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It is no longer fashionable to question the motives for Western intervention in Bosnia, Somalia or Iraq. What would once have been condemned as gunboat diplomacy is now widely embraced as humanitarian peace-keeping. Yet the consequences for those on the receiving end of Western militarism seem as painful as ever.

Pat Roberts looks behind the moralistic language in which Great Power diplomacy is now couched, to identify the real aims of increased Western intervention. The foreign adventures of Western governments today, he finds, have nothing to do with saving lives abroad, and everything to do with salvaging the authority of ruling parties and institutions at home

When peace means war

In the old days at least you knew where you stood. It was called the War Office. Today it is called the Ministry of Defence. Back in the old days wars of intervention were called military invasions - today we live in the era of peace-keeping forces. No Western power ever goes to war any more; their actions are purely defensive. Soldiers are peace-keepers, and if we are to believe what we are told their careers are devoted to saving lives, feeding the hungry and caring for the infirm. Armies are really composed of humanitarian missionaries disguised as men of the sword.

The confusion of peace with war is widespread. For example, nobody has commented on the fact that almost 200 000 Iraqis lost their lives in the Gulf War, while the Western peace-keeping forces suffered a relative handful of casualties. Once upon a time such a disproportionate difference in the number of deaths would have alerted people to the fact that this conflict was not what it seemed. It would have been described by sensible people as a massacre. Today, by contrast, the reaction is one of studied indifference. Even the old-fashioned pacifists are conspicuous by their absence. Paradoxically, often it is the old pacifists and leftists who are most vociferous about calling for military intervention in Bosnia.

It is no longer fashionable to question the motives behind Western intervention. The obvious question as to why Western peacemakers are preoccupied with Bosnia, rather than the far bloodier confrontations in Angola or Azerbaijan or Cambodia, is seldom posed. There is a similar lack of questioning as to what has happened to the past targets of Western intervention. Six months ago Somalia was world news. Today, it is just a dim memory. And who can recall Panama?

The absence of debate on the rights and wrongs of Western motives suggests an unusual degree of public acquiescence towards military adventures. Above all this has led to a situation in which one of the defining characteristics of our time - the militarisation of international politics - has gone virtually unnoticed. The reason for this development is the forging of a powerful moral consensus behind the Western powers.

It is worth noting in passing that the emergence of the Western moral consensus was predicated upon the decline of the West's competitors. The disintegration of the Stalinist bloc, the collapse of the third worldist perspective, and not least of the Western left and labour movements, served to affirm Western capitalism. After all, of the postwar world order, only the West remains intact. So the power of the moral consensus is based not on something authoritative within Western society, but on the apparent absence of any alternatives external to it.

No conspiracy

From the point of view of ruling elites in the West, intervention abroad makes sense. There is no need to resort to conspiracy theories to explain the recent intensification of foreign intervention. When Bill Clinton criticised president George Bush for spending too much time abroad he really meant what he said. When Clinton promised to spend more time dealing with the internal problems of America, he no doubt meant every word. And once he got elected, Clinton probably never saw any inconsistency between these promises and the fact that in practice his policies became preoccupied with Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia and Russia.

There are of course manipulations and lies. After the publication of a series of opinion polls in the USA, Clinton could no longer claim that popular pressure was forcing him to intervene in Bosnia. As far as most Americans were concerned Bosnia was a soft drink. Yet it would be wrong to see Clinton's high international profile as simply the product of a cynical manoeuvre. He is reacting to the intractable nature of America's domestic problems. Everything in America, as in other Western capitalist societies, is spontaneously pushing governments in an external direction.

For any Western government today the domestic arena is fraught with difficulties. There are no obvious economic policies for tackling the problems of stagnation, lack of productive investment and unemployment. Most societies demonstrate a considerable level of fragility, and appear immune to any positive effects of government action. Under these circumstances governments appear at once irrelevant and ineffective. But in relation to abroad, things seem different. For Clinton, as for Bush, it is far easier to be seen to be doing some good in Somalia or in Iraq than to deal with the problem of urban decay. Politicians in all Western countries are increasingly drawn towards such conclusions.

There are various other forces at work which reinforce the trend towards militarisation. The growing rivalry among Western powers and increasing global economic anarchy boost international conflict. But these long-term trends are given shape and force by the domestic malaise in Western societies.

The place to be seen

It is important to emphasise that we are witnessing something more than the traditional manoeuvre of using foreign adventures to distract from domestic problems. Today the crises facing governments at home are far worse - and the chances to act abroad are greater. What is distinct about the present is that while Western governments lack the basis for forging a viable consensus of support within the domestic arena, on the international plane such opportunities still exist. So, simply to be seen to be doing something, governments are drawn into international affairs.

On most issues in Britain and other Western nations today there is no obvious consensus, and certainly no positive one. Even questions traditionally considered to be outside political debate - like education or the monarchy - are now subjects of controversy. The issue of Europe divides the political class. There is no strategic conception of where society ought to be going. There are no goals to be worked towards. There are merely negative goals. So full employment is now renounced as utopian. But nobody indicates what is the best way of employing the creative potential of human beings. The absence of consensus on domestic matters is shown by the inability of even the ruling parties to agree on matters of substance. Today 'good government' means managing to avoid major political rows within your own party ranks.

