Friday, April 20, 2007

War and other people’s best interests

Tom Miller remarks that “progressive interventionism needs to be different to neoconservatism, which I despise. Democracy is a bottom up phenomenon, a flower that needs watering and weedkiller...”

I incline to agree (with the caveat that those two isms can be filled out in different ways). There’s a distinction (lost to the knee-jerk anti-West, anti-war crowd) worth maintaining between what Norm Geras has characterised as military action taken on ‘remedial’ grounds (to end a murderous tyranny) and that taken on ‘utopian’ grounds (to create a flourishing democracy).

This difference is why I signed the Euston Manifesto but don’t support the Henry Jackson Society.

The HJS campaigns for the spread of modern liberal democracy. While that’s a great and important principle, it seems to me that the HJS may be too uncritically single-minded in its pursuit of it. It supports:

“a ‘forward strategy’ to assist those countries that are not yet liberal and democratic to become so. This would involve the full spectrum of our ‘carrot’ capacities, be they diplomatic, economic, cultural or political, but also, when necessary, those ‘sticks’ of the military domain.”

It’s that “when necessary” that worries me. I can’t agree with the suggestion that any undemocratic regime should be deposed by force if peaceful methods fail. There are plenty of autocracies whose human rights records can hardly be called tyrannical. The idea of bombing Singapore, say, as a prelude to replacing its sham elections with genuine liberal democracy, is ridiculous, even if all other means of reform had failed. War is dangerous, and not all non-democracies are equally vile (just ask the North Koreans trying to flee to China).

Whether you call this ‘neoconservatism’ or not, it seems to be a step away from standing up for the downtrodden and towards pursuing an ideology (yes, based on a good ideal) for its own sake.

The EM is more selective about when force should be used:

“If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a ‘responsibility to protect’.”

While I’m on the subject, there’s a symposium in the new issue of Dissent on exporting democracy and lessons learned from Iraq. There seems to be a rough consensus that, as Thomas Cushman puts it, “war is not the best way to achieve democratization, although this does not mean that no value has come of this war”.

And Paul Berman argues that:

“democracy is not just a system of procedures and a matter of institutions. Democracy is, in addition, a worldview, and this worldview needs to be expounded: a worldview based on rationality, criticism, respect for individual rights, and so forth. Democracy, in short, requires liberalism, and liberalism is, after all, an ism, and isms need to be presented, clarified, popularized, and defended.”

Forcible democratisation is practically, conceptually and ethically fraught. Using force to stop mass brutality is less so.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Yup, I think such a view definitely reflects how the democratic left should be framing such conundrums in the future.