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Escaping ‘Fortress Earth’

23 Nov

 

 [Prefatory Note: the essay below is a response to a stimulating visionary exploration of how the future might be reconstructed so avoid the current drift toward what Paul Raskin in Journey to Earthland dubs as ‘fortress earth.’ My response is one of many that can be found at the following link: http://greattransition.org/publication/reflections-on-journey-to-earthland. The link to the landing page of the initiative is http://www.greattransition.org/publication/journey-to-earthland. Raskin’s Journey to Earthland can be ordered from this Website or via Amazon. The essay itself, published here in its original text, can be properly cited as Richard Falk, “Reflections on Journey to Earthland: The Great Transition to Planetary Civilization,” The Great Transition Initiative (November 2016), http://www.greattransition.org/publication/jte-reflections-falk].

 

Escaping Fortress Earth

Reading Journey to Earthland is an extraordinary experience. Paul Raskin is not only a master navigator of the complexities of our world but someone who conveys a vision of the future that manages to surmount the unprecedented challenges facing humanity at several levels of social, cultural, and ecological being. His vision of a humane future for the peoples of the world is fully sensitive, as well, to the need for transforming the modernist relationship with nature based on domination, exploitation, and alienation that has resulted in an ecological backlash that threatens our well-being, and even raises doubts about the survival of the human species. And perhaps most remarkable of all, Raskin not only depicts a future that is convincingly portrayed as necessary and desirable, but also shows us that its attainment is within the domain of the attainable, although not presently politically feasible. Raskin is also realistic enough to acknowledge that his whole project is vulnerable to a counter scenario, Fortress World, which could with tragic results supersede his vision of a humane and sustainable future.

 

To make Raskin’s ideas about a desired and desirable future a viable political project is the underlying mission of JTE. To succeed with such a mission requires mobilizing sufficient support based on a credible conception of why we are not foolish to enlist in the civil society movement dedicated to take us from where we are to where he wants us to be

In an important sense, the book falls outside the typical genre of futurist writing because it is preoccupied with how to close this gap between the necessary and the feasible, and in the process situate a desirable future within the realm of the attainable. It is in this regard, with a certain exuberance of expectations, that Raskin pins his hopes on the emergence of a robust global citizens movement that will challenge the status quo by mobilizing people around the world sufficiently to reach a tipping point that allows a new political consciousness to take over enough venues of governmental, economic, cultural, and spiritual authority to facilitate transition to the humane future being advocated. There is no doubt in my mind that this book is a culminating expression of Raskin’s own journey, as well as an indispensable gift to the rest of us, providing the best available set of conceptual tools to engage interactively with human destiny and, especially, to see bright shafts of light beyond the darkness being produced by present trends. In what is essentially an extended essay, Raskin sets forth concisely, with flourishes of intellectual elegance, all we need to know and do to achieve this benevolent future.

 

JTE describes the contours of a desirable future, including the adjustments that must take place at the level of values and consciousness, essentially a turning away from consumerist and materialist conceptions of the good life without relinquishing the gains of modern science and technology. What Raskin envisions is a more spiritually enlivening sense of the meaning of life to be realized qualitatively through leisure, enjoyment of nature, inner serenity, and a satisfying lifestyle that is liberated from the tensions and anxieties of a typical capitalist life experience. The society thus envisioned would no longer be appraised by the quantitative criteria of growth and wealth, which have led to gross disparities of life circumstances—extremes of poverty for the many and wealth for a few—disparities that can only be sustained over time through reliance on manipulation and coercion.

 

Raskin imaginatively shapes a socially attractive future based on post-materialist core values and the accompanying need to gain political empowerment through reliance on the renewed energy of persons awakened to this challenge and inspired by the potentialities of the journey. He is clear about the need for people in civil society to be the main vehicle for realizing this transformative vision, and is convincingly skeptical about such a desirable future being achieved by existing economic and political elites whose consciousness is largely a captive of the modernist embrace of neoliberal structures, militarism, and a materialist understanding of the human condition. In a fundamental respect, Raskin’s call to action rests on an ethics of responsibility that asks each of us to join in this great work of composing a different future than what is being shaped by the dominant macro-trends of the world as now constituted.

 

We need to keep in mind that a desirable future remains possible despite present trends appearing to prefigure a disastrous future (that is, Raskin’s Fortress World). Under these circumstances, we who believe in the JTE vision need to be responsive to a double challenge—first, the strong responsibility to act, and second, the duty to learn to become trusted navigators throughout the long journey to Earthland. This burden of civic responsibility is the essential feature of what it means to feel, think, and act as a global citizen, inspiring a pilgrimage from the here-and-now to the there-and-then. Because this is a hazardous journey to be undertaken without the benefit of a map that charts the proper route, I have described the ideal global citizen as “a citizen pilgrim,” an image that Raskin also affirms, which disavows dogma and blueprints of the future, and is reliant on innovation, flexibility, and a readiness to make course corrections en route.

