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Debating intervention

Dana H. Allin examines the evolution of attitudes to intervention since the end of the Cold War and the impact of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Afghan aftermath: An international security presence is required to help rebuild Afghanistan (© Crown Copyright)

In the decade before 11 September 2001, there were plenty of conflicts around the world, but little clarity among Western powers about their strategic interests and moral responsibilities for ending them. The absence of the strategic focus that had been provided by the East-West struggle was keenly felt and could be seen in the confusion of Western responses to state breakdown and civil war in a range of countries, including Afghanistan, Angola, former Soviet Republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Yugoslavia and Zaire/Congo. Some of these civil conflicts, as in Afghanistan and Angola, were continuations of Cold War-era proxy wars that maintained their deadly momentum long after Super-Power patrons had lost interest. Others - some former Soviet republics and Yugoslavia - were the consequence of the collapse of multi-national states.

Since both these categories of conflict fit into the category of unfinished business from the 20th century's cold and world wars, it was possible to hope that the local carnage of the 1990s was a kind of final, residual nightmare - terrible, but temporary. This interpretation fits the general optimism engendered by the peaceful conclusion of the Cold War. A theory of benign globalisation suggested that these poor and conflict-ridden regions would eventually be swept up in the tide of global progress and peaceful development. If this was the long-term prospect, then it could be argued that the main responsibility of the powerful, advanced and wealthy states was to maintain the requisite global conditions - free trade, free movement of human and financial capital, secure sources of energy, the absence of Great-Power conflict - while attending in the short term to the humanitarian consequences of local conflicts.

Failed states

As the 1990s dragged on, however, the multiplicity, obduracy, brutality, and sheer anarchy of such conflicts pointed to a darker interpretation - that a strong state and competent governance were preconditions for peaceful progress, but that these preconditions were not natural or perhaps even attainable in many places. The concept of a "failed state" entered the discourse of international relations, together with the overriding question: What, if anything, could and would be done to halt their wars and resurrect them?

If there is a problem of US unilateralism, it is not so much that US policy is over-militarised as that it is insufficiently ambitious

This question became entangled with two other emerging aspects of the post-Cold War international system. Increasing recognition of the primacy of US military might was combined, perhaps inevitably, with increasing concern about the steadfastness of the United States' exercise of its preponderant power. In relation to the problem of failed states, the focus on the United States came as alternative solutions were, or appeared to be, discredited. With the end of the Cold War, new expectations and great demands were placed on the United Nations as an organisation, and although it performed admirably in many places, some notable failures - especially in Rwanda and Yugoslavia - underscored its material and cultural limits. And Europe, both its institutions and its major powers, proved unable to meet the challenge presented by the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Indeed, the notion of the United States as the "indispensable power" owed much to the way it was drawn into the role of leading peacemaker to pick up the pieces from the wars of Yugoslav dissolution, first in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia), then in Kosovo.

Yet looking at the 1990s as a whole, the US record in dealing with the most horrific consequences of state failure was uneven. Its flight from Somalia propagated the new conventional wisdom that a ruthless warlord need only fill a few body bags to dispatch the last remaining Super Power. Haunted by that experience, the United States not only baulked itself but also stymied effective UN Security Council action to halt the Rwandan genocide. In Haiti, the US role was more honourable and marginally more successful, but critics noted that the motivating interest was in large measure the prospect of more waves of Haitian refugees. And even in the former Yugoslavia, where the United States led its NATO Allies in doing the right thing in the end, initial US diffidence hampered an effective Western response until much of the damage - especially in Bosnia - had already been done.

Still, the 1990s was a decade in which NATO as a whole climbed a steep learning curve. The Allies came to a consensus on the necessity and the feasibility of humanitarian interventions in at least the one area - Southeastern Europe - where moral imperatives were reinforced by a compelling interest in European stability. A confused and morally debilitating passivity in the face of crimes against humanity in Bosnia - after reaching a nadir in summer 1995 - gave way to more assertive policies to defend the Bosnian government and the civilians who were the main target of the war. It was, of course, the harrowing and humiliating experience in Bosnia that weighed on the minds of Western leaders and strictly limited their patience with the actions of then Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo.

In many European states - notably Germany - strategic discourse had been distorted by heavy pacifist baggage. Over the course of the 1990s, as European publics and elites were confronted with the logic and consequences of wars of ethnic cleansing, much of this baggage was unloaded. As a consequence, by the time of the Kosovo campaign, the European members of NATO were more ready to use force and take sides in conflicts where moral judgements, although often difficult, were by no means impossible. And in the case of the United States, the Clinton Administration gradually became more confident about matching its moralistic rhetoric with military engagement.

Such was the background to one of the few debates in the 2000 US presidential contest devoted to foreign policy. In it, the Bush campaign accused the Clinton Administration of causing the United States to lose its strategic focus and squandering its military assets and energy on humanitarian interventions, peacekeeping and nation-building exercises in places far removed from the country's vital interests. Vice President Al Gore responded with a spirited defence of such US engagements, the salient issue at the time being the deployments in the former Yugoslavia. He noted that nation-building in Germany and Japan had been key ingredients to the United States' post-war and Cold War foreign-policy triumphs.

