Robert McIlveen lives in Sheffield and is doing his PhD there on the
Conservative Party, its organisation and electoral strategy. He welcomes David Cameron’s recent speech on a "liberal conservative" approach to foreign policy.
Liberal interventionism is rather like carbon offsetting: an expensive
way to make ourselves feel better about the world. It’s hard not to
feel that “something must be done” when we see images of brutality and
desperation from around the world on the TV news or on the web. The
horrors of Darfur, Congo, Zimbabwe and Burma are undeniable. Yet the
idea that invading and freeing the people from repressive regimes is
the right thing to do is rarely challenged.
David Cameron’s speech in Berlin provoked an interesting discussion
about foreign policy, in particular his rejection of liberal
interventionism. The role of scepticism in foreign policy has been
neglected by Labour in office with disastrous consequences.
Darfur is important because it underlines exactly what is wrong with
the current international system. No-one is in any doubt that, given
agreement and the willingness to do it, the Khartoum government could
be taken down in a matter of days. The same could be said for Robert
Mugabe or the Burmese generals.
Yet this does not tell the whole story. Political solutions to failing states or dictatorships are often much more difficult to achieve than we think, and rely more on regional powers, such as China and India in the case of Burma, than on the determination of the West. Thabo Mbeki is often castigated for South Africa’s reluctance to act decisively against the Mugabe regime, demonstrating that there are real limits to the West’s ability to impose its political will.
The world is a dangerous place, and liberal interventionism is a superficially attractive idea. Rather like the G8 summit at Gleneagles, and all the campaigners who truly believed they were changing the world by forcing the leaders of the world’s most powerful states to “save Africa” it is an easy way for governments and western society at large to salve its conscience at the state of the world. Yet, like the broken pledges on aid, trade and debt, liberal interventionism is an empty solution. I would like to outline three key problems with the doctrine, and a solution.
First, we have rightly assumed that NATO (meaning America) is capable of conquering any territory it chooses to. We have wrongly concluded that this means that we can “reorder this world around us” as Blair sought to. Political settlements and military control are two very different things, as Iraq and Afghanistan are showing. In cases such as Iraq, where the state is fundamentally divided and weak intervening can make existing problems worse. Over-estimating the power of the West risks involving our troops in conflicts we should avoid.
Secondly, liberal interventionism is enormously risky. Iran’s ascendancy in the Middle East has been greatly assisted by the removal of a key rival in Saddam Hussein. Removing the Taliban has increased the availability of heroin in the West, without bringing peace to Afghanistan. Bombing Iran, perhaps the next likely intervention, could have disastrous spin-offs across the Muslim world and beyond, from Pakistan to Chechnya to Egypt. Any failed or divided state we would want to intervene in is an unpredictable and dangerous situation, with unpredictable outcomes. To assume we can control the politics of a troubled region is arrogant; to want to “drop a fully formed democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet” is sheer naivety.
The third problem of liberal interventionism is its selectivity. The war in the Congo, which has claimed more lives than any other in recent history, is routinely overlooked while we obsess about Darfur; we invaded Iraq on spurious grounds while cuddling up to Saudi Arabia, which has a similar record on human rights. From a national interest perspective these can be explained and justified, from a liberal interventionist viewpoint they are hypocrisy.
Blair often preached about the necessity of freeing Iraqis from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship while doing nothing about repression in Russia, China, or Egypt. This is perfectly sensible if national interest and recognition of the limits of Western power and moral authority are a government’s guide to action, but not if a determination to right all wrongs and free the oppressed is driving foreign policy.
In summary, David Cameron’s call to replace Liberal Interventionism with a more sceptical approach he calls Liberal Conservatism is a welcome return to sense. The basis of this seems to be classical Realism, which prioritises national interest and material security over internationalist utopianism. By reserving the use of force for times when the national interest demands its deployment liberal conservatism avoids the twin dangers of isolationism and over-eager interventionism.
Pushing a liberal agenda through trade, aid and diplomacy is perfectly right and proper, and works – Turkey’s suspension of the death penalty, and the expansion of free trade globally being excellent examples, and would fit beautifully in a liberal conservative foreign policy. Yet to intervene aggressively in support of liberal ideals is to make a travesty of them.
Bush and Blair were often described by supporters as “Churchillian” for their rhetoric and determination in the War on Terror. This is frankly insulting to one of the greatest Realists of them all. I hope David Cameron’s commitment to a more traditional foreign policy can place him justly in the Realist tradition of Churchill and Thatcher.