WORLD POLICY JOURNAL
ARTICLE: Volume XVI, No2, SUMMER 1999
A New Age of Liberal Imperialism?
If anything should be clear from the Kosovo crisis, and, for that matter, from the unhappy experiences that outside intervention forces, whether serving under their own flags, the U.N.’s, or NATO’s, have had over the past decade in places like Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia, it is that ad hoc responses to state failure and humanitarian catastrophe are rarely, if ever, successful. At the same time, the fact that there is now demonstrably a willingness on the part at least of the NATO countries to intervene militarily in the internal conflicts of other nations represents a radical change in international affairs. The conflict over Kosovo, the first war ever waged by the NATO alliance, was undertaken more in the name of human rights and moral obligation than out of any traditional conception of national interest. Indeed, had strictly practical criteria been applied to Kosovo, NATO as a whole might well have taken the same tack its European members did in Bosnia and attempted to prevent the conflict from spreading rather than trying, however halfheartedly, to reverse Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign of murder and mass deportation.
The longer term implications of this further step in the post-Cold War moralization of international politics are not yet clear. Realists, whether they belong to the pure national interest school of a Henry Kissinger or the “lead by moral example” of a George Kennan, are alarmed, as well they should be. For it is now clear that half a century of campaigning by human rights activists has had a profound effect on the conduct of international affairs. The old Westphalian system, in which state sovereignty was held to be well-nigh absolute, is under challenge as never before. As former U.N. secretary general Javier PÈrez de Cuellar put it in 1991, “We are clearly witnessing what is probably an irresistible shift in public attitudes toward the belief that the defense of the oppressed in the name of morality should prevail over frontiers and legal documents.”
Whether it is really “irresistible” is of course debatable. Sometimes what appears at first glance as a prescient description of the future can turn out to be little more than an accurate diagnosis of the present. But PÈrez de Cuellar, who, for all his grandee’s aloofness, was a far abler diagnostician of his times than he is usually given credit for being, does seem to have discerned an essential shift and discerned it early. The Westphalian system in which he was formed as a diplomat now had challengers, many of whom spoke the language of human rights and derived from this language the belief that, in extreme cases at least, human rights abuses necessitated international intervention. The Franco-Italian legal scholar Mario Bettati and the French humanitarian activist and politician, Bernard Kouchner, even formulated a doctrine: the right of intervention.
And they and those who took a similar line had a profound effect on the thinking of Western governments. Human rights became an organizing principle for action in the 1990s the way anticommunism had been throughout the Cold War. The result was that most of the interventions of the 1990s, whether they were meant to protect civilians in states that had fallen apart, as in Somalia, or to shield an ethnic group from the murderous intent of its own government, as in Kosovo, were undertaken under the banner of preventing human rights abuses or righting humanitarian wrongs. Kosovo has been only the latest example of this, as President Clinton made clear when he said that NATO had acted to prevent “the slaughter of innocents on its doorstep.”
Ends and Means
Of course, that is precisely what members of the policy elites in Washington, Brussels, Paris, London, or Berlin say in private to one another all the time. But public language, along with public pressure, is often what drives policy. By now, commonplace expressions of realism in international affairs have become, to borrow the Early Christian theological distinction between elite and mass Christianity, an esoteric language restricted by and large to policymakers when they are out of public view. It is the language of human rights and humanitarianism that now stands as the exoteric language of public discourse about such questions. What this demonstrates is the degree to which there really has been a human rights revolution in the attitudes, though not to nearly the same degree in the practices, of the Western public and its poll-addicted, pandering governments.
But for the most part, what a human rights advocate would probably describe as the triumph of the categorical imperative of human rights-an imperative that, in extreme cases anyway, is held to trump all other political or economic interests or criteria-and what a realist might describe as the hypermoralization of international political action, has taken hold not just as a rhetorical but as an operating principle in all the major Western capitals on issues that concern political crises in poor countries and failing states. The fact that there is, as the writer Aryeh Neier has pointed out eloquently, a human rights double standard where powerful countries like China are concerned does not mean nothing has changed.