Terrorist attacks

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 should have settled this particular debate. Osama bin Laden and al Qaida had in effect hijacked the failed states of Sudan and then Afghanistan to serve as a base for their operations. Since the enormity of the threat from al Qaida has now been firmly established, it would seem to follow that the world community, and not least the United States, can no longer tolerate the scourge of failed states for strategic as much as moral reasons.

This apparent lesson was underscored by President George W. Bush's promise to Afghanistan, at the outset of the US campaign there, that the United States would not again abandon the country to its post-war fate. Implicit in this promise was the idea that US indifference to the country in the decade after the Soviet withdrawal had been a catastrophic mistake. Likewise, the debate about military action for regime change in Iraq has centred to a large extent on questions of responsibility for the aftermath. Indeed, the strategic threat posed by failed states was highlighted in the Bush Administration's National Security Strategy document, which stated on page one that: "America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones."

Yet it is not clear how the United States, the Atlantic Alliance or a nascent "world community" can consistently enforce, worldwide, the principles that NATO fought for in Kosovo. Washington's early reluctance to countenance the extension of the Afghan peacekeeping mission, the International Security Assistance Force, from Kabul to the entire country underscored the limits of US and, by extension, international commitment. Moreover, whatever the merits in principle of the argument that state failure around the globe was intolerable to the international conscience and international security, and however blurred the distinction between "wars of necessity" and "wars of choice", the practical problem of strategic choice will not easily go away.

In the best of all plausible worlds, some failed states would be the (presumably fortunate) objects of international administration, and some would not. The criteria for choosing who gets pulled into the lifeboat are, however, murky - certainly in moral terms but also in terms of national interest. One serious attempt to lay out such strategic-choice criteria was attempted in the late 1990s by a team of scholars led by Paul Kennedy. They drew up a list of "pivotal states" that the Western and international communities could not afford to let fail. Yet the inherent flaw in any such attempt at list making is easy to see: it is unlikely that Afghanistan, before 11 September 2001, would have made the short-list.

There is no doubting that since 11 September 2001 the United States has been even more inclined to focus on what Washington "realists" consider the central strategic tasks of the world's only Super Power. The United States, shockingly vulnerable, with unique geostrategic burdens and, therefore, unique vulnerability around the world, was going to concentrate on the hard cases. By this cold logic, an Iraq armed with weapons of mass destruction was more intolerable to the United States than, for example, genocidal war in Africa.

Pre-emption debate

The controversy surrounding the Bush Administration's purported new doctrine of "pre-emption" is, in this regard, something of a distraction. As the Administration rightly stated in the National Security Strategy document laying out the case for pre-emption, it was mainly a matter of "common sense". Few states with the military means to pre-empt an attack would stand passive and wait for it. In any event, the prospect of a second US campaign against Iraq is a matter of "preventive" rather than pre-emptive war. The United States considers Iraqi possession of nuclear weapons and their delivery means intolerable and is preparing for war to prevent it. Internationally, this position might be more controversial if applied to certain other states. But in the case of Iraq it should not be considered such an extreme case of unilateralism - consistent as it is with more than a decade of UN Security Council resolutions, now augmented by renewed demands for Iraqi disarmament, and with them the implicit threat of military enforcement.

The real question is whether the marriage between US forcefulness and European humanitarianism - a marriage that was consummated in the Kosovo intervention - will survive the undoubtedly greater insularity of US decision-making after both the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the electoral triumph of conservative Republicanism.

If there is a problem of US unilateralism, it is not so much that US policy is over-militarised as that it is insufficiently ambitious. To those worried about the United States' overweening power and swagger on the world stage, this may seem like an odd observation. However, although the new National Security Strategy lays out a bold vision for “extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent”, implying, for example, a democratic remaking of the Middle East, such rhetorical ambition is not matched by the will for the patient, difficult and often dreary task of nation-building that might make it a reality. Indeed, it was UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who, in his Labour Party Conference speech a few weeks after 11 September 2001, articulated a strategic vision that coupled a full-scale war against al Qaida with the determination to leave the post-war world better off for the great majority of humanity. In laying out this vision, he claimed a continuity between the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s and the arguably more demanding strategic era of the early 21st century.

The challenge, then, is for the wealthy, democratic states to fight the most serious immediate threats - above all, al Qaida - and at the same time mobilise themselves for other projects that are arguably the "moral equivalent of war". The most often cited example of such mobilisations on the basis of enlightened national interest was the Marshall Plan, when the United States - far less wealthy than today - transferred something in the order of 2 per cent of its gross national product for the reconstruction and stabilisation of war-ravaged Europe.

A standard response to the use of this example is that those were special times with a special threat. Half a century later, it is claimed that US society (or indeed, any of today's rich societies) cannot be expected to mobilise on such a scale. Yet given global disparities of wealth, the seeming permanence of human poverty, the extent of failed governance around the world, the vast loss of lives in civil conflicts, and the "demonstration effect" of non-state actors turning their grievances against the West into mass murder on a spectacular scale, is this standard response still valid?

Read more: cold war
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