Friday, September 12, 2008

Michael Ignatieff on Humanitarian Intervention, Its Legacy, Condition and Prospects

It's a grim prognosis, in this month's edition of the The New Republic, in the context of a review of Freedom's Battle, by Gary J. Bass: Post 911, the United States retreats into America-First cynicism, Afghanistan and Iraq make liberals depressed, and then there's the rebirth of Russian imperialism, Chinese obstructionism in the Sudan, and the tendency of post-colonial societies to heave overboard the solidarity-of-the-oppressed that once liberated them. But, Ignatieff warns.

From all this we might draw the wrong conclusion, namely that humanitarian intervention was a hectic but fleeting moral fashion of the 1990s--an opportunity for the West to display its insufferable moral superiority at low cost, and for liberal intellectuals to wear their consciences on their sleeves. Bass helps us to see our own moral history in a more serene and clear-eyed light. There was more to the interventions that saved the Bosnians, Kosovars, and East Timorese than moral vanity. The philosophical beliefs that drove those foreign campaigns had a history going back to Byron and the Greeks. Thanks to Bass's fine book, we can uncover the lineage of some enduring intuitions about the duties that people owe each other across borders. These moral intuitions may be in retreat right now, with great power politics in the ascendant; but it would be foolish to pronounce their demise. The impulse to save and protect others will survive this parenthesis of retreat. We are not done with evil, and so we are not done with humanitarian intervention. Its time will come again; or it had better come, if we are to continue to respect ourselves.

7 Comments:

Blogger double-plus-ungood said...

From April 4, 2006:

Me: Myself, I dunno what should be done there. I think the cause of humanitarian intervention has been set back by decades, and international diplomacy is a shambles.

You: We'll agree to disagree on whether Iraq has set back the cause of humanitarian intervention or not. Only time will tell, but it was the unilaterial nature of the invasion, and the paralysis of the Security council over Iraq, that added up to the last straw that led to the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which remains untested. At least there is a mechanism now, although Michael Byers makes the case that Paul Martin screwed it up in its final form. Who knows.

Are we able to tell yet?

3:43 PM  
Blogger double-plus-ungood said...

Oops. That was from here.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

"Are we able to tell yet?"

I think Ignatieff is right on at least this point: "These moral intuitions may be in retreat right now, with great power politics in the ascendant; but it would be foolish to pronounce their demise. The impulse to save and protect others will survive this parenthesis of retreat. We are not done with evil, and so we are not done with humanitarian intervention. Its time will come again; or it had better come, if we are to continue to respect ourselves."

4:01 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

I have never understood the criticism of the Iraq liberation on the grounds that it was 'unilateral'.
Does the morality of an invasion really rest on the number of countries who participate?
I agree that having more allies is (all other things being equal) better; but I don't see how a head count has much to do with propriety in foreign policy.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

I don't think it's quite so much a matter of morality (it is always moral to fight for the overthrow of a dictator).

But propriety does comes into it to the extent that it's proper to cleave to some semblance of international law, or at least agreed-upon norms among nation states. The problem is when there is no real international law that governs these questions, because it isn't enforceable. I think Canada was quite right to point out, in the case of Iraq, that some international sanction - or at least a process (like R2P) that could produce that sanction, should have come first.

This is not to repeat the fiction that the US engagement in Iraq is illegal (which all the marchers whining about US war resisters keep repeating today), because the US presence in Iraq has enjoyed the UN's sanction, and the Iraqi government's blessing, for some while.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

Fair enough, Terry. I just think that these kinds of procedural objections often serve as cover for critics whose real motives are more malign - either sympathy for Hussein (Chirac and Putin) or an unwillingness to confront threats to liberty and democracy (the neo-isolationism of the European center-left).
Also, it wasn't solely Bush's fault that other western nations didn't join in.
Look forward to reading the Post op-ed.

4:21 PM  
Blogger IceClass said...

Thanks again for the book recommendation Terry. I bust a front tooth two days ago being a clumsy twit and so find myself in Ottawa readying myself for fang repair. Bumped into a copy of Freedom's Battle last night at Chapters here in Ottawa and picked it up.
So far, your recommendations have been flawless and I'm still having a blast discussing what I learned about West Coast clam beds with Inuit hunters up island.
They think those indians are pretty smart dudes.
:)

7:47 AM  

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