The problem lies in separating the cosmetic from the fundamental, the makeover from the moral and political sea change. In all likelihood, elements of both figure in. It is not just that the possibility of any senior government official of any Western government speaking as bluntly as Baker did about the former Yugoslavia has receded, at least when the press microphones are on. The changes are deeper than that. The writer Michael Ignatieff is surely correct when he insists that “the military campaign in Kosovo depends for its legitimacy on what fifty years of human rights has done to our moral instincts, weakening the presumption in favor of state sovereignty, strengthening the presumption in favor of intervention when massacre and deportation become state policy.”1
By “our,” of course, Ignatieff means the Western public that is, as he says, perturbed by distant crimes in a way that it would probably not have been 50 or 75 years ago. Obviously, some sectors of public opinion in all Western states have viewed international affairs largely through a moral lens. U.S. relations with China before the Second World War, to cite only one obvious example, were highly influenced by the agenda of the missionaries. What is impressive is the degree to which these largely Christian missionary (and imperial) habits of thought and categories of analysis find their much broader echo in the secular human rights movement of the past 30 years, and how successfully that movement has been in persuading governments to act at least publicly as if they shared the same concerns and at least some of the same priorities.
No matter how profoundly the influence of the human rights movement has led to a questioning of the inviolability of state sovereignty, the wish to help and the increasing consensus, at least in elite opinion in most NATO countries, that the West has not just the right but the duty to intervene in certain egregious cases is not matched by any coherent idea of what comes next. This is assuming-and as Kosovo has demonstrated, success is anything but assured-that the intervention has succeeded in bringing the particular horror to an end.
Perhaps this is why, in Western Europe at least, the prestige of humanitarianism increased so dramatically over the past 15 years. The humanitarian enterprise-giving help to people desperately in need of it-has seemed to cut through the complexities and corruptions of politics and national interest. Here at last, it seemed, was something morally uncomplicated, something altruistic, something above politics. Of course, what the humanitarian movement discovered painfully over the past decade (though many aid workers had understood this much earlier), starting in Bosnia and culminating in the refugee camps of eastern Zaire where aid helped not only people in need but those who had perpetrated the Rwandan genocide, was that there was no transcending politics. Aid undeniably did good things. A vaccinated child is a vaccinated child. But at least in some instances, it also prolonged wars, distorted resource allocations, and, as in Bosnia, where the humanitarian effort became the focus of Western intervention, offered the great powers an alibi for not stopping the genocide of the Muslims. And Somalia demonstrated that what the West saw as a humanitarian intervention might well be understood by the locals as an imperial invasion, which, whatever its intentions, to a certain extent it almost always is.
An Unstable Mixture
As aid becomes more and more of a business, and private-sector companies expert in construction projects increasingly vie with aid agencies for contracts from principal funders like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the European Commission Humanitarian Office (ECHO), some humanitarian workers are coming to believe that the more emphasis they place on human rights (something that private companies are hardly likely to have much taste or aptitude for) the more important a role they will retain. But it is more than a question of corporate self-interest; the way out of the crisis of confidence humanitarianism has undergone has seemed to lie in the quasi-religious moral absolutism and intellectual self-confidence of the human rights movement.
For Western leaders, these distinctions have very little resonance. The Clinton administration, like its European counterparts, routinely conflates human rights and humanitarian concerns. Kosovo is probably the most extreme example of this, but the pattern has been consistent. The best one can say is that most post-Cold War interventions have been undertaken out of an unstable mixture of human rights and humanitarian concerns. And yet the categorical imperative of upholding human rights and the categorical imperative of getting relief to populations who desperately need it are almost as often in conflict as they are complimentary.
The human rights activist seeks, first and foremost, to halt abuses. Usually, this involves denouncing the states or movements who are violating the laws of war or the rights of their citizens. In contrast, the humanitarian aid worker usually finds that he or she must deal with the abusive government or rampaging militia if the aid is to get through safely and be distributed.
Soldiers are expected to die in a war, but the Somali operation was not presented as a war; it was presented as a humanitarian mission. And soldiers are not supposed to die in such circumstances. Even when the U.S. government declared Mohamad Farah Aideed its enemy, and set out to hunt him down through the back alleys of Mogadishu, it did so using the language of police work. Aideed was a criminal, U.S. officials kept saying.
The result was that the American public came to think of the hunt for Aideed, even though they knew it was being carried out by U.S. Army Rangers, not as war but as police work. Casualties in war are understood to be inevitable. Soldiers are not only supposed to be ready to kill, they are supposed to be able to die. But casualties in police work are a different matter entirely. There, it is only criminals who are supposed to get hurt or, if necessary, killed, not the cops. Again, the fundamental problem has not been some peculiar American aversion to military casualties. Rather, there has been an essential mistake in the way such operations are presented to the public, and, perhaps, even in the way they are conceived of by policymakers. Under the circumstances, it should hardly be surprising that public pressure on Congress and the president to withdraw U.S. troops predictably arises at the first moment an operation cannot be presented in simple moral terms, or when the casualties or even the costs start to mount.
