Sunday, 18 November 2007

Via normblog:

Bush had phoned Blair two days earlier to tell him that Britain could stand aside if it meant saving Blair's premiership. "I said rather than lose your Government," Bush told me, "be passive, you know we'll go without you if need be." Blair refused. I asked him why. His answer was impassioned. "Because I think this is the most fundamental struggle of our time and there is only one place to be which is in the thick of it and trying to sort it out."
A striking quote, which for all the Guardian's smug dismissal of "lack of candour" rings very true. Given that there were clear political costs to Blair for following his policy on Iraq, it's no surprise to find that a) he knew about them and b) he was convinced he had to continue nonetheless. And in essence, it is an admirable position: if you believe that there is a critical, epoch-defining struggle about to take place, then of course you should be in the thick of it. When the British learn about epoch-defining struggles they learn of Churchill and Chamberlain, after all. It's easy enough to decide which side of that line you want to be.

But then (via Freemania) we have this, from David Milliband, concerning how the EU can change the world:
We can use the power of the EU – the size of our single market, our ability to set global standards, the negotiating clout of 27 members, the attractions of membership, the hard power of sanctions and troops, the power of Europe as an idea and a model – not to substitute for nation states but to do those things to provide security and prosperity for the next generation.
and this, from Gordon Brown, on the response of international bodies to failed states:
With the systematic use of earlier Security Council action, proper funding of peacekeepers, targeted sanctions - and their ratcheting up to include the real threat of international criminal court actions - we must now set in place the first internationally agreed procedures to prevent breakdowns of states and societies.
But where breakdowns occur, the UN - and regional bodies such as the EU and African Union - must now also agree to systematically combine traditional emergency aid and peacekeeping with stabilisation, reconstruction and development.
These comments (which we can only imagine must be informed by events since the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan) suggest a different approach from the straightforward "get into the thick of it and try and sort it out". Milliband highlights the use of both soft and hard power, not least "our ability to set global standards" and "the power of Europe as an idea and a model" as well as military power and sanctions, the two more obvious levers of power. Both speeches highlight the need for concerted action among regional or global groups. And Brown, with probably the most obvious sense of lessons learned, emphasises the importance of a long-term investment following intervention.

All this is fine, and to be honest nowadays seems like a truism. Of course toppling the tyrant and the apparatus of despotism is the beginning, not the end, of intervention. Of course it requires international co-operation and commitment. And of course the set of values, aspirations and cultural norms which we cluster under the misleading umbrella term "democracy" can't be crudely transplanted by means of foreign institutions. My problem is, I don't see this ever happening. It seems that the Bush White House wasn't particularly concerned about UN support, but it's unclear whether that could have been achieved. Afghanistan did win wider support - at least in speeches. Actual commitment in terms of troop numbers, aid, nation-builders etc. seems to be in shorter supply. And Darfur and Burma have highlighted China's reluctance to act against its own economic interests. In any case, it's all too easy to overestimate our power to effect change.

I believe in interventionism. When states fail their people, the nations of the world have a moral obligation to act, rather than watch on sorrowfully. To provide security, stability, a political settlement and basic civil liberties. And to ensure that these basics will not soon be overturned (by, to pick a popular boogeyman as an example, the election of Islamists vowed to impose one-party rule.) What I don't believe is that this can happen. I think the tragedy of the commons will encourage nations to water down their commitments, or stymie the whole enterprise. Consequently, those nations who do commit will pay a high cost, and ultimately fail for lack of resource. And failure may, in fact, lead to a worse situation than non-intervention. Ultimately, I don't think that world politics, as it is currently constituted, can support any more than one major intervention and have any hope of success. Even with one, I suspect we're more likely to fail than succeed. And while we're fixing that one country, the rest of the world's oppressed will have to wait their turn.

That's pretty depressing. But I believe that for most of history, most people have had hard, miserable oppressed lives. In the West, we're lucky, and we cherish the belief that what we enjoy is somehow the default state; that deviations from the secure, free, peaceful pattern of our civilizations are both anomalous and corrigible. I suspect this is an illusion. But it's a valuable illusion, and there's still a part of me believes that it's an illusion that could also be true. Which is why the sentiment "there is only one place to be which is in the thick of it and trying to sort it out" is so seductive.

Re-reading this, it's apparent that I don't have a conclusion. Sorry about that. But if you have one, please share it.

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