Keeping out

Alan Brinkley

  • Intervention in World Politics edited by Hedley Bull
    Oxford, 198 pp, £12.50, August 1984, ISBN 0 19 827467 X

Intervention, according to Hedley Bull, is ‘dictatorial or coercive interference, by an outside party or parties, in the sphere of jurisdiction of a sovereign state, or more broadly of an independent political community’. And if there is any principle on which the international community can be said to agree, it is that intervention, so defined, is legally and morally illegitimate. Every nation, no matter what its size or power, is entitled to internal sovereignty. All states have an obligation to refrain from violating the sovereignty of others. It is one of the epochal changes in the nature of International relations that this idea, so recently dismissed as a visionary dream by many of the world’s most powerful nations, has become the foundation of modern international law.

At least until the end of World War Two, intervention retained important defenders. When much of what we now know as the Third World consisted of colonial possessions, the imperial powers never considered interference there to be intervention at all: it was, rather, the legitimate exercise of authority. Many countries with nominal independence were widely believed to possess less than genuine sovereignty, and the great powers felt justified in intervening in these ‘quasi-nations’ whenever ‘standards of civilisation’ – which usually meant the economic interests of the great powers themselves – were in jeopardy or international stability seemed threatened. Even when it was clear that the days of formal colonialism were waning, there were serious and influential arguments on behalf of a post-war order in which the great powers would serve as world policemen, intervening at will In the affairs of lesser countries to preserve stability and peace.

Through most of this century, in short, many nations did not consider intervention an intrinsic threat to the international order, but believed that it could in fact help create or preserve world stability. The idea that all nations, whatever their size, power or stage of development, enjoyed equal rights of sovereignty and self-determination – the idea that Woodrow Wilson had championed in 1918 – enjoyed, at best, a fragile foothold in world affairs.

In the post-war world, however, faith in the capacity of intervention to stabilise international relations became far more difficult to sustain. East-West tensions destroyed any possibility of the super-powers co-operating to police the world. Third World nationalism made intervention far more costly and difficult even where great power rivalries were muted. There emerged as a result a new international climate – a product not only of wartime idealism but of post-war realities – symbolised by the Charter of the United Nations and defined above all by widespread agreement that intervention was no longer an acceptable exercise of national power.

If the birth of this new consensus has been one of the most striking developments of modern international relations, it is, of course, equally striking how little impact that consensus seems to have had on the realities of international behaviour. Virtually every nation now agrees in principle that intervention is wrong. Nevertheless, intervention continues apace. Indeed a case could be made that interventionism is as important a force in world affairs today as it has ever been. It is, in the nuclear era, certainly more dangerous.

What purpose, then, does the doctrine of non-intervention serve? Has it, Hedley Bull asks, ‘become a mockery with which it would be better to dispense altogether, or does the proscription of intervention remain a vital part of the normative structure on which international order depends’? To explore these (and other) questions, Bull invited a distinguished group of British, European and American scholars to deliver a series of lectures at Oxford in the fall of 1982; and he has collected those lectures into a short but provocative book which shows, among other things, how enormous the obstacles to effective enforcement of the non-intervention doctrine remain. Stanley Hoffmann observes, in the opening passage of his thoughtful introductory essay: ‘I shall look at [intervention] as an issue, as a problem to be solved, before coming to the obvious conclusion that it is insoluble.’ It is a conclusion that none of the other authors, despite brave efforts by several, is able effectively to dispute.

None of the contributors to this volume would claim that the rule of non-intervention has been entirely without effect. If nothing else, it has forced intervening nations to produce elaborate and often ingenious rationales for their behaviour. Among the most frequent of such rationales, for example, is the claim to be acting at the behest of an embattled ally. Hence the United States justified its intervention in Vietnam at least in part as a response to requests from the South Vietnamese regime, a regime it had helped to create and largely controlled. The Soviet Union justified its invasion of Afghanistan, even less plausibly, in much the same way.

The rescue of imperilled nationals from a foreign regime is another frequent, if usually more transparent justification. The United States explained its 1983 invasion of Grenada with the much-ridiculed claim that it was simply rescuing American medical students from the island. Similarly, Vietnam claimed in 1979 to be intervening in Cambodia to rescue its endangered nationals from the Khmer Rouge. In both cases, the intervention continued long after whatever danger there might have been to its ostensible objects had ceased. Still another artifice is the use of surrogates to cloak a great power intervention. The Soviet Union attempted to disguise its interference in Poland in 1981 by imposing its will through the tame Polish regime. The United States has rather half-heartedly disguised its intervention in Nicaragua by using disgruntled Nicaraguan nationals as surrogates – just as, in 1961, disgruntled Cuban refugees did America’s dirty work at the Bay of Pigs.

