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... is a lot easier to make in principle than it is in practise.

In practise, the case for liberal intervention has to overcome not simply the principled objection to violent conflict resolution, or the objection that it interferes with the right of people to self-determination. It also has to make the case that the intervention will actually support the principles of liberal intervention. To that end,

  • The intervening power must argue convincingly that the destruction and misery it visits upon the targeted country is at worst proportional to the future atrocities prevented by the intervention. This bar is not easy to clear if your principal military doctrine involves terror bombing (as all Atlantic powers' military doctrines have, in various guises, since at least the second world war).

  • The intervening power must either be prepared to annex the target country wholesale (and grant its inhabitants full political rights as citizens) or make a compelling case that an intervention will strengthen indigenous political structures that are preferable to the political structures that caused the crisis provoking intervention. Replacing a despot with a civil war, a Balkanized patchwork of warlords or another despot does not really qualify.

  • The intervening power must make a credible case that it is able to carry out a decisive intervention. If the intervention ends up simply prolonging a futile conflict, it confers no benefits.

Further, a doctrine of liberal intervention (as opposed to ) faces two additional objections, related to the credibility of the claim that it is actually a doctrine of liberal intervention, as opposed to a doctrine of aggressive colonialism:

  • A power that adopts a doctrine of liberal intervention must have a record of even-handedness in its treatment of human rights violations. In particular, it must pressure any client states it has to observe human rights. If a power does not care enough about human rights to force the states that it has economic or cultural power over to refrain from violations, then it is incredible that it would sacrifice blood and treasure to secure human rights by force of arms.

  • The sort of military organisation and equipment that is required for liberal intervention is identical to the sort of military organisation and equipment that allows one to launch colonial expeditions. A power that adopts a doctrine of liberal intervention must therefore be able to credibly argue that the armaments it procures are for use in liberal intervention, rather than colonial mischief. This is not easy to argue when one has (as all powers currently capable of projecting military force a significant distance beyond their borders have) an unbroken history of colonial mischief.

At present, none of the powers that lay claim to the mantle of liberal intervention fulfil even one of these criteria. Until and unless they do, the finer points of principle are perhaps not the most relevant point of departure for the discussion.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Apr 3rd, 2011 at 12:37:49 PM EST

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