No matter how hard some insiders claim, the rescue of failed states and liberal interventionism are still core organising ideas for contemporary military doctrine and national policy.
A version of globalisation theory is widely to be found – that the world is ever-more linked in complex connectivity, so that our interests are shaped and threatened by wretched lands. Thus our interests are defined in a dangerously open-ended way. Our security is not measured so much by a stress on vital geopolitical regions, but on the regime type or internal order of states from the Balkans to the Horn of Africa to Central Asia. They are de-territorialised and evangelistic. Our security is said to be endangered by forms of chaos (‘ungoverned space’, as though such a thing existed) that threaten our liberal values, and this needs occasional armed intervention to alter the internal politics of these feral places. Defined this way, our interests have acquired an imperial character.
There are many dangers with this unbounded way of thinking. One problem is the language of ‘failed states’ itself. It tends to promote a view of predators (warlords, bandits, messianic extremists, etc) on one hand and on the other, victims who need to be rescued.
But victims can have political agency too. Indeed, if nosy outside states develop an interventionist and expansive foreign policy, this creates powerful incentives for embattled groups to create a human rights crisis that will draw us in as their patrons and protectors.
Thus Kosovar militants have deliberately provoked Serbian counter-atrocities (which resulted in genocide) to entice intervention. As do enterprising Afghans who realise that violence and escalation tend to attract development spending. One feature of our ‘small wars’ is to create a whole murky market of criminal opportunism. Actors on the periphery, as Cold War historiography now tells us, have quite a degree of power. The more we underwrite their survival, the more we can encourage risky behaviour.
And let’s not forget failed bids to entangle us, such as the Georgians’ attempt to create a conflict with Russia that would pull America in and magnetise NATO expansion.
Our susceptibility to being drawn in is partly explained by our distance. We almost always know less about a scenario than locals on the ground. We are also societies whose collective conscience is often pricked by both moralism and paternalism. How can we tolerate and co-exist with genocide, and surely we are the only ones capable of stopping it? Thus Africans, for example, become infants subject to our adult supervision.And it is partly explained by a simplistic lesson learned from 9/11 – the ‘Charlie Wilson’s wisdom’ that it was ’caused’ by a neglect of Afghanistan, rather than the much more directly linked and conspicuous ease with which AQ could operate in the first world, and the basic failure of domestic law enforcement and counter-terrorism in Western states.
In this way, interventionism can stop atrocity, but it also encourages atrocity. Empires become the dupes of their clients. Part of a better strategy would be to play harder to get – or to switch the metaphor, to resist the role of tail being wagged by the dog.
Does this mean I am against interventionism? Yes. Not intervention – that may be necessary and prudent and right from time to time. But interventionism. It should not be the core of a grand strategy. Both manipulative victims and the world at large should not count on our endless activity. We can’t help everybody, and they need to know it.
NB I amended the part about Kosovo to make clear that the Kosovo militants deliberately provoked atrocities, which resulted also in genocide probably as an unintended consequence.