 

Let me turn to raise a few questions that might prompt further reflection and commentary. I have read JTE while on a lecture tour in Pakistan, and have been struck by the relevance of social location. I spent several days in Karachi, a security-obsessed, impoverished, yet vibrant city of over 22 million people, most of whom are struggling with the multiple urgencies of daily existence while the privileged elites seal themselves off from the masses in heavily guarded gated luxury housing. True, there are many young idealistic persons in Pakistan devoted to human rights and environmental protection who are active in an array of local communities, but these brave souls are often threatened by religious extremists who reject any solution for the torments of the present that are not centered on a prior embrace of fundamentalist versions of Islam. I found that social priorities in Pakistani society are overwhelmingly preoccupied with the immediate and the local: paying for the necessities of a bare life, opposing forced evictions from their homes in the city to make way for a shopping mall or a gentrified neighborhood, protesting the assassination of a social activist who was perceived as a threat to religious zealots, and lending emergency assistance to the victims of a natural disaster—flood or earthquake—by providing desperately needed medical supplies, food, and shelter. What I am asking myself, while hoping for guidance from Raskin, is whether Pakistanis can read JTE without dismissing it as the musing of a Westerner not faced with the intense existential pressures that dominate the lives of most residents of Karachi, and much of the Global South, as well as many inner cities in the North.

 

In effect, how relevant is social location and cultural ambience? Would Raskin write the same book if his consciousness had been shaped by a lifetime of struggle in Karachi-like circumstances? These questions raise others. Is there more than one journey to Earthland? Are there alternative Earthlands? Do we need a multi-civilizational articulation of desirable and possible, and hopefully convergent, futures written by ethically and spiritually sensitive individuals who see the world around them and a preferred future from within the imaginative spaces of their varied social locations and cultural milieus?

 

Are there practical ways to overcome or diminish this reality characteristically prevailing in the West with that in the Global South? What might deepen understanding, and even help reduce the obstacles, would be to convene a worldwide gathering, perhaps an online forum, of public intellectuals from around the world to engage in a continuing dialogue on the main theses of JTE. The objective would be to produce a collective response to JTE, or if that proved to be impossible, then to solicit alternative visions of desirable planetary futures, including the politics of transformation. Along the way, a global community of citizen pilgrims would form, and set its own agenda. Would it not be illuminating and potentially transformative to have such a gathering, either digitally or preferably in a face to face format, dedicated to planning “a journey [or journeys] to Earthland”?

 

On the basis of recent experience in various parts of the world, I believe that political and economic systems as now operating would do all in their power to break the will and organizational integrity of any global citizens movement that managed to get off the ground. I happened to be in Tahrir Square in Cairo two weeks after the Egyptian people made history in 2011 by suddenly rising to overthrow a corrupt and oppressive tyrant, Hosni Mubarak. There was much popular excitement in the aftermath of this historic occasion, the thrill of an empowering nonviolent populist movement giving rise to confidence that the future would bring to Egypt a democratic political order, a far more equitable economy, and respect for the dignity of individual Egyptians. And yet, two years later, the Egyptian people again exhibited their agency, but this time to support a bloody coup against the elected political leadership that has brought to power a more repressive military governing process in Egypt than had existed during the three decades of Mubarak’s dictatorial rule. This improbable political reversal reflected the strength of counterrevolutionary forces that will do whatever it takes to prolong the ascendancy of the old order that privileges dominant elites at the expense of the citizenry as a whole. Applying this understanding to the vision of Earthland, isn’t it important to envision the future from a less linear, and more dialectical standpoint, as the unfolding of an epic struggle between opposed worldviews and their civilizational embodiments? In historical periods of transition, contradictory responses reflect forces of deep discontent and alienation on one side while exhibiting the aspirations of the hopeful and compassionate on the other.

 

This leads to another concern. In the aftermath of the Cold War, there was a widespread belief that democratization was the inevitable wave of the future. After the collapse of the Soviet Union (and Russia’s subsequent eagerness to be part of the neoliberal world order) and the opportunistic participation of China in the capitalist structures of trade and investment, it seemed that there was an emergent planetary future premised on a victorious combination of market-oriented economics and constitutional democracy. Almost three decades later, it is evident that something has happened to that firm ground of political legitimacy on which we seemed to be standing after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We are now increasingly living in an era of the popular, and not just the populist, autocrat who, once elected, administers a strong state with an iron fist. That is, peoples in many countries are electing leaders by democratic means that are blatantly dismissive of human rights and political freedom, and oblivious to the mounting dangers of climate change.