But the most frequent rationale for intervention – and the one that has attracted the most serious popular and intellectual support – is counter-intervention, intervention on one side of a conflict to counteract another state’s prior intervention on the other side. This is, of course, a rationale as susceptible to distortion and dishonesty as any other. Both the United States and the Soviet Union have accused the other of prior interference in virtually every conflict in which they have intervened, often (as has been the case with the Soviets in Afghanistan and the United States in Latin America) with only the barest of evidence to support such claims. But there are, of course, occasions when the claims have been true.

Even those who believe most firmly in the non-intervention doctrine often disagree on the validity of counter-intervention. Michael Walter, whose Just and Unjust Wars is among the most sensitive extended efforts of recent years to apply concepts of morality to the use of force, provides a vivid example of the difficulties this issue presents. Walzer claims to believe firmly in the large contours of the non-intervention doctrine, and he is hesitant to justify exceptions. He rejects, for example, the popular Western argument that intervention to promote democracy is justifiable, accepting John Stuart Mill’s dictum that freedom can only be won from within. But there is, Walzer insists, a right to intervene in order to counter the illegitimate intervention of another power, and there is a right as well to intervene on behalf of forces fighting for the right of self-determination.

This is an argument that committed non-interventionists have found difficult to refute. Freedom from external interference and the right of self-determination are, of course, the principles on which the non-intervention doctrine is based. If even violations of those principles cannot justify intervention, then the doctrine begins to become a mockery of itself. Some have attempted to deal with this dilemma by claiming that such situations can legitimately be resolved through ‘collective intervention’ on the part of a recognised international body, but not through unilateral intervention by a single state. Yet, as Evan Luard points out in a sobering essay, and as recent history makes clear, the realistic possibilities for successful collective intervention are few; and it is not surprising, perhaps, that the concept of ‘collective intervention’ has so often been attacked as a doctrine of paralysis and appeasement.

On the other hand, as Stanley Hoffmann suggests, to accept the legitimacy of counter-intervention is to invite endless controversy and frustration. If it is to become an abstract principle, then any intervention must be countered, no matter what the character of the threatened regime. The United States, which has always had a particular fondness for the counter-intervention argument, had some experience of this dilemma when it found itself in the morally untenable position of supporting (even if only rhetorically) the genocidal Khmer Rouge government after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. If, on the other hand, nations are to contend that counter-intervention is legitimate only when it occurs on behalf of democracy and justice, problems of clashing ideologies and clashing definitions inevitably intrude – as the cases of Vietnam, Afghanistan, El Salvador and Poland make clear.

One must ask, moreover, where the process of justifying exceptions to the non-intervention doctrine, once begun, will stop. Edward Luttwak, a professional military adviser in Washington and an unabashed enthusiast for the use of American armed force in the world, offers here a rationalisation for intervention almost indistinguishable from older rationalisations for imperialism. And yet even Luttwak manages to place his argument within the context of the non-intervention ideal, to argue that he is not challenging the doctrine, only illuminating a legitimate exception to it. The Western powers, he argues, would be justified – on the grounds of economic self-interest – in intervening to seize Middle Eastern oil fields in the event of another Arab embargo. Such an adventure would not, he implausibly argues, be militarily difficult or politically costly. More important, it would be legally and morally acceptable since the embargo itself would constitute intervention in the economic life of the industrial nations. So far at least, Mr Luttwak’s views have found little public support: but they suggest the speed with which principles of international behaviour, once compromised, can become meaningless.

Is it possible, then, to reconcile the doctrine of non-intervention with the compelling interests of individual nations? In particular, is it possible for countries with global interests to defend those interests while repudiating the right to intervene? There have been times when the two super-powers have backed away from intervention as an instrument of policy. It would be difficult to argue, however, that this restraint had very much to do with commitment to the principles of international law. It had far more to do with perceived weakness. The Soviet Union’s relative restraint in pursuing international adventures in the 1950s and early 1960s reflected its sense of military inferiority to the United States. After the great military build-up of the 1970s, Soviet reticence about international activism largely vanished. Similarly, the United States, after more than two decades of international activism, seemed for a time in the 1970s to have repudiated intervention and to have reined in its own military power. But America was in those years reeling from its setbacks in South-East Asia and the decay of its alliances in Europe and the Middle East, and its leaders sensed their power diminished and the possibilities for successful intervention remote. The rapid restoration of belief in international activism in America, indeed the savage popular repudiation in the 1980s of the ‘counsels of weakness and despair’ of the previous decade, suggest that the restraint of the 1970s had few roots in any consistent or enduring philosophy of international behaviour.

