International Intervention: The Future

“We assume from afar, and you can kill someone based on assumption. We have learned a bitter lesson”[i]

What does the future hold for those who would intervene across national boundaries to address situations of insecurity, crisis, and conflict? Are the justifications for intervention changing; are new ways of intervening emerging, and what are the residual challenges? These questions were addressed at a conference on 18 and 19 July at the University of Surrey, the concluding event in a three-year, ESRC-funded, series “Explaining the Intervention Matrix: Theory and Practice from Northern and Southern Perspectives.” The conference came shortly after two events that could well have an impact on the future of European intervention at least: the UK’s referendum vote to leave the EU, and the tragic loss of life in the Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice.

Are we at a turning point in international intervention? Many of our speakers and panellists thought we were. The Western, neo-liberal, approach to intervention – resting on “the mythology of precision”[ii] and often cloaked in a “humanitarian alibi” or justified with reference to human rights – is discredited as a result of our getting “stuck in the engrenage” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya – to mention only those crises most visible to the Western eye – plus the tragic failure to intervene effectively in Syria. This may be a temporary phenomenon, but there are pointers to its being more fundamental: the West, and in particular NATO, now finds itself in a more “contested environment”, in terms both of challenges to its own legitimacy and of a wider range of actors engaging in intervention.

While challenges post-Libya to the West’s interpretation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) by, successively, Brazil, China, and Russia[iii] may not have succeeded in establishing an alternative normative paradigm, the West’s failure to intervene effectively to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria testifies to its lack of confidence in the power of its own traditional legitimising framework. Meanwhile the agenda for international intervention is determined less by the Western powers and more by the actions of non-state actors such as Al Qaeda and ISIL/Da’esh, ensuring that the counter-terrorism narrative prevails over one of human rights and humanitarianism.The more generous political project in favour of the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalised is struggling to hold its own; ‘the responsibility to rebuild’ is but one victim of the new circumstances.

The lens through which the West views the world also needs to  be examined, and not just because ‘our’ view is relatively less important now. When ‘we’ (the West) talk about ‘security’, whose security are we concerned with? The interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya were all to an extent sold to our publics in terms of the security and human rights of the inhabitants of those countries, but the reality hardly matches the rhetoric. That could certainly be construed as a failure of implementation, but also casts doubt on the sincerity of the justification.

More fashionable ways of looking at intervention, for example through the lens of ‘Women, Peace, and Security’, are revealed on closer analysis to instrumentalise and disempower their subjects; “the person is international but gender is treated as a variable, rather than a prism through which everything should be viewed”. In similar vein, the ready categorisation of certain societies as lawless or anarchic can simply reveal an ignorance about their complexity and functioning. Public education activities to build support at home for expeditionary interventions abroad can be designed in such a way that local voices are not heard. And sometimes norms used to justify intervention in other societies are not given the same status in our own – for example the EU’s approach to gender-based violence at home vs. abroad.

This series of seminars and conferences has attempted to take a broader view of ‘international intervention’, not restricted to the traditional interpretation of something that is coercive – and usually military. The main rationale for this broader approach is that, as one of our speakers put it, “There is something about the use of violence as a means of resolving political problems that is deeply problematic”. Therefore, in addition to exploring new ways of delivering ‘hard power’, e.g. by the provision of military aid (at the risk of “offering a military solution to what is essentially a state legitimacy crisis”) or the deployment of “western vanguards”, i.e. Special Forces supported by remotely piloted aerial weapons systems (“drone chic – beguiling for politicians…keeping boots off the ground, but creating new costs for the future”) this conference therefore also explored ‘soft power’ approaches, including attempts to strengthen the international criminal justice system, a greater emphasis on diplomacy (“we are going to have to sit down with a lot of unsavoury people”), mediation, military capacity-building, a broader approach to peace-keeping missions, and even the use of documentary film as a potentially transformative tool in peace processes.

In these areas, no less than in the more coercive forms of intervention, it is fair to ask how much intervention can truly be in support of local systems as opposed to the intervener’s own foreign policy goals, and how honest is our understanding of the distorting effect of our own intervening ‘power’. But in an inter-connected world – even one that may increasingly be characterised, as it was by another of our speakers, as “neo-mediaeval and fragmented”, where “bricolage and brokerage” represent the order of the day – it is important to understand the various ways in which intervention takes place, if only because what ‘we’ are doing to someone today, ‘they’ may be capable of doing to us tomorrow. Or what ‘they’ are doing today – something that we don’t like – is in fact their attempt to replicate what we did yesterday (e.g. Nigerian attempts at counter-insurgency in their own country).

Ultimately, intervention is about power – the power to change the course of events. Exercising that power responsibly, and understanding its limitations as much as its potential to do good, is perhaps the greatest challenge facing international interveners in future.

[i] From The Imam and the Pastor, FLTfilms, 2006, available at  [NB an earlier version of this post wrongly attributed this quote to the follow-up film: An African Answer.]

[ii] I offer the same disclaimer as after the 2015 event: “This pot-pourri of a summary can hardly do justice to the contributions at the conference; my aim is merely to provide a flavour of a fascinating two days of discussion on a very diverse range of topics. My apologies to those I have quoted without attribution; to have done so would have made this piece unmanageable. In addition what I have quoted is based for the most part on what I heard people say, rather then what they have placed on the written record – so all responsibility for the quotes is mine.”

[iii] Viz. Brazil’s initiative on “Responsibility While Protecting”, China’s on “Responsible Protection”, and Russia’s stance on “Responsible Intervention”.