 

In every corner of the world, right-wing ultra-nationalist, militarized governments that promise to bring order and security are being chosen by voters over those that offer the rewards of democratic pluralism and responsible attitudes toward climate change, nuclear weapons, and other challenges of global scope. Whether it is Putin in Russia, Abe in Japan, Modi in India, Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, or Sisi in Egypt, the pattern of popular authoritarianism is evident even if explanations in the various national settings are quite diverse. This distressing pattern of regressive politics can also be seen in the resurgence of proto-fascist parties in Europe, arising in the wake of mass discontent with existing economic and social policies. Their anti-immigration and chauvinist priorities prefigure the character of a Fortress World. The Brexit vote in Britain and the Trump phenomenon in the United States are likewise illustrative.

 

In other words, in even the most benevolent transition from the modern to the planetary that Raskin so clearly depicts, it is important to appreciate that bad things are bound to happen along the way. Such awareness guards against disillusionment. This surge of populist passion for ultra-nationalism from below and securitization from above poses a serious challenge to the JTE project. Maybe it is necessary to begin asking ourselves whether under the pressure of the times we, the peoples of the world, can abide the uncertainties of substantive democracy (human rights, diverse political movements)? In effect, how should this global crisis of democracy be properly introduced into a discussion of the role of the global citizens movement that is integral to Raskin’s transformative hopes?

 

It is possible that this disturbing populist trend currently sweeping the globe will be short-lived, dying of its own deadening weight. There are definite steps that can be taken to restore public confidence in democracy and human rights, which seem indispensable features of a humane Earthland. It is important that the dynamics of economic globalization become committed to diminishing inequality within and among states. It is also necessary to balance a preoccupation with the efficiency of capital and the statistics of economic growth against the goals of ending poverty, addressing climate change, and creating conditions of work and human and ecological security that enhance the quality of life for rich and poor alike. Other kinds of constructive policy initiatives include reducing the waste of resources on militarization and ending reliance on forcible intervention in foreign societies without proper UN authorization.

 

A further relevant effort would be the recognition that some of the pressures being mounted against democracy in the West arise from the mass migration of desperate people seeking to escape from war torn conditions and the havoc caused by global warming. Until the root causes of these migrations, and the accompanying terrorism generated by extremist political reactions, are addressed, it will not be possible to reverse this right-wing populist trend. These migrations occur when conditions become intolerable, and the pressure to escape to safer places becomes so intense that desperate persons willingly take huge risks. When large numbers of such people in need arrive at the borders of prosperous countries in the West, especially given manipulated fears that terrorists are lurking in the midst of the migrants, right wing demagogues have a field day. The most constructive response patterns are to do all that can be done to remove the conditions that give rise to the intolerable conditions, that is, deter migration at its source.

 

I suppose, in the end, I am saying that there are some issues that need to be more fully addressed before people outside the still relatively liberal democratic West can be expected to sign up for the journey to Earthland. In effect, in places like Pakistan where the struggle to find out how to be a constructive national citizen seems such a current preoccupation for those who seek to be politically responsible, an essential challenge is how to present Raskin’s message of the responsible global citizen in forms sufficiently relevant that it is sensitive to the fears, hopes, and concerns of this part of the world.

 

In conclusion, it may appear captious to expect more when JTE already gives us so much. At the same time, when Raskin raises hopes this high, it becomes even more important to begin the journey with eyes wide open. Otherwise, the prospects of early disillusionment are high. Remembering that this is a planetary journey already underway in a variety of forms may be of some help, along with the realization that there exist multitude points of entry throughout the planet. The recognition of this multiplicity ensures that a truly global citizen acts inclusively toward the range of civilizational identities.

 

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4+ Logics of Living Together on Planet Earth

29 Sep

 

It is misleading to describe ‘world order’ as consisting exclusively ofsovereign territorial states. This misimpression is further encouraged by the structure of the United Nations, whose members are states, and only states. The UN was established in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II, reflecting a West-centric orientation that emerged at the time, quickly morphing into the Cold War rivalry between the two states that were geopolitically dominant and ideologically antagonistic: the United States and Soviet Union.

 

Even in the UN, however, this surface allegiance to statism is misleading. The geopolitical dimension was highlighted in the UN Charter by conferring a veto power on five winners in the recently concluded war, which amounted to the grant of a right of exception with respect to international law.

