Military Intervention is not the solution
The fiascos of intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq discredited the notion of humanitarian militarism. The recent war in Libya has, however, put wind back into the sails of those who advocate military intervention in pursuit of liberal or humanitarian objectives. Calls for military action in Syria are getting louder, and Iran is also increasingly being viewed through the crosshairs. Are we today on the verge of a new round of foreign intervention?
A sober debate over military intervention might benefit from a brief look back into history. After nearly two centuries of bloodshed, the Treaty of Westphalia ended the nearly continuous series of wars involving the Holy Roman Empire, France, Spain, Sweden, the United Netherlands and several European city-states. Crucial to the treaty was the notion of sovereignty: states could no longer legitimately meddle in the internal affairs of other states.
Similar agreements were enshrined with the establishment of the League of Nations after WWI (1914-1918), and again after WWII (1940-1945) with the establishment of the United Nations (UN). To limit the influence of the old colonial powers, and to end scourge of war, the UN established a system of international criminal law in which offensive war was made a prosecutable offense. According to the Nurnberg Charter (1945), war of aggression constitutes “the highest international crime” that “carries all other crimes within it.” This new international context emerged out of the uneasy balance between the remaining great powers after WWII, the United State of America and the Soviet Union.
This post-War geopolitical landscape has been fundamentally transformed over the past two decades. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the USA was the only great power left standing. America’s power elite would prefer to keep things this way, and have adjusted the strategic concept of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—the USA’s major strategic alliance of the post-WWII era—accordingly. No longer a collective defense organization active on the territory of member states, the NATO has become an offensive and interventionist force. Since the end of the 1990s, the NATO has been transformed into a transnational military organization claiming the mantle of global policeman. The European Union has fallen into line with the new vision, attaching its military and policy wagons to the NATO locomotive.
The experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan have led to changes in the character of intervention. Examples include the increasing use of unmanned aircraft (drones) and the outsourcing of military activities to private firms, local militias and allied armies. This new format of “intervention light” is not only considerably cheaper than direct military intervention, but also easier to sell to public opinion, as the recent case of Libya confirms.
Meanwhile, the media remains silent regarding the underlying motives of NATO’s recent interventions around the world. It seems increasingly obvious that the prosperous West, led by the USA, is deploying its military power to compensate for its waning political and economic power. But the citizens of the Western democratic countries seem less and less willing to pay the price of intervention in either blood or treasure. Accordingly, in order to mobilize public opinion, the raw interest of realpolitik is disguised behind the masks of noble motives: democracy, human rights and humanitarian relief.
Against this backdrop, it is no coincidence that the notion of humanitarian intervention has gained new impetus in recent years. The Western powers sought new legitimacy for their interventions in the rest of the world. In 2005, the UN adopted the principle of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) after a long debate: under certain strict conditions, military action could now be legitimated in the context of humanitarian intervention. However, both the principle of R2P and its concrete content remains contested (not least by countries that find themselves on the receiving end of intervention). Indeed, the countries supposedly being protected are also the least convinced about the merits and motives of R2P in practice.
A main problem with “humanitarian interventions” regards the questions of who intervenes, and between whom. In practice, only the NATO, the USA and other Western countries have the resources required to initiate and lead a military intervention. Yet economic and political policies emanating from European and North American capitals are themselves a source of conflict in the rest of the world. To ask a pyromaniac to put out the fire is not a great idea.
How well placed are the western powers to pacify armed conflicts when they themselves are responsible for two-thirds of global military expenditure, when they themselves deliver the lion’s share of weapons to the conflicting parties, and when they themselves unscrupulously continue to arm authoritarian regimes? How credible is their desire for peace when they are responsible for most of the foreign wars of the past two decades, wars responsible for thousands of victims in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya? Most of these wars were waged without Security Council ratification, which—since 1949—has provided the only internationally legitimate cover for military intervention. The US has sought to sideline the UN through the formation of “coalitions of the willing.” It is no coincidence that only week states have been subject to “R2P” while powerful states are exempted in practice.
Many people tend towards supporting “humanitarian” interventions because they assume that Western governments are genuinely concerned with democracy and human rights. History suggests that this is not the case. Would Western armies have intervened in Iraq or Libya had there been no oil under the ground? Why were UN forces pulled out of Rawanda at the beginning of the genocide? Why are Israeli actions in the occupied Palestinian territories allowed to go unpunished? Why has their been no action taken against repressive regime practices in places like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain?
Humanitarian interventions are often defended under the premise that all else has been tried and failed. In reality, it is usually the Western powers that undermine a negotiated settlement, or fail to give negotiations a reasonable chance. This was the case in Kuwait (1990), in Somalia (1993) and in the former Jugoslavia (1996-1999). It also holds true over the past decade. The South African president did not complain without reason to the UN Security Council, arguing that the African Union had been pushed aside in the search for a negotiated settlement in Libya. Moreover, the West continues to fuel conflict by arming, training and financing one (or more) of the conflicting parties.
Military intervention nearly always bears negative consequences, and often proves entirely counterproductive. It inevitably implies a devestating human and material cost. Recent interventions in Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Huge obstacles are thus placed in the way of reconstruction.
Moreover, every military intervention encourages other potential target countries to arm themselves accordingly, including with weapons of mass destruction. Every new intervention thus encourages—intentionally or otherwise—a new arms race, also here at home. Military conflicts inevitably produce a stream of refugees, and leaves the countries that participated in an intervention vulnerable to reprisals and terrorist attacks.
Finally, at the end of the day, military intervention does nothing to resolve the underlying reasons for conflict. More often than not, conflict is the result of poverty or socio-economic inequality, which in turn has its origins in destabilizing agricultural, trade and debt policies emanating from Western dominated institutions. The resources wasted on military intervention might otherwise have sufficed to pursue policies aimed at social development, which might in turn have contributed to the prevention of violence.
It is thus absurd that the world today puts 1.738 billion dollars into military expenditure—the highest in human history—while only 133,5 billion is invested in development cooperation (about 7.6 percent of military spending).
We are seriously concerned over the trend towards the normalization of military intervention into situations designated as humanitarian crises. The world must not be allowed to return to the situation before 1940, when international law was little more than ink on paper. The discontent of (parts of) a population in a given country cannot be used as an excuse to destabilize, attack or occupy weaker countries, thereby undermining the international legal order.
We cannot accept that the West compensates for its waning global power by using humanitarian military interventions as a cover for pursuing geostrategic interests. We can no longer look on passively as powerful economic interest groups set out to conquer the world “in our name.” We stand against the politics of intervention, even when it wraps itself in the cloak of humanitarianism. A wolf remains a wolf, even when dressed in sheep’s clothing.
Lode Van Oost, former vice-president of parliament; Ruddy Doom, University of Ghent; Hugo Van Dienderen, president of Greens in District Antwerp en Groen!Plus; Eddy Van Lancker, federal secretary ABVV (Trade Union); Ferre Wyckmans, general secretary LBC-NVK (trade union); Ludo De Brabander, vrede vzw; Eric Goeman, Attac Flanders; Lieven De Cauter, University of Leuven, member of the Brussells Tribunal; Luc Reychler, University of Leuven; Marc Vandepitte, publicist; Leen Laenens, former member of parliament; Mario Franssen, Intal; Paul Van de Bavière, Uitpers; Bert De Belder, international branch of PVDA (left party); Patrick Deboosere, University of Brussels; Dimokritos Kavadias, University of Brussels; Olivia U. Rutazibwa, University of Ghent