi?

Perhaps we should turn to the great liberal philosopher J S Mill for help. In 1859, writing against the backdrop of the Crimean war, the Indian mutiny and the construction of the Suez Canal, Mill published an essay titled "A Few Words on Non-intervention", still one of the best I have read on the subject. Mill was not opposed to all foreign adventurism. As a servant of imperialism, he believed in the "civilising" mission of the British empire, but he set limits on when a state should intervene in the internal affairs of another, especially during a civil war or revolt. Mill was conscious that any foreign intervention would be viewed from the outside as an act not of humanitarianism, but of cynical self-interest. It's all about the oil! He believed that if a people did not have "a sufficient love of liberty to be able to wrest it from merely domestic oppressors, the liberty which is bestowed on them by other hands rather than their own, will have nothing real, nothing permanent".
Mill continued: "When the contest is only with native rulers, and with such native strength as those rulers can enlist in their defence, the answer I should give to the question of the legitimacy of intervention is, as a general rule, No."

No people, Mill thought, "ever was or remained free, but because it was determined to be so . . . If a people - especially one whose freedom has not yet become prescriptive - does not value it sufficiently to fight for it, and maintain it against any force which can be mustered within the country, even by those who have the command of the public revenue, it is only a question of how few years or months that people will be enslaved."

Unlike in Sierra Leone, where militias were supported by an outside agent - the Liberian warlord Charles Taylor - or Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians were struggling against the aggression of a Greater Serbia, the struggle of the Libyan rebels is against a native ruler. How long would they have been prepared to continue the freedom fight? We shall never know, because of the haste with which the western powers have rushed to intervene as they seek to police the earth, ghosts orbiting forever lost.
A useful article, providing important reasoned balance in the current intervention debate and the practical application of liberalism as an approach to global politics. Take the time to read the whole piece!

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