Saturday, September 25, 2004

Liberal internationalism

JustLeft has an excellent post on the growing ideological rigidity surrounding the war in Iraq, in which he identifies the "unspoken core of the debate" as two dichotomous worldviews:

Should the West dominate the world, and seek to make it over in its own image? Or are other ways of life - economic, social, political, religious - allowed to coexist with capitalist liberal democracy?

Like Jordan, I am in the second camp - there's more than one way to run an acceptable society. While I generally approve of "the western model" (give or take a few questions about distributive justice) as generally delivering a high level of freedom and wellbeing to (most of) its inhabitants, there are other ways to pursue those goods, and how a society is run should be decided by its members and not by faraway people motivated by profit or ideology.

This raises the obvious question of what we should do when a society fails to meet minimum standards of acceptability; when it starves, tortures, murders or just generally oppresses its members. What should liberal internationalists do about the Iraqs, the Zimbabwes, the Uzbekistans and the Sudans? Or about the shitty, undemocratic, and oppressive, but perhaps not quite so terrible regimes like Saudi Arabia, China, Belarus or Iran?

The answer is that of course we should help - we should try and give people the four freedoms Roosevelt identified as necessary for human flourishing, as well as the freedom to determine the structure of their own society. But we should generally avoid trying to deliver those freedoms at the barrel of a gun. Timothy Garton Ash summed it up well in his article Beyond the West:

both in principle and in practice, it's better that people find their own path to freedom, in their own countries, in their own time and, wherever possible, peacefully. But should we help these people as they fight freedom's battle? Most emphatically we should, by every non-violent means at our disposal.

(My emphasis). This means linking trade and investment to respect for human rights, it means applying sanctions and international pressure to abusive regimes, and it means providing support and the benefit of our experience to those countries which are working towards freedom. But what it does not mean is using force. Military intervention can sometimes be justified, but only in the most extreme cases (e.g. ongoing genocide). Iraq failed to meet that standard. A much stronger case can be made for intervention in Darfur, but the more I read about it, the more I despair that it would actually do any good. So when we do consider force, it must be with a sense of realism about our chances of success, with humility, and in the knowledge that often the "cure" is worse than the disease - rather than swaggering arrogance and a belief that bombing children will make things better.