The crisis in Syria has placed the issue of humanitarian intervention squarely back on the world’s agenda. A brutal government mercilessly repressing what started as peaceful protest by its people. Perhaps 100,000 dead and 2 million refugees. A savage civil war, with sectarian and Islamist dimensions. The clear danger of the rest of the region being dragged in. And while there is now apparent agreement on chemical weapons, the UN Security Council remains deadlocked on the more central issue of what to do about the Assad regime.
The case for international intervention in such circumstances was put by Tony Blair in his famous 1999 Chicago speech — once described as the most thoughtful speech ever delivered by a serving prime minister. Blair set out a carefully articulated argument that “we are all internationalists now”. In a globalising world we cannot turn our back on even far away conflicts and breaches of human rights because sooner or later they will have a direct impact on us. The old rule that you do not interfere in the internal affairs of other states needs adjustment. In certain carefully defined circumstances intervention for humanitarian reasons is both right and necessary. Bismarck’s coldly realistic view that disturbances in the faraway Balkans were “not worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier” no longer works in today’s world.
In fact the “Blair doctrine” is not entirely new. Between the Napoleonic wars and the watershed of 1991 there have been ten or so major international military interventions claimed to have been motivated by humanitarian concerns. These claims are of varying plausibility — the Vietnamese attack on Cambodia in 1978 was much more the result of simmering ethnic differences than any noble desire to end the “killing fields”. But in at least a handful of these cases — the Russian intervention to end the Bulgarian atrocities of 1877, the Indian military campaign to end the massacres in East Pakistan in 1971 — humanitarian motives seem to have been at the forefront. For an Englishman a particularly proud example is the campaign of the Royal Navy between 1807 and 1867 to end the transatlantic slave trade. The justification was entirely moral horror at the trade, and the campaign was conducted at considerable risk to Britain’s other international interests. It was in Britain too that in 1859 John Stuart Mill, anticipating Blair, made the first attempt to describe the circumstances in which humanitarian intervention might be justified. Much of what he wrote then remains strikingly relevant, applying in particular to the situation we now face in Syria (where, on his own criteria, Mill would have supported intervention).
Nevertheless, up to the end of the Cold War, the Bismarckian view remained predominant. States could act to protect their own security but otherwise should not interfere in each other’s internal affairs. Under the UN Charter military action against another country is illegal unless either they attack you or the Security Council gives its assent. In a world where the US and the USSR had opposing dogs in every fight, and vetoes in the Security Council to deploy on their behalf, the Council gave assent to very little. And neither superpower was prepared to upset its delicate relations with the other for merely humanitarian motives.
The dam broke with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Suddenly a triumphant West was constructing a “New World Order” in which oppression would be a thing of the past. The Soviet seat in the Security Council was occupied by a diminished Russia, dependent on the West for aid. There was plenty to do. In short order the Council authorised interventions for humanitarian purposes in Iraq (1991), Somalia (1992), Bosnia (1992), Haiti (1994) and East Timor (1999) — more interventions in a decade than had been seen in the previous history of the UN.
Russian and Chinese discomfort with this wave of Western activism grew, but did not initially stem the tide. Confronted with a likely Russian veto in the Security Council on action in Kosovo (1999), the West simply invented a new legal doctrine (“humanitarian need”) to bypass the Council and act anyway. For the 2003 action in Iraq (not primarily humanitarian, but with a large humanitarian dimension), the US and its allies again found legal arguments to bypass the Council. And it was only by mistake that Russia allowed Council assent to military action in Libya (2011). By now, the wind was so much in the sails of the Blair doctrine that there was a serious move to make governments answerable to the international community for the way they treated their citizens — the ultimate abandonment of the non-interference principle. This “Responsibility to Protect” was endorsed by a world summit in 2005. Bismarck must have been spinning in his grave.
A number of broader points emerge from this history. First, very few interventions have been purely humanitarian. Certainly the Russians went into Bulgaria in 1877 to protect their fellow Slavs, but also to stake their claim to the decomposing Ottoman Empire. India’s invasion to stop the 1971 Bengal massacres was additionally prompted by a huge refugee crisis, and the prospect of dismembering Pakistan. Saddam’s Iraq was a menace to much more than its own people. And both Bosnia and Kosovo confronted Europe with the prospect of a crime-infested killing ground at its heart. Governments, particularly the US government, have been increasingly reluctant to intervene where they cannot show their publics a direct national interest in doing so. The point is reinforced by one intervention that didn’t happen — in Rwanda in 1994 — where perhaps a million people died but the outside world did not feel its interests sufficiently engaged to stop the slaughter.
