The international crisis in Ukraine and the devastating tragedy that is the on-going Syrian Civil War have not only divided the world along lines reminiscent of the Cold War, they have also inspired an ideological debate among politicians, academics and policy wonks over how ‘the west’ should respond. One element of this is that – despite its discrediting by the shambles of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – advocates of liberal imperialism apparently wish to give it another shot. It would be wiser to confine it to the dustbin of history.
Michael Ignatieff – the unsuccessful leader of Canada’s Liberal Party and a prominent public intellectual – articulated what contemporary liberal imperialism represents in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, separating himself from the prevailing wisdom that, he claims, represents “fatalism parading as realism and resignation masquerading as prudence“.
Ignatieff argues that, “the conventional wisdom holds that there are no ‘good guys’ in the opposition, no one we actually want to win. There weren’t many good guys among the Balkan politicians in the late 1990s, either, but by working with them as a special presidential envoy, Richard C. Holbrooke did help bring a stop to the killing. If force were applied to leverage diplomacy in Syria, as the United States did in Bosnia, the dying could stop, refugees could return and negotiations could eventually lead either to partition or to a constitutional transition.”
Underlying this philosophy is the notion that international politics and international warfare are regulated by a rules-based system. In this kind of systematic context, when actors like Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin cross the threshold between the reasonable and unreasonable actions of a state, then they should be punished.
But the obvious problem lies in the clear contradiction between the fact that Ignatieff predicates the legitimacy of the use of force on apparently universal laws and that at the same time history tells us that those executing that policy have done so only under selective circumstances.
Indeed, if anything, Ignatieff’s boldness in this context is only as surprising as his shameless volte-face over the issue of the Iraq war – which he had initially supported, but then rejected as a catastrophe. He said that: “The people who truly showed good judgment on Iraq predicted the consequences that actually ensued but also rightly evaluated the motives that led to the action… They didn’t suppose that America had the power to shape political outcomes in a faraway country of which most Americans knew little. They didn’t believe that because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo it had to be doing so in Iraq.”
Clearly, in Ignatieff ‘s mind, it is the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and the NATO’s bombing campaign to halt the ethnic cleansing by Serb forces in the province of Kosovo, that remains the standard by which potential humanitarian military interventions should be measured.
Indeed it was in this context that the former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair – who was in many ways the architect of modern liberal imperialism – laid out a conceptual framework for using force overseas in his, now infamous, Chicago speech of 1999. In this address, Blair described a doctrine for using force as a means to achieve humanitarian and security goals. He explained that NATO’s bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia was on the way to stopping Slobodan Milošević’s assault against the Kosovan Albanians. He also outlined a vision of how ethics, international security and the use of force could come together.
In Blair’s view, such a change in how the West responded to conflict was necessitated by an awareness that globalisation was rapidly transforming the world in which we lived. The existence of rogue actors, like Milošević, could be understood in terms of a political and security threat to anyone in the world.
“We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not … We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure”, Blair explained.
Largely seen as a success, NATO’s bombing of Kosovo did stop Milošević while accompanying aid and reconstruction programmes effectively turned the province into a protectorate of the European Union. Furthermore, in the short term, it helped provide impetus for Britain’s next international intervention, Operation Palliser, which helped bring an end to the civil war in Sierra Leone.
But in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Washington DC and New York on 11 September 2001, Blair’s doctrine was reimagined and found new focus in the security challenges posed by dangerous people and dangerous ideas abroad. In this context, the notion of globalised security became the casus belli for a decade of conflict.
Yet this doctrine suffered from three important flaws. First was the problem of securitization. This is the phenomenon that ‘security’ can only ever be understood by its apparent absence. In other words, political actors can claim to be pursuing ever-greater security by confining the actions of others, limiting access to political agency or attacking perceived enemies, endlessly. In this framework, as long as they see a ‘security threat’, they have impetus and right to act, no matter the impact on others around them.
The second major flaw was evident in the costs of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Both of these endeavours were certainly failures in the sense that the US-led forces were not able to follow through on the creation of a new political order – that would prioritize human dignity and enhance international security – in either of those countries.
Indeed in Afghanistan this task was interpreted as a drive to modernise the state and provide a range of various new amenities for the local population. But as British troops left Helmand province earlier this year that mission remained decidedly incomplete. Similarly in Iraq – where security and human rights had been the centrepieces in the justification for war – the coalition forces left a country in turmoil with a body count of between 121,917 and 135,357 civilians (approximately a total of 186,000, including combatants).
Beyond this, the “War on Terror” also took less high profile forms; through drone strikes, massive spying programmes, the use of torture and renewed support for authoritarian regimes, even as the rhetoric of democracy was applied liberally.
Further, what became clearer throughout the 2000s was a subtext of civilizational hierarchy that underlay the rhetoric of war, harking back to the ‘clash of civilisations‘ ideology articulated by Samuel Huntington and the narratives of Islamic inferiority, perpetuated by grandees of orientalism such as Bernard Lewis. In practice, this was easy to observe from the outside and was readily embraced by hawkish neo-conservatives on – mostly – the American side.
More subtly for the liberal imperialists perhaps, these ideas also infected reactions to other events in the international system – such as the double standards applied to the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah and the 2008-9 attack by Israel on Gaza – where the human rights rhetoric of liberal imperialism lay silent in the face of action by its ally. (A similar case can be made regarding the silence of liberal imperialists over alleged human right abuses in, particularly, the battle of Fallujah).
More recent events have returned the issue of double standards very much to the fore. For example the comments made by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, on the illegitimacy of Russia’s incursion into Crimea that, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text,” led to derision from many who might claim the US did exactly that during the Iraq war – which the then senator Kerry voted for – in 2003.
Furthermore, Blair – the man who advocated democracy and humanitarianism in the Middle East at the barrel of a gun – has endorsed the military coup in Egypt that overthrew a democratically elected government, and embraced the army’s leader Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
Ignatieff, the man who literally wrote the book “Empire Lite” will probably not be moved by the label ‘liberal imperialist’. But, for the rest of us at least, his argument should give us pause. Syria’s civil war is certainly the single worst humanitarian disaster of the current century so far. But taking advantage of this tragedy to re-impose the will of the west, probably ineptly – if recent history is anything to go by – is no answer at all. Thus, perhaps, despite its terrible cost, realism and prudence represents a better choice than the siren song of liberal imperialism.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.