 

But there are differences in hard and soft power that make the interactions among states within the UN exhibit more inequality than is suggested by this still prevailing Westphalian myth of the equality among sovereign states. Some states contribute far more to the UN budget than others, and their views carry more weight; others are richer, bigger, more informed about some issues, are better at lobbying for support, and some play above their diplomatic weight by clever political maneuvers. And there are several kinds of non-states active behind the scenes that exert varying degrees of influence depending on the subject-matter.

 

Global policy is mainly shaped outside the UN by a bewildering array of formal and informal actors that participate in a bewildering variety of ways in international life. The world economy is substantially controlled by business oriented alignments such as the World Economic Forum that meets annually in Davos, Switzerland, or the gatherings of economically powerful states grouped together as the G-7, later becoming the G-8, and more recently the G-20 to accommodate shifts in trade and investment patterns, and give recognition to such new alignments as the BRICs.

 

As such, the shorthand designation of world order by reference to the 1648 Treaties of Westphalia that brought the Thirty Years War to an end serves as a convenient starting point for understanding the way authority and power are deployed in the world. Yet it must be supplemented by the recognition that the Westphalian framework has evolved through the years. Beyond this, it is not sufficient to rely on a statist logic to explain the main patterns of behavior that constitute world politics in the 21st century, which reflect the agendas of political extremist groups and transnational corporations and banks, as much as they do states. In fact, national governments are often subordinated to and instrumentalized by individuals and groups promoting the interests of business and finance.

 

Statist Logic. Despite these qualifications, states do remain the main political actor on the global stage, and the principal agent of diplomacy. The doctrinal ideas of territorial sovereignty continue to provide the basic organizing principle for the conduct of ordinary transnational relations. It is further important to realize that most political leaders and their chief advisors are ‘realists’ who purport to act on the basis of maximizing national interests and accompanying values even when they are in actuality serving the interests of transnational capital to the detriment of their own citizenry.

 

The boundaries of the state shape the outer limits of political community for most persons living on the planet , but some states contain within their borders one or more specific ethnicity that deems itself a distinct people and nation, which if it perceives itself as the target of discrimination or even a victim of submerged identity, may regard itself as ‘a captive nation’ that seeks a separate political existence that ensures the preservation of cultural memory and national pride. In this sense, the ‘nation’ represented by such a phrase as ‘the national interest’ may be profoundly misleading if understood to refer to the interests of an entire population within its borders rather than that of the dominant ethnicity or religion. Throughout the world there are many internationally unrepresented peoples seeking to form their own state in accordance with the right of self-determination, which if carried to extremes, threatens the unity of almost all sovereign states.

 

Sometimes, this process is a forcible one as with the establishment of Kosovo with the help of NATO in 1999, sometimes it is a consensual separation, as with the establishment of Slovakia. Democratic states may offer restive minorities the opportunity to secede by referendum as in the recent case of Scotland, but some forms of secession are resisted as was the case with American Civil War or more recently, the PKK efforts to establish in eastern Turkey a separate state of Kurdistan, as well as Spain’s treatment of the main separatist movement of the Basque people as essentially a terrorist organization.

 

Many individuals depend on citizenship to avoid the acute vulnerability of ‘statelessness,’ which is a status without rights or protection, and suggests the primacy of states in the life of most people, whether consciously realized or not. The plight of economic migrants and refugees fleeing combat zones suggests the humanitarian ordeal experienced by many people who are not securely connected to a state capable of providing the fundamental ingredients of a sustainable lives. Refugees may be citizens with rights in the country they escaped from, but generally find themselves victimized anew by the country within which they sought sanctuary. Some governments adopt humane and generous approaches to refugees and stateless persons, but it is voluntary and the affected individuals are not the recipient of effective rights even if ‘human rights’ are based on being human, and not on citizenship or nationality.

 

Geopolitical Logic. As statist logic is premised on equality before the law and in formal diplomatic relations, geopolitical logic is premised on inequality and the right of exception with respect to that portion of international law concerning issues of war and peace, and what is called ‘national security,’ or more broadly, ‘vital interests.’ While statism is descriptive of the horizontal dimension of world order within the Westphalian framework, geopolitics constitutes the vertical dimension that has been present ever since the modern structure of world order emerged in Europe in the mid-seventeenth century. Various empires exhibited the formalization of this vertical dimension as did European colonialism, which at its height after World War I, dominated much of the world. The anti-colonial movements of the last half of the twentieth century produced many newly independent sovereign states, universalizing the horizontal development of world politics.

