The progressive, anti-imperialist case for international intervention
by David Atkins
In many circles on the political left, there isn't a dirtier word than interventionist. The word conjures associations with the worst kind of arrogant imperialism, a constellation of belligerent privilege that stretches from Rudyard Kipling through Woodrow Wilson all the way to George W. Bush. This is with good reason: after all, most interventionism by Western powers has been well-intentioned but ineffective at best, and immoral, abusive and bloodthirsty at worst. It's not surprising that anyone who declares themselves a progressive and an interventionist will be immediately subject to charges of imperialism, racism, warmongering, economic exploitation and other evils. Nor does being steeped in the excellent work of Naomi Klein, Chalmers Johnson or Joseph Stiglitz shield the liberal interventionist from these attacks. Live and let live, reduce blowback, embrace global diversity, end cultural prescriptivism, and let each nation fend for its own economic interests, the interventionist is told.
The moral charges against the interventionist are so varied and intensely felt by his critics that it is often difficult to respond to them in a a satisfying way without descending into a futile series of personal attacks. Arguments on both sides of the interventionism debate are not known for their calmness or rationality, and frequently descend almost immediately into name-calling.
So as a self-proclaimed liberal international interventionist, I'd like to take a step toward explaining the position in a way that will hopefully serve to advance the debate and add light rather than heat to the discussion. I've made this case before here at Hullabaloo, but only sequentially and not in a single, easily digestible article. That's in part because the thesis is somewhat difficult to encapsulate, but this post will be an attempt to do so. For those interested in the longer version, please read in sequence here, then here, then here, then here, and then here.
The first thing to understand about a liberal interventionist is who she is not. The liberal interventionist does not advocate unilateral action on the global stage, nor the use of military power to further corporate interests, nor the use of law or force where the result achieved does not justify the use of force involved, nor does she demand that her own nation be exempt from the rules that apply to others. The liberal interventionist does not believe in the expansion of empire, or in a Pax Americana. The liberal interventionist understands and takes to heart the concept of blowback, and does her very best to minimize it while staying true to her principles.
So what does drive the philosophy of the liberal interventionist? The first and most important is the principle of universality of morals. This principle of universality is what makes the liberal the natural enemy of the libertarian and the moral relativist, both of whom hold divergently opposite views. The liberal does not believe that a single nation can abide slavery in some of its states, but not others, or that some states should be able to ban abortion, or segregate their schools, or allow child labor. A liberal understands that if "driving while brown" laws are wrong as he stands on west side of the California/Arizona border, they're also wrong if he takes a few steps across the border to the east. Nor does the liberal have any qualms about using the federal court system, backed up by the inherent threat of federal guns to enforce it, to deny conservatives in Arizona the right of self-determination on the matter. Liberals cheer the desegregation of Southern schools at the point of a federal gun, nor do they spend sleepless nights worried about cries of federal tyranny from the racists who complain. A liberal is more than content to use the threat of federal force to ensure that women have access to an abortion and that minorities receive Medicaid, nor do we blame an oppressive and imperial federal government for creating blowback when Tim McVeigh or Eric Rudolph decide to actualize their displeasure with liberal policy by bombing innocent civilians. The anger of a few fundamentalist conservatives is understood, within the borders of a nation state, to be the price of the universal application of social justice in a free society.
What separates the liberal interventionist from the standard liberal is simply that this principle of universality of morals doesn't end at the national border. If differential exploitation and discrimination are not acceptable across state lines, they are likewise not acceptable across nation-state borders.
As a practical matter it may not be possible to enforce that moral principle across nation-states without causing greater damage than the original harm. That is a practical, realpolitik and reasonable argument against intervention. It is, in fact, the reason that most liberal interventionists would be wise to not intervene across nation-state borders except in the most extreme cases. However, the usual arguments against international liberal intervention are not made by those who might like to stop abuses but feel powerless to do so without causing greater harm, but by those who feel moral revulsion at taking away another nation's right to determine its own affairs and set its own cultural standards. These are libertarian and moral relativist arguments that make no sense in the context of a national, anti-interventionist liberalism. If it's wrong to tell Afghan and Pakistani Taliban that they shouldn't oppress the Hazara and destroy the lives of women because it interferes with their principle of self-determination, it is equally wrong as a Californian or New Yorker to tell Alabaman conservatives that they don't have the right of self-determination to oppress African-Americans and eliminate reproductive rights. There might be a distinction in current law, but there is no moral distinction between the two cases.
Further, if we are to consider Boston bombers Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnayev somehow a product of a victimized group actualizing blowback against a libertine, oppressive power, then so must we also give the same emotional quarter to abortion clinic bombers. The liberal interventionist is not inclined to do so.
