The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Global Conscience Not US Capital: The Case for Liberal Intervention


Gabriel Glickman • 5 August 2006

Defending an interventionist foreign policy is not the most obvious route to popularity in the post-Iraq climate. Sure enough, a dose of vitriol and incomprehension from several quarters has been the lot of the Henry Jackson Society since its foundation last year. A 'neoconservative cabal funded by Washington' runs a common refrain, a clique of latter-day imperialists who would thrust democracy forward 'at the barrel of the gun', according to one broadsheet critic.

Last month, these arguments found their way into The Blanket in trenchant form, with Mick Hall's attack on those who would export and impose 'US Capital' across the planet, 'with bayonet in one hand and the mighty dollar in the other'. Beneath the rhetorical mask of freedom and democracy, it is claimed, lies a project that would bring 'death and destruction to millions of the world's most economically poor and most oppressed people'. A poisonous blend from a toxic source, indeed.

It is fair to say that debates over the resonance of liberal democracy beyond Western frontiers have some distance yet to run. However, the Henry Jackson Society would be better engaged with, if it can be detached from the ugly myths that have disfigured contemporary discourse; if it is understood how and why we have reached our position - what we are and what we are not.

To the charge of evangelising for an identikit model of democracy, complete with Hollywood, Walmart and Coca Cola, we plead not guilty. As we are not the long arm of the American 'military-industrial' complex, no more are we Jacobins pushing a violent utopianism upon an unsuspecting world. But we do believe that principles of personal liberty, religious pluralism and representative government remain demonstrably superior to the soul-numbing visions sanctioning tyranny and terror.

Only a few years ago, this belief barely needed restating. Now, the times are more fragile. Since 2003, a spate of grim news from Iraq, the continuing Arab-Israeli crisis and the vilification of the Bush White House has brought alarming signs of retreat among many opinion-formers from principles once deemed unalterable in the Western worldview.

This tendency can be found in the current vogue for peering only into the social and political shortcomings of the West, while suspending judgement on states outside the democratic tradition. This is not to deny the importance of Western self-criticism, nor to suggest that representative structures alone guarantee a flourishing society - education, environmental responsibility and social justice stand out among other crucial ingredients in the kernel of modern liberalism. But to believe that democratic governments are somehow debarred by their own faults from challenging terror, suppression and ethnic cleansing abroad allows introspection to drift towards moral relativism. The accompanying notion that dictatorships should be judged by lesser standards than democracies comes close to asserting that life for people within them is somehow worth less than our own.

In calling for Western nations to place liberal ideals at the heart of their foreign policy, the Henry Jackson Society argues that the 'war on terror' is, at heart, a conflict of ideas, to be won by the victory of democracy and hope over tyranny and despair. The democratic way, of course, will appear globally in many different shapes and hues, responsive to historic development and cultural tradition. But too often, the reasonable maxim that representative government takes time to evolve has been used as cover for the prejudice that some cultures are simply destined for tyranny and terror.

This notion festered beneath some of the most disturbing incidents of recent international history, including the failure of the UN to halt the massacres in Rwanda and - most notoriously - the massacre of the Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica. Today, the same assumption underlies excuses still made for assaults on human rights in Burma, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, where the political process, far from moving towards democracy, is 'evolving' in quite the opposite direction.

Voices on the Left are late arrivals to the critique of liberal intervention. In 2000, this was quintessentially the position of George W. Bush, running on a ticket of opposition to 'nation building' and 'social work' abroad. Today, the old school of diplomatic realpolitik can be challenged as much for lack of realism as for alleged moral failure. Now, globalisation exports political, social and environmental tensions boiling over in different regions into the very heart of the West, and isolation offers not so much shelter as dangerous self-delusion.

Naturally, it is folly to think that available resources allow the West to confront every instance of oppression and abuse. But, as the moral philosopher Michael Ignatieff has argued, just because we cannot be everywhere does not mean that we should not be anywhere. Moreover, intervention need not always take military form - it can be expressed by ending once-expedient arms deals, offering political and economic incentives and opening up our embassies to embattled democrats and reformers. Ultimately, it is about withdrawing from rogue states the right to stand as equals with liberal and democratic nations, stripping them of the delusion that they are free to cleanse, suppress and abuse while the world turns a blind eye.

Campaigning for a foreign policy with a conscience does not mean giving a blank cheque to the US; rather it is about encouraging the world's supreme power to flex its muscles in a particular way. Certainly, this entails denouncing Washington's periodic moral lapses - Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, accommodation with unsavoury regimes. In a war of ideas, the means become as crucial as the ends. But, from the successes of intervention in Kosovo to the tragedy of appeasement in Bosnia and Rwanda, the lesson of recent decades show it is far better to have an America engaged with the world than a fortress republic locked behind a wall of indifference.

The Henry Jackson Society was founded, therefore, on the belief that demands for intervention are likely to grow, not recede over the coming decade, making redundant the old dismissal of 'a far away country and a people of whom we know nothing'. In this light, liberal intervention is not about propping up 'US Capital' but about championing human lives once oppressed and forgotten, and moving beyond the comfort zone of our own domestic vision. Now, rather than ruminating over our past wrongs, the time is surely apt to ask: 'What can we do right?'









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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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