 

In the post-colonial global setting of the early twenty-first century the vertical dimension of world order is disguised to some degree because it was weakened and discredited in the past hundred years. These disguises make reference to certain normative justifications for the imposition of political will by the strong on the weak. Among the most prominent of these legal and moral arguments favoring otherwise prohibited uses of force are ‘self-defense,’ ‘humanitarian intervention,’ ‘responsibility to protect’ or ‘R2P,’ and ‘nonproliferation.’ In each situation, depending on the facts the rationalization may be more or less plausible as a cover for a strategically motivated geopolitical maneuver. It seemed somewhat plausible to liberate Kosovo from Serbia in 1999, given the threat of ethnic cleansing in the aftermath of the Srebrenica atrocity, but it was also clearly motivated by the interest in maintaining NATO as a useful instrument of coercion in a post-Cold War setting, a demonstration conveniently coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the alliance. Similarly, it seemed reasonable in 2011 to intervene in Libya to prevent a civilian massacre by Qaddafi forces in the city of Benghazi, although it was undoubtedly also true that the high quality oil reserves added a strategic incentive to the humanitarian impulse to protect threatened Libyan civilians. In contrast, without oil, the atrocities taking place in Syria produced a much weaker expression of international concern. Each of these situations is complex, opening the way for contradictory interpretations as to the humanitarian effects of action and non-action, as well as the assessment of the importance of the strategic interests at stake.

 

The geopolitical logic trumps statist logic in relation to international uses of force, and helps explain the marginalization of international law and the UN in the war/peace context. The constraints that are operative with respect to geopolitics derive from considerations of cost/benefit analysis, pressures exerted by group politics, prudential concerns about nuclear weaponry and avoiding casualties to its military personnel, and the sporadic anti-war restraints of public opinion (especially in liberal democracies). In the recent American-led coalition created as a response to threats posed by ISIS (‘Islamic State of Iraq & Syria,’ also known by other names), President Obama did not even bother to justify recourse to force by reference to either international law or the UN, and seemed concerned only that he had a legal basis within the American constitutional framework to act as he did. Significantly, as well, most of the domestic controversy focused on this issue of authorizing warlike behavior without any participation by Congress, showing no worries about acting contrary to international law and without a UN mandate for recourse to non-defensive force.

 

Cosmopolitan Logic. Partly as a result of economic globalization and partly due to the impact of global challenges associated with nuclear weapons and climate change, there is an emerging appreciation that neither statism nor geopolitics can protect overall hman wellbeing and survival aspects of what might best be called the human or global interest. Despite decades of aspirational language, there seems to be no prospect in the immediate future of freeing humanity from the looming threat of nuclear catastrophe. The challenge of the weaponry has been geopolitically degraded in the form of creating a nonproliferation regime that distorts priorities by conceiving of the main danger deriving from countries that do not have nuclear weapons rather than those that do. The 2003 aggressive war undertaken by the United States and the United Kingdom against Iraq was mainly rationalized as a counter-proliferation undertaking, epitomizing the subordination of cosmopolitan interests in getting rid of nuclear weapons to the geopolitics of managing their control and dissemination.

 

A similar dynamic is present in relation to climate change, and the failed effort to contain the emission of greenhouse gasses, especially carbon dioxide.The UN mechanisms for lawmaking treaties have been unable to agree upon an obligatory framework that takes account of the scientific consensus on the need for strict regulation of the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere, and the resultant harmful effects of global warming. As a result the situation worsens, and irresponsibly the growing burdens of adaptation are shifted to the future.

 

Without the formation of a political community of global scope it is unlikely that cosmopolitan logic will have any significant impact on behavior that reflects strong national interests and geopolitical priorities. The preconditions for such a development do not seem present as nationalist ideologies continues to maintain the dominance of statism and geopolitics despite their dysfunctional implications for the future of the human species. This persistence raises some deep questions about whether there exists a sufficient species will to survive. Until the advent of the Anthropocene Age such an imperative did not exist, and survival threats as they occurred were directed at particular societies or civilizations, that is, posing sub-species threats, but not endangering the species itself. What distinguishes the Anthropocene is the impact of human activities on the fundamental balances that have allowed life and social development to proceed.

 

There have been past cases where cosmopolitan concerns have been addressed because competing logics were not seriously engaged: public order of the oceans, prohibition of ozone depleting technologies, ecological preservation of Antarctica. Until the atomic attacks on Japanese cities in the closing days of World War II the cosmopolitan horizons of human activity were treated as matters of idealistic and spiritual concerns, but not relevant to issues of bio-political persistence. Even Woodrow Wilson’s dream that the League of Nations would cause the institution of war to fade away was never taken seriously by the political leaders of the day, especially in Europe, who well understood that their privileged position of vertical control (that is, colonial system) rested on an atmosphere of permanent war to ensure that ‘the natives’ would not get uppity.

