Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Why we can't just invade everyone we disagree with.

It has been said that invasion of foreign countries for regime change, such as Iraq, is morally justified. In light of recent unrest in Egypt and Libya, this issue is coming to the fore once again. In the example of Libya, the case is put forward that Gaddafi is committing humanitarian atrocities worthy of foreign military intervention. However, Gaddafi is not likely to give in easily. A Colonel, his military prowess and honour are clearly important to him. No doubt this would lead to a long, drawn out conflict involving the destruction of much of Libya's infrastructure, healthcare, education and social order. Many people would die, and an entire generation would be scarred by war. It may well lead to lasting damage to relations with Western countries, as well as accusations of whichever countries invaded behaving as a global bullies or imperialistic thugs. In short, the situation would have to be extremely, extremely bad and intervention would have to have a high chance of success for an invasion to be justified. The problem is, there are no examples where this has happened.

I am strongly of the opinion that countries need to arrive at Liberal Democracy through there own progress. Revolution from within has worked in many cases, such as France, but a foreign force imposing a system on an unwilling people never works. This will, no doubt, lead to accusations of moral relativism. However, I wouldn't say for one second that living in a monarchy or dictatorship is fine for other people, just that imposing democracy does not produce strong and stable government. At best a puppet regime of the invading nation(s) is installed, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq, and at worst a tyrant (Zimbabwe) or terrorist organisation (Palestine) is elected. And what happens then? The people have had their say, but it has led either directly or indirectly to a government we do not approve of and the problem is unresolved, despite all the above mentioned damages war does. Let us look at the most stable democracy in the world: the UK. The reason British Parliamentary Democracy has been so successful is that there have been hundreds of years of progress. Institutions can be changed over night, but minds take much longer to change. Many people 100 years ago thought the idea of women voting was preposterous, but now, as far as I know, pretty much no-one in the UK thinks women should not vote. If the UK had had votes for women imposed by a foreign power, the institution of voting would have been altered, but the minds of many Brits would not have been. It would have taken a long time to convince people, if the change was not reversed in the meantime. Instead, the emancipation of women came about organically and gradually within  the UK, so everyone had time to get used to the idea, and the progress will (hopefully) last forever.

Another problem is who we invade. If we invade any countries that don't agree with our view of democracy we have a problem: there is no truly objective measure of the best and worst systems of government. The government of Iran, and much of the population, believe their theocracy is the best system, and is supported by a deity. If we believe we have the right to change governments we disagree with, it's hard to say that others do not also have this right. Saying that our system is so good we need to invade other countries to share it with them stinks of imperialism, and has caused many of the world's current problems.

I suppose my next argument is a kind of slippery slope. If we are prepared to invade one country for regime change, for example Zimbabwe, why not also invade China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia etc. And how bad do they need to be to require regime change? These examples have committed various human rights abuses, true, but so have the UK and USA, making it hard to hold the moral high ground. If it's a question of democracy, we also have a problem. British democracy is far from perfect. We still have more than half of the members of our legislature unelected. Again, it is difficult to hold the moral high ground, and would a more democratic nation, such as the USA or France be justified in invading the UK? We should try to perfect our own system of government before we impose it on others.

Some people would advocate foreign invasion only in examples of genocide, and this is certainly a much more persuasive argument. The most common example given by those who support so-called 'principled intervention' is World War Two. "Would you," they say, "not have intervened to stop the holocaust?" and certainly this is a difficult question to answer. Personally I am of the view that British involvement in World War Two was justified, but only for self-defensive reasons. If Hitler had not showed any interest in his neighbours' lands, Britain should not have become involved. The number of deaths within Germany from general repression was up to 3.2million, and the deaths from the holocaust were almost 6million. Shocking as these figures are, the number of military deaths as a result of the war was some 25million, including over 10million Soviet soldiers, and civilian deaths were as high as 50million worldwide. Furthermore, if Hitler had not invaded any other countries, fewer would have died as a result of his actions as many of the victims of his lunacy were Polish and Czech. This demonstrates how war often simply exacerbates the situation. In fact, the Nazi high command had not conceived of the 'final solution' until the war had started and they felt forced into finding a quick and extreme way of dealing with what they viewed as a problem. This is not to try and put the blame for what happened on anyone other than the Nazis, but war certainly did not help the matter.

The soul example I can think of where foreign military intervention may have been for the greater good is Rwanda, where the might of NATO forces would have met with relatively little resistance and the mass-extermination may have been stopped. However, there is still no certainty this would have been better overall as it could have caused many more deaths, and resulted in an equally unstable country. Essentially this line of thought is too hypothetical to pursue.

Wishing to avoid foreign military intervention can lead to accusations of 'not caring' or failing to act responsibly. However, I have explained why I believe that not intervening is almost always the best solution by all measures. There are also other ways to act, without resorting to violence. International pressure and sanctions can be effective, for example.

To sum up, I believe that as a general rule foreign military intervention for regime change should always be avoided, as it has never been successful and probably never will be.


  1. Well-written but I disagree.

    Firstly, you seem to contradict yourself a bit. You say your not guilty of moral relativism and then say that we can't claim the moral highground which seems to suggest that there are no objectively better regimes. I think we can say that the UK is a better govt than Iran because we do not kill adulterers and gay people for example. I'm not saying that we should necessarily invade Iran but that we can say we have a morally superior govt.

    secondly, I think your analysis of WW2 is an interesting one. However a war based wholly on preventing a genocide would be different to the one fought at the time. Your use of statistics from ww2 only applies to that war which was fought because Germany invaded Poland and also invaded Russia - thus the large number of deaths of Russian soldiers and civillians were because Hitler invaded Russia. A war fought entirely to do with the Holocaust would have been very different and I dont think we can use ww2 statistics to judge the casualty rate of a different hypothetical war. This is where we have to look at issues like Kosovo and other examples of massacres.