The attractions of intervention, in short, have been stronger in some periods than in others: but the ebb and flow appears to have had little to do with the impact of principle. Nations intervene when they think they can do so successfully and when they believe intervention will advance their interests. The norms of international behaviour may induce them to create political or rhetorical artifices to disguise their real intentions: but those norms do not often seem to alter behaviour. A case in point is a recent speech by Secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger outlining the circumstances that would justify the use of American military power abroad. Weinberger was not really making a case for increased American interventionism (although that was his ostensible purpose). In fact, his elaborate list of conditions necessary for the use of force – which includes assurance of Congressional and popular support, a clear and attainable set of objectives, the likelihood of quick and decisive victory – has been attacked by some champions of American activism as yet another expression of the ‘new isolationism’, as a formula unlikely to justify anything more costly than the walkover in Grenada. And yet for all Weinberger’s apparent reticence about overseas ventures, nowhere in his analysis is there any serious attention to the principle of non-intervention as a factor in the equation. Attentiveness to international norms, the Reagan Administration appears to believe, is part of the weak-kneed legacy of the Carter years, a legacy decisively repudiated by the American electorate in 1980 and 1984. If America is to refrain from intervention, it will be, Weinberger suggests, because it cannot intervene successfully.

Can anything be done to make the doctrine of non-intervention more effective? Few answers present themselves. Stanley Hoffmann, one of the few contributors to this volume whose essay attempts to be prescriptive as well as descriptive, argues that there are only two real remedies to the problem. One is to ‘transcend world politics by establishing some form of world government’. The other – at best a partial remedy – is to create ‘the kind of international system which will provide few opportunities for intervention: a system in which the present, destabilising inequalities of wealth and power among nations are diminished and in which the world achieves ‘the relative ideological disarmament of the main competitors’. Neither of these solutions, Hoffmann concedes, is realistically within our grasp. ‘Given that conditions in the world are likely to endure for a very long time,’ he concludes, ‘intervention has only too bright a future.’

What, then, are we to make of a doctrine whose principal impact on world affairs appears to have been the creation of elaborate justifications for violations of it – a doctrine that succeeds, not in proscribing behaviour, but only in altering its outward forms, a doctrine to which all nations give lip service but to which few appeal to give any real allegiance? Is the non-intervention ideal, in fact, a ‘mockery’, which affects the rhetoric but not the realities of international behaviour, a concept we would do better to abandon altogether?

The answer to such questions depends, ultimately, on what we assume the slate of the world would be today without the non-intervention doctrine. And that, of course, is something we cannot know. Nevertheless, there is some reason to believe that, despite its many manifest failures, the principle of non-intervention is not without value, that it has played, and continues to play, at least a modest rote in muting, if not preventing, challenges to international norms.

For one thing, the very existence of the doctrine has become a factor (even if at times, as in the case of the present American government, an almost invisible factor) in every nation’s calculations of its interests. Few are willing to subordinate themselves entirely to the demands of international opinion: but in a modern, interdependent world, few can afford entirely to ignore it. The United States, for example, remained in Vietnam long after world opinion had turned against the intervention: but that the American withdrawal finally occurred under less than optimal conditions was in part because policy-makers came to believe that the nation’s standing elsewhere in the world was being jeopardised by international disapproval of its policies in Asia. In the 1980s, the United States has maintained its involvement in Latin America in the face of almost universal condemnation from the international community. But can we doubt that the pressure of world opinion has remained a significant factor in restraining Washington from actions more extensive and overt? Can we say with certainty that without the international consensus on self-determination, and the opprobrium it brings to those who defy it, intervention would not occur even more frequently than it does?

The principle of non-intervention has come to play a frustrating, ambiguous, but nevertheless significant role in world affairs. It cannot serve as a barrier to intervention, but it can and does serve occasionally as a check. It performs a role comparable, perhaps, to that of the United Nations, the institutional embodiment of the principle. No one would maintain that the United Nations has fulfilled the dreams of its founders: many have argued that its existence, and its failures, constitute an affront to the principles it represents. But even Jean Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s former Ambassador to the United Nations and no friend of the organisation, grudgingly admits that the world would be a more dangerous place without it.

It is a natural, perhaps an inevitable inclination to yearn for strict adherence to a clear set of ideals in human affairs, to hope, as Woodrow Wilson hoped, ‘to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set amongst the really free and self-governed peoples such a concert of purpose as will henceforth insure the observance of these principles’. In the world as it is, however, ideals must always compete with, and must often lose to, calculations of self-interest in determining international behaviour. While a belief that intervention is wrong will not (and in some cases, perhaps, should not) stop intervention, it may – at certain times and in certain places – play a marginal role in limiting it. The principle of non-intervention is not, as its critics properly maintain, enough. But it is something.