 

Civil Society Logic. The perspectives and activities of civil society occupy a broad and diverse spectrum of concerns, and contain elements of the other three logics that together compose world order. The normative motivations of transnational civil society actors do establish an existential constituency disposed toward the realization of human and global interests. These actors have been active in relation to the promotion of human rights, environmental protection, nuclear disarmament, and climate change. That is, civil society perspectives often merge in these venues with cosmopolitan perspectives, and present unified critical responses to statism and geopolitics. The counter-conferences at global policy events illustrate such encounters, and are likely to intensify as the awareness of global crises grow and the experience of the seriousness of unmet global challenges deepens. A distinctive feature of civil society logic is engagement with values and change, and a certain distrust of detached thought that presents itself as ‘neutral.’ The spirit of civil society was expressed unforgettably for me by a graffiti written on a wall in the city of Vancouver: “Thought Without Action Equals Zero.”

 

In a larger historical sense, the question before all of us is whether civil society can become an agent of historical transformation in relation to cosmopolitan logic, thereby joining thought with action. Only such a reconstituted political imagination has any chance of producing policy and behavioral adjustments that make the human future a brighter prospect than now appears to be the case.

 

Hope to balance despair depends on our according unrealistic confidence in the capacity of civil society movements to achieve transformative results, what I have called in the past ‘the realism of a politics of impossibility’ or ‘a necessary utopianism.’ Nothing less seems responsive to the magnitude of the civilizational challenges already negatively impacting on human wellbeing. I have little doubt that those ‘realists’ we rely upon as dutiful, taxpaying citizens are leading us down a path heading toward doomsday. It is time we shifted our allegiances and energies to the citizen pilgrims among us who are pointing us toward a humane and sustainable future for life on planet earth.

 

The New Interventionists: Civil Society Activists

19 Apr

[This essay is a revised and reoriented version of a text that was published online at the Global Policy Website on April 14, 2014 with the title “A Presumption Against Intervention.”]

 

 

            Participating in the intervention debates that have raged periodically in the United States ever since the Vietnam War in the 1960’s, and of course earlier in less contested settings, and elsewhere, I have been struck by a defining encounter between those who are dogmatically opposed to intervention per se and those who rarely confront a call for intervention that they do not feel persuaded by. The traditional focus of policy discussion proceeds on the assumption that what is controversial concerns the forcible character of a proposed intervention by governmental actors to coerce some kind of major change in the regime or policies of a foreign sovereign state. Other lesser forms of intervention, often called ‘interference’ rarely are the subject of public debate, although covert regime-changing intervention is a a crucial exception. Those favoring a particular intervention usually rely, at least in part, on a rationale that such an undertaking is necessary and desirable as it would rescue a captive people from a regime responsible for massive crimes against humanity or genocide or overcome a humanitarian emergency. There are also complexities in analysis if the regime has dubious legitimacy and consents to ‘intervention’ to suppress an insurgent challenge.

 

  1. Systemic Developments

 

            Four developments over the course of the last half century are radically reshape debates about intervention. The first, and most important, is the collapse of European colonialism, which has often motivated the West, and especially the United States, to assert their goals and protect their interests by way of intervention in what were formerly colonies or states whose sovereignty was curtailed by hegemonic authority. A feature of this post-colonial global setting is that the intervening state, if Western, will tend to justify its actions by setting forth an altruistic and unselfish rationale. Related to this matter of motivation on the side of the intervener is the prospect of effective and persevering national resistance creating obstacles to succeeding with an intervention. The combination of motivation and anticipated resistance helps explain why so few major interventions in the recent past have been viewed as successful as compared to earlier. One notable continuity linking colonial memories to post-colonial realities is the invariable geographical locations of the intervener in the West and the target society being in the non-West.

 

            The second development is the rise of human rights as a dimension of world order and a central feature of the foreign policy of liberal democracies, which in a globalizing world makes sovereign boundaries seem less inhibiting from the perspective of international law for a prospective intervener. The implicit major premise of the human rights framework is an affirmation of species solidarity. This means that responsibilities for the wellbeing of others extends beyond the boundaries of one’s own state, and encompasses the most remote parts of the planet. In other words, intervention is supposedly undertaken for the sake of securing the rights of others, and denies territorial ambitions and the quest for economic benefits. The 21st century intervener claims a purity of intentions, but the configuration of interventions and non-interventions is far more ambiguous in its linkages to strategic and material interests.