  2. I also disagree.
    You seem to have this attitude that whilst you think Liberal Democracy is great for us, countries must go through their horrible dictators and massacres in order to get to a good place, but as a leading Western country who is in my opinion more enlightened as to why democracy is the best for the people, is it so bad to say to other countries "look, we've fought tyranny before and we've been through it, look from our experience".

    To use a crude analogy, if someone is going to make a mistake that could result in great physical or emotional harm, your theory suggests that if you let them go through it, to learn from that experience. To bring it back to the issue, this just isn't good enough in reality, sure it sounds nice to let countries learn their lessons through their own history, but we are talking peoples lives here. To use Afghanistan as an example, women were and probably still are beaten and raped because of the status quo, and you suggest that until the status quo is "naturally" proven wrong it's right to allow that to happen, well I think that's a horrible stance to take, which shows little appreciation for the needs of the victim.

    In short, those being massacred by tyrants and despots around the world don't care that their country isn't earning the proper beliefs through a natural development, I think they'd rather that the government wasn't slaughtering their families.

    Try telling the families of the 320 people killed in Libya so far that we didn't want to help out because the natural progression of their political atmosphere was too important to stop them being killed.

    It's not a matter of invading people we don't like, it's a matter of stopping tyrannical regimes around the world who are defying the will of their own people.
    In the instances you provide, namely Libya, Egypt and Regime, you suggest it's wrong for us to invade them on the basis of us not liking there being no democracy, but you hugely miss the point, the people of these countries don't want to be tyrannized, and if you think they have to pay with their own blood for it to be proven, then it shows no respect at all for the lives of those killed.

    I'm not saying invade every country without liberal democracy, i'm saying that if there is the case where the people of a country are living under a tyranny that they don't want, and where serious human rights violations are being carried out, that once all of the non-military options have been exhausted, it is simply right to stand up for those who aren't able to stand up for themselves.

  3. I think you're putting too much focus on the issue of a county arriving at liberal democracy of their own accord. I think that this is the only way stable, free government arises, unless you have an example to prove me wrong. But even if we could somehow guarantee a system of government we approve of, I think it would still take a very extreme example to justify invasion for all the reasons I stated to do with the destruction of infrastructure and social order. Many dictatorships, despite their oppressive nature, are functioning nation states where their citizens live ordered lives. To ruin that, for a small chance of implementing a system that may or may not last anyway seems foolish. I accept that in a country like Zimbabwe there is not much left to ruin as Mugabe has done quite a good job of ruining it himself. However, there is no guarantee that an invasion would create a better regime. Democratic elections have produced tyrants before, and if it happens again we would be back to square one.

    As for citizens standing up for themselves, who are we to say what people want? I know you will accuse me of saying that I think people want to live in a dictatorship, but this isn't what I'm saying. We don't know what the people of other countries want, and even if they do dislike their regime, they do not necessarily want a foreign power to invade of its own accord in order to attempt to rectify that, particularly with Western nations' track records. The problem with your point is that you assume you know what people want. In Iran, for example, the fact that the country is extremely Muslim may mean that a lot of people are happy with a theocracy and literal interpretation of Sharia law. And even of those who despise its government, many will abhor the concept of a Western nation like the USA intervening there.

    To refer to your analogy, if someone is going to do something that will harm them, for example inject themselves with heroin, I think you should do everything you can to persuade them otherwise. What I don't think you should do is batter them to within an inch of their life, steal their money and spit in their eye, particularly if there is only a small chance of successfully retrieving the needle.

    To get a better idea of the world war two analogy, even if we discount the deaths in Asia and the USA, the war in Europe's death toll far outweighed the internal repression and "ethnic cleansing" in Germany.

    As for moral relativism, I think we can obviously argue our government is better than Iran's, but my point was that at an international level where there are many different systems, the lack of an objective measure makes it impossible to say to, for example, China "we can invade a country for regime change because we are right. You cannot because you are wrong". As much as we may agree with this statement in the UK, we cannot then condemn other countries for trying to impose their systems on others.

    I think to accuse me of not caring is to miss the point. I have clearly explained why I think it is very much better for countries and the people in them to not be invaded for any reason. I admit that in the most extreme, extreme of examples it may be justified, but that would have to be for the prevention of genocide rather than simply regime change.

  4. I think you just dispense with the ww2 example, because what we are talking about now is a completely hypothetical war with too many differences and conjectures to merit realistic comparison. I think we should look at real life examples such as Kosovo and Sierra Leone. The latter is a case of preventing a conflict that caused enormous suffering for the population within that country but I think it is relevant.

    I think you are mistaken to have some sort of a priori opposition to humanitarian intervention. We should look at the individual cases on their merit because I think it is probably that there will be cases that require this kind of intervention.

  5. Why don't we use the WW2 example.
    After the war was won the Allied forces forced liberal democracy on Germany, Italy and Japan. Here's an example of forcing democracy on a country and them all being pretty grateful in hindsight.

    I'm not suggesting at all that we remove from government rulers who we don't like, i'm suggesting that when the rulers of countries are willing to go against the will of their people to the extent where they are killing them in scores, the international community should, after having tried all of the non-military options, consider the use of military force. I am aware that Britain didn't go to war with Germany in order to replace their systems, but it's something that we're massively proud we did go to war with them for at the end of the day.
    I really don't think it's good enough to let people in other countries be murdered because it's "not our country", as much as i respect a nation's right to be sovereign, when it begins to kill its citizens to hold on to power, the regime responsible forfeits their national sovereignty.