Conflating War and Crime
If the tensions are inevitable, so too is a crime-based outlook about war. Ours is an era when most conflicts are within states, and have for their goal less the defeat of an adversary’s forces on the battlefield than either the extermination or expulsion of populations. Actually, there are few wars that do not seem to involve widespread and systematic violations of international humanitarian law, so thinking about war as crime is not just an understandable but in many ways a rational response to objective conditions.
And yet the emphasis on the Yugoslav and Rwandan ad hoc international tribunals, and, more recently, on the International Criminal Court (ICC), has not only created false hopes but false perceptions of what a human rights-based international order implies. The false hopes are easier to categorize. Such tribunals may, like the death penalty, deter the individual in question, breaking, as Michael Ignatieff put it, “`the cycle of impunity’ for [certain] particular barbarians,” but they cannot hope to seriously deter future criminals or crimes any more than the death penalty deters future murderers-a fact one might have expected the largely anti-death penalty, pro-ICC activists to have confronted more seriously.
But it is by insisting that there is no intellectual or moral problem with demanding that international law should be upheld as strenuously as the domestic laws of democratic states that human rights activists, and the governments that are influenced by them, however intermittently, are engaged in a project that almost certainly seems doomed to failure. Starkly put, its presuppositions do not withstand scrutiny. It is all very well to talk about these laws, or courts, or imperatives, as expressing the will of the “international community.” In practice, however, the definition of this “community” is highly if not exclusively legalistic and consists of the states that sign various treaties and conventions and the activist non-governmental organizations that lobby them to do so.
In finessing this fundamental problem of legitimacy-the ICC, as one of its American defenders once conceded, was largely the concern of “hobbyists and specialists”-and in asserting that a body of law that is the product of a treaty has the same authority as a body of law that is the result of long historical processes that involve parliaments, elections, and popular debate, the activists have in effect constructed a legal system for a political and social system that neither exists nor is likely to exist any time in the foreseeable future. Presented as the product of some new global consensus, it is in fact the legal code of a world government.
No World Government
The problem with the human rights approach-and in this Western governments that have eagerly seized on the rhetoric of human rights are, if anything, far more blameworthy than the activists themselves-is less that it is wrong than that it is unsustainable in the absence of a world government, or, at the very least, of a United Nations system with far more money, autonomy, and power than it is ever likely to be granted by its member states.
A U.N. mercenary army organized along the lines Brian Urquhart has proposed might well have been able to break the back of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or the warlords in Somalia. In places where the interests of the great powers are not involved, the Security Council may at times be willing to grant a mandate for intervention to the secretary general. And open-ended U.N. protectorates in those or similar places, backed up by military force and the mandate to use it, unlike such short-lived operations along the lines of the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) that have actually taken place, would theoretically have a chance of restoring the broken societies over which they had taken control.
But even leaving aside the question of whether such a move toward world government would be in humanity’s best interest, it is obvious that no such option is now available. Even the prospect, seemingly quite realistic in the late-1980s, that U.N. peacekeeping would become a central instrument of international peace and security has receded over the course of the 1990s, with peacekeeping reduced to a narrower and more traditional role of postconflict cease-fire monitoring and truce enforcement. But if the United Nations has been marginalized, and if the demands of the emerging human rights consensus among the Western elites have proved to be not just hard to satisfy but hard even to define except in the broadest and most nebulous terms, it is equally clear that the current ad hoc-ism is also unsustainable.
“Just Do It”
In a sense, that is what important constitutencies within the human rights community had been saying as well. Obviously, neither the activists nor the Kosovars themselves imagined the kind of limited, hesitant, politically hamstrung military campaign NATO would undertake when they called for action. And yet this was the predictable, perhaps even the inevitable consequence of not defining that “it.” The new language of rights, so prevalent in Western capitals, has been revealed to be at least as misleading about what is and is not possible, what it did and did not commit Western states to, as it is a departure from the old language of state sovereignty.