Second, the recent history of humanitarian intervention has been one of very mixed success. Some interventions have undoubtedly made the world a better place: Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and the British action in Sierra Leone (1999) are examples. On the other hand, the actions in Somalia and Iraq both ended humiliatingly and with many of their aims unachieved. Libya, following the Western action, has collapsed into anarchy. And the prospects do not look good for Afghanistan (again not primarily a humanitarian intervention — but one to which high humanitarian ambitions became attached).
And, third, this has all become harder. The reasons lie in US (and British) politics, as well as the wider international context. Following a series of less than totally successful wars, the British and American publics are in a mood of retrenchment. Disillusion has set in about the “New World Order” and the burden it has placed on those seeking to establish it. Both the British and American debates on Syria have been dominated by huge public aversion to any military intervention, even one as narrowly conceived as that originally planned by President Obama.
The international mood, too, is increasingly hostile to Western acts of military intervention. The trajectory of China and Russia, from endorsement of the Bosnia operation a decade ago to flat opposition in the case of Syria, is illustrative. These two countries have grown uncomfortable with the Western habit of overthrowing dictators well disposed to them (as in Iraq and Libya), and see the West’s emphasis on human rights in global affairs as potentially a direct threat to their own regimes. But the problem goes wider. The discussion of Syria at the St Petersburg G20 summit last month showed that most major emerging countries (including India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and Mexico) are not at all keen to see international norms adjusted to give the West greater scope to interfere in their internal affairs. These are the rising powers of the 21st century. They disliked US “unipolarity” under George W. Bush and see the authority of the UN Security Council, and strict adherence to the non-interference principle, as a key protection against it. While they did indeed, with gritted teeth, endorse the Responsibility to Protect, they did so in a form which in practice reaffirmed the blocking power of the Security Council. In the eight years since its adoption, Responsibility to Protect has not once been cited as a basis for UN action.
So, is Bismarck back? Is the humanitarian moment over? There is one, by no means implausible, circumstance which would with absolute certainty bury the interventionist impulse: the emergence of some form of “Cold War” between the US and China. We would then once again be in a polarised world. All external political action would be judged by its effect on the balance between the great powers. Humanitarianism would again be an unaffordable distraction.
But, absent a new superpower stand-off, Blair’s 1999 arguments still ring true. The world is increasingly a village in which all our backyards adjoin. If your neighbour drives his children to hooliganism and petty theft, you will be among the victims. And the cries of his abused wife are distressingly audible in your kitchen. Massive repression in any country is no longer a domestic matter. A succession of crises — Kosovo, Libya, Syria — show that in today’s closely linked world repression very quickly turns into an international tide of bad things: refugees, crime, terrorism. Protecting others from massive brutality is protecting ourselves at one remove. And nothing is now hidden. Thirty years ago, Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez killed 20,000 people to repress a revolt, and the world didn’t really notice. His son’s atrocities are on our TV screens every night. This is only one factor driving policy, but an important one.
Of course intervention in all cases and all places will never be possible or desirable. There are the realities of power. Back in the 19th century the Royal Navy was much tougher on Portuguese slave traders than on French ones. Similarly, there will be no intervention on behalf of Chechens or Tibetans. And, in probably the most important lesson from our recent spate of interventions, some societies, and problems, are simply too complex and messy for the international community to be able to make a difference. The “nation building” which we have learnt will be needed after any substantial intervention (and is often more demanding than the original intervention itself) can simply prove beyond our powers and patience. Some evils may need to be tolerated because the alternative could be worse. (Which is preferable in Egypt: the military or Islamism?) Total moral consistency is a mirage.
But that is not an argument for doing nothing at all. As the Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone examples underline, there are places where external intervention can make a real and beneficial difference. Such cases will not be frequent, but when they appear both pragmatism and conscience argue for action. Indeed the sheer readiness to intervene can inhibit global evils. The West’s early failure to stop Assad can only have encouraged other dictators to follow in his bloody footsteps.
Inescapably, it is the United States, and its close allies such as the UK, that will have to carry the burden. We are the only countries with both the global reach and the commitment to international standards to be able to act both rightly and effectively. The role of global policeman may be an ungrateful and expensive one, but a world where someone takes that role will undoubtedly be safer and more secure (including for us) than a world where no one does. With rising Russian and Chinese obstructiveness in the Security Council, that is precisely the alternative that we face.
The core actor in all this is, of course, the United States. But we should not underestimate the UK’s influence. I worked in the British embassy in Washington 2001-04, and saw, particularly post 9/11, how close and wide-ranging our relations are, and how congruent our objectives. It was largely British arguments that drew the Americans into the Kosovo and Libya exercises. Given their obvious ability to go it alone, the Americans attach remarkably high political importance to having allies alongside them; and what the British do is noticed. If we want them to continue carrying the burden of global order, then we need to be there too.