 

            The third development is the increased reliance on military weaponry and combat tactics that reduce sharply the casualties of the intervener while shifting as much of the burden of death and devastation as possible to the target society. This reflects thin political support in the intervening society that usually accompanies subjecting citizens of Western countries to risks of dying, placing a premium on weaponry and forms of warfare that minimizes the likelihood of casualties even if at the cost of battlefield effectiveness. The Kosovo intervention under NATO auspices in 1999 was characteristic of this pattern, with the military campaign consisting exclusively of air attacks from fairly high altitudes that apparently increased the casualties on the ground but spared the interveners from incurring losses. The attacks launched in 2001 against the al-Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan were notoriously ineffective in attaining their military objectives despite complete battlefield dominance. A similar pattern was present in Libya in 2013 employing NATO airpower to tip the internal balance of forces in favor of an anti-regime uprising while avoiding tactics that might place the intervening forces at high risk.

 

            A fourth development is the acceptance of the validity of a general international law rule prohibiting intervention regardless of justifying circumstances. The only exceptions to this prohibition involve a use of force that can be persuasively justified as self-defense against a prior armed attack or that has been mandated by a Security Council decision. Almost all controversial interventions involve non-defensive uses of force that have not been neither authorized by UN procedures, and are vulnerable to legalistic criticism as violations of international law.

 

II. Assessing the Debate

 

            Participants in debates about a prospective intervention are generally influenced by the presence or absence of a variety of considerations that shape their assessments. The pro-interventionists who rest their case mainly or exclusively on humanitarian concerns believe that when a state severely abuses its own people, intervention should follow regardless of its country of origin or motivation. Ideally, such an intervention should be mandated by the United Nations so as to comply with international law, but if political obstacles prevent such a green light from being obtained, intervention should go ahead anyway if seen as likely effective in ending a pattern of severe abuse. Such North American liberal hawks as Samantha Power, Michael Ignatieff, Susan Rice, and Anne-Marie Slaughter are among the most ardent and intelligent exponents of interventionary diplomacy. One characteristic of these pro-interventionists is their unquestioning good faith of the claims put forward by the U.S. Government that the intervention is truly about helping vulnerable or suffering people, and that allegations by critics about protecting access to oil reserves or ensuring market access should be dismissed as leftist polemics. Another feature of such advocacy is its rather blind confidence that if American military superiority is brought to bear it can be translated into a desired political outcome at an acceptable cost in lives and costs.

 

            The anti-interventionists approach these policy issues entirely differently, essentially on the basis of an ethic of suspicion. They look below the surface of humanitarian rationalizations for unlawful uses of force to discern what they believe to be the real motives. They are quick to doubt the humanitarian explanations offered for an intervention, and instead search for the presence of strategic and material interests. Most anti-interventionists reject the justifications given by the pro-interventionists, especially those put forward by government officials, and are skeptical about claims that positive results will be achieved by an intervention even if the question of strategic interests is put to one side. Such skeptics do often self-identify as left or progressive. They are likely to refer to past failures of intervention such as Vietnam, or more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan. These historical cases are offered as cautionary reminders of how often intervention as a political undertaking has gone wrong. They also sharply criticize advocates of intervention for their willful failure to consider the past and for their near exclusive focus on questions of feasibility, which overlooks the terrible track record of interventions after 1945. Since the end of World War II, few interventions have come close to attaining the goals set by their advocates, especially if the target country has a population of over three million.

 

            For dedicated anti-interventionists, such as Noam Chomsky, nearly every intervention that is politically endorsed by the West is a poorly disguised example of ‘military humanism,’ and as a result, unacceptably weakens international law and the UN, erodes respect for the sovereign rights of smaller and weaker states, and is deeply compromised by the ‘double standards’ that pervade the practice of intervention. Chomsky, for instance, asks rhetorically why intervention was undertaken in Kosovo but not on behalf of the large Kurdish minority in Turkey who during roughly the same time period were enduring a cruel counterinsurgency campaign conducted by the Turkish government. In other words, the suspicion of the anti-interventionists is reinforced by the contradictions in the practice of the intervening states and in the mix of advocacy and silence on the part of the pro-interventionists.