It is not just that the issues over what the future of a postwar Kosovo would be were fudged from the start. Was the province to be liberated by force? If so, was it to be turned into a NATO or an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) protectorate? Or was it to be given its independence? These are only some of the questions that were never answered satisfactorily in Washington or in Brussels before the air campaign began.
More gravely still, there is no evidence that a Marshall Plan for the Balkans, clearly a sine qua non for regional stability even before the bombing started and the mass deportation began, had been worked out. The World Bank was barely consulted; the U.N. specialized agencies, on whom responsibility for the predictable refugee crisis rests, were caught flat-footed. And most Western governments had to run to their parliaments just to get supplemental appropriations to pay for the war; they had no coherent plan for the future whatsoever. Thus, on the political level, the economic level, and the military level, the West was improvising from the start.
But war, even war undertaken on human rights grounds, is not like jazz singing. Improvisation is fatal-as the Kosovars have learned. Just do it, indeed! A country that ran its central bank this way would soon collapse. And yet it continues to be the implicit assumption of the NATO powers that they can confront the crisis of failed states by making it up as they go along. In Somalia, in Rwanda, and in Congo, the Western powers chose to respond with disaster relief, which both guaranteed that the political crises in those countries would continue and represented a terrible misuse of humanitarian aid. In Bosnia, the emphasis was on containing the crisis. In Algeria and Kurdistan, it has been either to ignore it or exploit it.
Finessing the Disaster
It is to be hoped that in the wake of Kosovo, the realization that this kind of geo-strategic frivolity and ad hoc-ism, this resolve to act out of moral paradigms that now command the sympathy but do not yet command the deep allegiance of Western public opinion-at least not to the extent that people are willing to sacrifice in order to see that they are upheld-will no longer do. To say this is not to suggest that there are any obvious alternatives. Even if one accepts more of its premises than I do, the human rights perspective clearly is insufficient.
As for the United Nations, it has been shown to be incapable of playing the dual role of both succoring populations at risk while simultaneously acting like a colonial power and imposing some kind of order and rebuilding civic institutions. The important Third World countries seem to have neither the resources nor the ideological inclination to intervene even in their own regions, as Africa’s failure to act in Rwanda in 1994 demonstrated so painfully.
The conclusion is inescapable. At the present time, only the West has both the power and, however intermittently, the readiness to act. And by the West, one really means the United States. Obviously, to say that America could act effectively if it chose to do so as, yes, the world’s policeman of last resort, is not the same thing as saying that it should. Those who argue, as George Kennan has done, that we overestimate ourselves when we believe we can right the wrongs of the world, must be listened to seriously. So should the views of principled isolationists. And those on what remains of the left who insist that the result of such a broad licensing of American power will be a further entrenchment of America’s hegemony over the rest of the world are also unquestionably correct.
What Is to Be Done
What is to be done? The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees cannot solve crises of such magnitude; these days, it is hard-pressed even to alleviate one without logistical help from NATO military forces. The humanitarian movement has even fewer means. In becoming dependent on NATO’s logistical support, or, as in Kosovo, in effect serving as a humanitarian subcontractor to one of the belligerents, its intellectual and moral coherence, which is based on impartiality, has been undermined. And human rights activists, for the valuable work they do in exposing brutality and violations of international law, are demanding a regime of intervention whose implications they clearly have failed to think through seriously.
By this, I do not mean the issue of consistency-a debate that, these days is usually framed, “If Kosovo, then why not Sierra Leone?”-although the distorting effect of concentrating exclusively on the south Balkans and channeling what monies exist for aid in its direction cannot but have a devastating effect on Africa in particular. To insist on this point is, when all is said and done, to make the great the enemy of the good. There will be no serious intervention in Sierra Leone; that is no reason for us to turn our collective backs on the Kosovars.
But Kosovo is an anomaly-a crisis at the edge of Europe that comes on the heels of the Bosnian crisis about which the NATO powers have a bad conscience. Even had the NATO countries responded more effectively, Kosovo would not have provided a model for how to do post-Cold War interventions.
A deeper problem is how to replace a chaotic post-Cold War disorder with some kind of order that does what it can to prevent both the worst sorts of repression and ethnic cleansing. A realist would say the effort is not worth it. For those who believe differently, whether it is simply because they find the suffering of people in places like Kosovo or the Great Lakes region of Africa as unconscionable when their countries have the means to set it right, or because they believe that too much disorder, even at the periphery of the rich world, is a clear and present danger, the task is to think through how such an order might be imposed.
