The Duck of Minerva

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Intervention and Prudence

December 8, 2011

Finally after a busy teaching term I’ve got a chance to add some thoughts to the great post and articles by Jon Western and Joshua Goldstein on humanitarian intervention.

Bottom line: I think Jon and Joshua make a robust case that not only can intervention work, but that the international community is learning effectively how to go about it. As they argue, it is a technique of statecraft that is being refined and better understood. It might not necessarily transform societies on every metric of human well being, but prompt military action combined with due attention to the rule of law, security and institutions can fend off predators and give oppressed peoples a chance – a breathing space – to rebuild. East Timor, Sierra Leone, and who knows, maybe even Libya testify to this.

Nevertheless, when interventionism becomes a hard general principle based on moral duties, it can too readily eclipse the wider strategic picture and call for military action in a vacuum, with the perverse result that security is reduced elsewhere. And while a positive duty to protect might well result in a successful protection of a community, it also can have the unintended effect of abetting counter-atrocities.

Like much foreign policy debate in the US and also on the other side of the pond, the issue of intervention can suffer from the tendency of those on either side to rush to binary positions. Those tempermentally uneasy with intervention can be just as guilty of this as interventionists. Unless we are careful, the principle is wrenched out of any context and like the hollow catch-word of isolationism, the debate can degenerate into a contest between ‘teams’ and rigid dogmas, not a careful analysis of intervention in a wider context.

(NB Jon and Joshua don’t do this – they argue that the doctrine and practice of R2P has contributed to an overall decline of worldwide violence). But the language of absolutes – of strict obligations – does violence to the discipline of strategy, of balancing morality with power, commitments with resources, the ecological effort to relate all parts to the whole.

To take the case of Libya, as others have argued here at the Duck, NATO’s Operation Unified Protector was the decisive act in making possible the overthrow of a tyrannical regime. As Jon noted, ‘In the absence of NATO’s air campaign we would not be witnessing the celebrations today. The Libyans wanted to, but probably could not have, settled it by themselves.’

True enough. We might also add that without NATO’s intervention, we probably wouldn’t be seeing the torture or illegal detention of black Africans under the new order as reported by Amnesty International and the United Nations. If not intervening where we can amounts to a kind of complicity in what follows, the states that intervened are complicit in those atrocities, indirectly. We might think we have a responsibility to protect, but that should be tempered with a responsibility to first do no harm. We might approach civil wars as a conflict between predators and victims, but they are just as often vengeful power struggles that are hard to comprehend in stark moral terms. Was rescuing a large population worth the subsequent suffering of a smaller group? Perhaps, but by speaking the language of responsibility and rights, we set a standard we will (or should) be judged by.

But even if the Libyan war went perfectly and did not have this tragic internal consequence, how will this action shape the wider security environment? From the point of view of Tehran or Pyongyang, the West once again has attacked a regime that either did not have a WMD or nuclear deterrent, or had peacefully renounced it. As David Patrikarakos argues,  

Hardliners in Iran have learned an important lesson from recent history. They have just seen Gaddafi overthrown after giving up his nuclear programme in 2003, the same year that Iraq, which never had a nuclear weapons programme, was invaded. And they remember that in 2001 the US invaded Afghanistan on the grounds that it harboured and funded the Taliban, while making Pakistan, which also harboured and funded the Taliban, but had nuclear weapons, a major ally in the war on terror. The message is simple: nuclear weapons mean security.

Of course, we can’t be sure that we ‘know’ how strong this causal link is, and that the war on Libya has played a role in accelerating Iran’s nuclear programme. But its possible enough to give us pause. And it probably has added a strong ‘plus’ to the argument for acquiring a nuclear deterrent in places like Iran. It would be a bitter irony if an intervention conducted in the name of human rights and wider security had the perverse result of making Libya more unsafe for black people and adding impetus to nuclear proliferation.

To set conditions, through a frequent use of military power as a tool of liberalism and regime change, that make nuclear insurance attractive – to set the conditions for spiralling insecurity and arms buildups into the bargain – would not only be dangerous but surely inauspicious for the cause of human rights. Libyan lives matter. So too does disarmament and non-proliferation. Means matter, ends matter, consequences matter, both intended and otherwise.

So it is probably better to approach these issues in a state of prudence rather than binary absolutes. Prudence as it is classically conceived recognises the conflicted nature of most political situations, and negotiates between competing interests, with an eye for the limits of power and the ever-present potential for self-defeating behaviour. Not acting, to be sure, can also be imprudent. To act or not to act, or to choose which tools to use and when, remains a hard call. But at least a prudent way of thinking can turn attention to the relative as well as the absolute, and the bleak reality that good intentions are dangerous things indeed.

UPDATE: It seems I missed some reports that Qaddafi did not fully disarm his WMD arsenal. However, it also seems that he did not keep up his nuclear programme. Regardless, I hope my point still stands that NATO’s war against a state that did not have a nuclear deterrent may have consequences for proliferation elsewhere.

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Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. He is also Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London. His research interests are great power politics, grand strategy, realism, the causes and consequences of major powers’ decline, the Iraq war of 2003, foreign and defence policy in the US and UK, and the intellectual life of major powers and their foreign policy establishments. He has written four books. His book Blunder: Britain's War in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize, 2019. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity, 2020). He also wrote The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power (Georgetown University Press, 2015) and Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (Columbia University Press, 2009.