 

            The pro-interventionist tends to believe in the moral contributions of the United States as a global leader that uses its military power for generally benevolent purposes. In contrast, the anti-interventionist generally dismisses such moral claims as a cover story for the pursuit of strategic interests in a post-colonial world order where the rules of the game are the same, or similar, and only the language of justification has changed to require an ethical rationalization to legitimize non-defensive uses of international force. It is no longer permissible or prudent to admit selfish national motivations, and for this reason a humanitarian and human rights discourse has become fashionable, but it has also obscured the true wellsprings of policy. Anti-interventionists captive to their suspicions about the maneuvers of the powerful are on occasion insensitive to the depth and reality of suffering or the severity of abuse being experienced by a people entrapped in genocidal circumstances. Such dogmatic anti-interventionism shoves aside practical pleas to rescue entrapped and victimized peoples even in situation of genuine emergency. They are so distrustful of authorizing uses of force by those few political actors that possess long distance force projection capabilities that they refuse to consider the context or weigh the pros and cons of each particular case, and remain content with a reject of intervention on a purely abstract and dogmatic basis.

 

            Against such a background of polarized views about interventionary diplomacy, I would support several general propositions in seeking to develop an approach that was not ideologically predetermined, but leans toward the anti-interventionist position:

 

            –assess the pros and cons relating to a given situation, including taking due account of the radical uncertainty that arises from unknown and unknowable aspects of the national context and an inability to assess accurately the risks associated with a prospect of national resistance to intervention; the net effect of such an approach is to give rise to a presumption against intervention;

            –such a presumption can be overcome by solid evidence suggesting that a true humanitarian emergency exists, that the persons facing a dire threat can be effectively rescued by the proposed scale of intervention, and that the intervening political actor receives authorization from the UN Security Council;

            –in situations of exceptional danger to a civilian population as posed by a genocidal campaign the presumption should be overcome even without UNSC authorization, provided there exists a strong regional consensus supportive of intervention as emerged in the Middle East in reaction to Iraq’s occupation and annexation of Kuwait in 1990 and in Europe in relation to Kosovo in 1999; the quality of the regional consensus is inescapably a matter of interpretation, although formal endorsement of or opposition to a proposed intervention by a constituted regional organization deserves serious respect in the absence of clear signals at the global level from the UN Security Council;

            –such a presumption should not be put aside if the intervention seems contrary to the wishes of the people engaged in an ongoing struggle to promote change in the target country or if the intervention will tip the internal balance in civil strife contra popular will and the dynamics of self-determination;

            –if the intervention is carried out nonviolently as a civil society initiative, the presumption against intervention should be reversed, provided that the evidence of a humanitarian crisis is clearly established and the territorial government is incapable of acting or is guilty of crimes against humanity; an influential precedent for such an intervention from below was provided by the global anti-apartheid campaign that exerted major pressures on South Africa in the early 1990s; a more controversial example is the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement challenging certain Israeli policies and practices, and is currently directed mainly at Israel’s unlawful settlements and continued occupation of Palestine.

 

            These five propositions are guidelines for reaching a contextual assessment in relation to any debate proposing intervention aimed at achieving change in a foreign state. By their nature, there is an imprecision associated with such a framework, but it is an alternative to the sort of doctrinaire approach that has been so common in the public debates about intervention in the past 20 years. Relying on these guidelines I favored a limited intervention in Rwanda in 1994 while opposing the 2003 intervention in Iraq because of the failure to obtain authorization from the Security Council despite a major effort, the fabrication of a counter-proliferation justification, the absence of an existing humanitarian emergency, and the likely prospect of a surge of national resistance. In relation to Libya in 2013, I favored a limited humanitarian intervention to protect the civilian population of the city of Benghazi because there was a UN authorization and a genuine humanitarian emergency, but opposed the NATO enlargement of the mandate to encompass a regime-changing mission.

 

            Syria has been the most daunting of recent cases as there has existed for several years a severe humanitarian emergency, but there is neither a global nor regional consensus supportive of military intervention. Beyond this, the uncertainty factors depicted in the first guideline have made it impossible to have confidence that any foreign military intervention in Syria would not intensify the violence and work against the dynamics of self-determination, the most significant anti-intervention norm in a post-colonial global setting that has so often been disastrously violated in the Middle East.

 

            Debates about intervention are inevitable in an interdependent world order in which ideals of territorial sovereignty clash with the interests and values of hegemonic political actors. There are no either/or solution for the dilemmas posed. What seems preferable is a contextual assessment tempered by humility arising from the experience of past interventions. Such an outlook is consistent with attitudes of overall respect for international law as binding on the strong as well as the weak. But consistency must yield on rare occasions to conditions of acute emergency even if the motivations of the intervening side are impure and the UN is unwilling to give its approval. And the peoples of the world must shoulder more responsibility via civil society initiatives that have a far cleaner record, both in relation to motivation and results, than do governments when it comes to intervention, which may be deliberately coercive but is not violent.