A more active, attentive, and consistent diplomacy will certainly be necessary, but so will the occasional use of force. Realistically, this means either NATO or the army of the Russian Federation, or both, since only these military establishments have the logistical capacity to move troops long distances in short periods of time. But it is hard to imagine, after the experience of Kosovo, that there will be much appetite for further improvisation. At the same time, it is evident that America’s strategic partners will not be disposed to support a renewed Pax Americana in which the United States acts as the global policeman of last resort, even if America were willing to reassume that role. And it never will, since the American consensus is strongly against such an arrangement.
Back to the Future
But Wilson’s original idea, which was, as he put it, to take temporary control over certain territories in order “to build up in as short a time as possible…a political unit that can take charge of its own affairs,” may be one way out of the current impasse. The unhappy experience of the United Nations in Cambodia suggests that an ad hoc imposition of a trusteeship is doomed to failure, if for no other reason than supervisory control is simply too diffuse and too subject to political pressure. Had the United Nations stayed in Cambodia for a generation, as, to his credit, then Secretary General Boutros-Ghali argued that it should, it might indeed have improved that unhappy country’s prospects; by staying two years, it provided little more than a short respite. Haiti represents a similar failure to stay the course.
To insist on this point is not to bash the United Nations. The structure of the institution, above all the cross-currents and conflicting interests that find their expression in the work of the Security Council, simply makes it the wrong organization to undertake to administer a new trusteeship system. Regional organizations and great powers are far likelier to be able to devise a system of burden sharing. For all its faults (and the “imperialistic” interests) involved, the Nigerian invasion of Sierra Leone has been a positive development. The problem was not that the Nigerians came; it was that once there, they had neither the will nor the money to follow up their military conquest with state reconstruction. Perhaps, if General Olusegun Obasanjo really does represent a return to democracy in Nigeria, such efforts will begin.
Obviously, behind the scenes the NATO countries and, above all the United States, would have to exercise some degree of supervisory control over the trusteeships and underwrite efforts at nation building. Funding would be politically controversial (obviously, most would have to come from the Western powers and possibly from the Bretton Woods institutions) and difficult to appropriate wisely. But, on balance, the costs would still be less than the astronomical figures that will be required to rebuild Kosovo, or, for that matter, were needed to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Central Africa in the mid-1990s. Waste and mismanagement are facts of life. They should not become the impediment to actually dealing with the current disorder and tragedy in so much of the poor world.
It is likely that, were such a system to be put in place, the role of American power might actually diminish over the long term, although in the short run it would probably increase. For the most part, however, except in emergencies, or where the rapid dispatch of troops is required, other, mid-sized nations-rather than NATO powers-could do the actual administrating and the policing. And a structure that would necessarily involve this degree of burden sharing between, small, medium, and great powers might also serve useful purposes in other fields of international relations, although it would be foolish to expect too much on that score.
The central point is that a mandatory system could take the insights of the human rights revolution into account without overreaching; it could provide a framework for action that could only be an improvement over the current system-if it can even be called that-in which each crisis comes as a kind of lightning bolt from the blue; and it would not be constrained by the kind of divisions that make any sort of serious action through the U.N. Security Council all but impossible to imagine.
Is this proposal tantamount to calling for a recolonization of part of the world? Would such a system make the United States even more powerful than it is already? Clearly it is, and clearly it would. But what are the alternatives? Kosovo demonstrates how little stomach the United States has for the kind of military action that its moral ambitions impel it to undertake. And there will be many more Kosovos in the coming decades. With the victory of capitalism nearly absolute, the choice is not between systems but about what kind of capitalist system we are going to have and what kind of world order that system requires. However controversial it may be to say this, our choice at the millennium seems to boil down to imperialism or barbarism. Half-measures of the type we have seen in various humanitarian interventions and in Kosovo represent the worst of both worlds. Better to grasp the nettle and accept that liberal imperialism may be the best we are going to do in these callous and sentimental times.
Indeed, the real task for people who reject both realism and the utopian nihilism of a left that would prefer to see genocide in Bosnia and the mass deportation of the Kosovars rather than strengthen, however marginally, the hegemony of the United States, is to try to humanize this new imperial order-assuming it can come into being-and to curb the excesses that it will doubtless produce. The alternative is not liberation, or the triumph of some global consensus of conscience, but, to paraphrase Che Guevara, one, two, three, many Kosovos.