The second principle of the liberal interventionist is the acknowledgement of the weakened power of the nation-state. The world currently faces a large number of challenges that nation-states are simply too powerless to contain themselves. By far the first and most pressing of these challenges is climate change. No single nation can act alone to contain climate change. Any nation that does act alone will, at least in the short term, put itself at a competitive disadvantage against other nations that continue to burn fossil fuels with reckless abandon. That in turn leads to a situation in which everyone knows that something must be done, but no one will step up to act. International laws may or may not be passed, but there exists no credible enforcement mechanism to ensure that nations meet their commitments. Meanwhile, the world burns.
But climate change is not the only issue of its nature. International financial organizations have proven utterly unaccountable to any country, nor has any nation shown it has the clout and power to put a stop to the abuses. Some nations like Iceland have acted in small ways, but none of those actions have caused changes to the behavior of these institutions. In the wake not only of their crashing the world economy while privatizing profits and socializing losses, but also their price fixing and manipulation of oil markets and LIBOR rates, little has been done except modest slaps on the wrist. That's because no major nation can afford to act alone against the banking industry that holds the entire world hostage and enforces its preferred policies through the threat of bond vigilantes. Beyond finance, other international corporations and their wealthy shareholders have turned record profits by selling high to the middle classes of developed world, manufacturing cheaply and dangerously in the desperate developing world, and then stashing over $32 trillion dollars in offshore accounts. That's more than a thousand times the cost of eliminating world hunger. Much like climate change, it's a global crime against humanity that no single nation-state can resolve. Any nation that attempts to right the balance of power against an international corporation finds its manufacturing jobs yanked and its politicians tussled by powers far greater than any nation can cope with.
Terrorism itself is creating a new legal morass for nations that know they must control the behavior of bad actors and asymmetrical warriors in another country, but cannot depend on that country to take action. No nation is safe from reckless and immoral invasion, because international courts have little enforcement power to seize war criminals like Dick Cheney and put them to trial, and most developed nations would rather "look forward" than hold their own war criminals to account. Nuclear proliferation, overfishing, water shortages, and a host of other problems only serve to reinforce the powerlessness of nation states to solve global problems in the modern world.
That imbalance of power serves in turn to increase the likelihood of unilateral imperial actions. With no international framework to deal effectively with terrorism or war criminals, overreactions and exploitative acts by powerful nations and non-state actors will increasingly become the rule rather than the exception. With no international power able to do much of anything against Bin Laden or Dick Cheney, the number of Dick Cheneys and Bin Ladens in the world will increase, not decrease. Goldman Sachs will continue to rule the world unhindered, the climate will burn, developing-world factory workers will die en masse, people will starve, eventually there will be nuclear war, and not a thing will change for the better. The balance of corporate and state power must change, and the only option is a stronger international framework of law and enforcement that constrains multinational corporations, as well as both sides in the new era of asymmetric war.
The liberal interventionist, then, is not a retrograde imperialist. The liberal interventionist is an idealist who resists the neoliberal global consensus of corporate power over national power while simultaneously rejecting the siren calls of antiquated nationalism. The liberal interventionist rejects the moral self-determinist supremacy of nation states' rights abroad as strenuously as he rejects the same self-determinist supremacy of "states' rights" at home. The liberal interventionist rejects the moral relativism of the academic in the ivory tower as surely as she rejects the libertarianism of the anti-government militia man. The liberal interventionist does not accept that institutionalized massive gender and social inequities must be long accepted either at home or abroad except as a nod to the greater moral evil of war, and adamantly refuses to accept that massacres such as those that occurred in Rwanda or are currently occurring in Syria must be tolerated at all without global intervention. The liberal interventionist is confident that the power of multinational corporations can be curbed, but only with effective international action. And the liberal interventionist knows that climate change is the greatest moral challenge of our day, while seeking to build institutions that will be able to tackle the threat in ways that current institutions seem utterly inadequate to do.
To many, the liberal interventionist may be a naive utopian playing with forces she does not understand and cannot control. Perhaps. She would counter that human history is in many ways the story of the power of civilization and complexification to mitigate the worst tendencies of human nature while expanding universal rights and unlocking the secrets of the universe. She would argue that there is no reason to believe that that process of societal complexification has ended with our current global political structures, and that there is every reason to believe that without a metamorphosis of some kind toward greater complexity and universality, humanity itself stands at the precipice of its own destruction.
But at the very least, as a liberal interventionist myself, I would prefer that arguments over liberal interventionism be conducted in the context of what those like me actually do believe, rather than be set up as the straw man imperialism of a dying era.