In contrast to the confusion and incoherence of domestic politics, there is a powerful consensus behind the notion that the West has the moral right to intervene in the third world and the East. There is some public criticism of certain forms of intervention, but not of the basic premise that the West has the right to determine the future of the rest of the world.

Claim the high ground

According to this consensus, 'they' are the problem and the West possesses the solution. This view has been boosted by the collapse of any other pole of moral authority. Even former third world liberation movements, which would once have denounced Western imperialism, sometimes appeal for Western intervention today. Many Muslim figures have criticised the United Nations for not intervening in Bosnia. Some Palestinian leaders have criticised the West for ignoring their predicament while adopting a high profile elsewhere. Criticisms such as these only endow the Western powers and their international institutions with more credibility and moral authority, since they imply that their intervention could make the situation better.

The fact that the West can now present its military engagements and diplomatic manoeuvres as a reluctant but necessary response to a plea for help ensures that such interventions become a unique source of moral authority. It is in this sphere that Western capitalism can claim the moral high ground.

Not so long ago the cry directed at the USA and the other Western powers was 'Get out!' - of Vietnam, of Lebanon, of Central America. Now pictures of freezing Kurds, starving Somalis and brutalised Bosnian Muslims help to strengthen the public impression that not to intervene would be an act of callous cruelty. The conclusion which politicians draw for their public is that, whatever problems might exist at home, the state of the rest of the world shows that the West is still the best of all possible societies. Today this conclusion is not likely to be contested by any significant forces in the West.

Probably the only 'achievement' of the Thatcher era that has not yet been undermined by subsequent events was the invasion of the Falklands. The consensus behind such operations is even stronger today. At least there were critics of the Falklands adventure. Yet many who criticised that operation are now calling for the deployment of force against the Serbs. What this means in effect is that, however low the government's esteem might be on domestic matters, there is a total acceptance of its right to intervene abroad.

Churchillian speeches

As erstwhile left wingers queue to express support for Margaret Thatcher's demand to hammer the Serbs in Bosnia, it is clear that distinctions between left and right have even less relevance in the international sphere than in any other. Consequently it is in this realm that support for the Western political system may best be consolidated. These days it seems as if the way to gain political stature is by making bold, Churchillian speeches demanding international sacrifice on behalf of the helpless people of the Balkans. Alternatively it looks good to be seen on primetime television giving a dressing down to Serbian politicians or Balkan militiamen.

The militarisation of politics is a way of consolidating a degree of support for the discredited political institutions of the West. It is only on issues such as Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia that any positive consensus has been created in recent times. That is why no Western government wants to be left out. The fact that numerous competing humanitarian missions are getting in each other's way and making matters worse in Somalia is neither here nor there. It is enough to feed the Western public with a few pictures of grateful children receiving aid packages.

The public consensus behind the moral authority of the West is not a particularly dynamic or active one. Opinion polls and anecdotal evidence suggest that there is a high degree of cynicism towards many of the claims which politicians make about their international posture. The Western public is largely indifferent to international developments.

Crisis of legitimacy

However, this indifference and cynicism tends to be targeted at individual politicians or institutions. The basic authority of the West to act as the arbiter of the affairs of others is not put in question. As a consequence, regardless of the state of public opinion on this or that international issue, there is at least a broad consensus on the fundamentals. And, at a time when even the future of the Anglican Establishment is in question in Britain, a consensus on anything significant becomes a precious political asset for the authorities.

The militarisation of politics and the quest for a moral consensus is bound up with the key problem facing Western political institutions. That central problem is the crisis of political legitimacy. In the post-Cold War world order, the dominant Western political systems appear more fragile than previously. This fragility coexists with a manifest dearth of political ideas and solutions. The exhaustion of Western political institutions is suggested by the new wave of criticisms of the relevance of democracy for the societies of Eastern Europe, China and the third world.

The exhaustion of Western political systems is shown by the strong anti-political cynicism that seems to infect public discussion. The parties of the left have lost the most credibility. But the parties of the right are not immune to the process of political corrosion. It is difficult to find a major political party anywhere in Europe that genuinely enjoys the affection of the public. Governmental parties seem to bounce from one corruption scandal to another. Even institutions that used to be beyond reproach, such as the British royal family or the Church of England, are regarded with increasing cynicism.

What is at issue is not an isolated political scandal. It is easy to see the collapse of the political institutions of Italy as some exotic affair to do with the mafia. However, this institutional disintegration, along with the exposure of Italy's corrupt political elite, is only the clearest symptom of the malaise that affects the whole of the West. That malaise has to do with the inability of political systems to reproduce legitimacy for their institutions. This problem of legitimacy now acts as the main stimulus for projecting domestic problems on to the international sphere. The high international profile adopted by the Western powers is part of the process of recasting the legitimacy of Western political institutions.

A hi-tech Crusade

The preoccupation with the problem of legitimacy explains the peculiar character of Western militarism today. Unlike in the past, there are no predatory mass movements demanding that the West goes to war. Most governments are keen to emphasise their opposition to increased military spending. The public rhetoric is not about military valour or a national crusade, but about upholding the humanitarian duties of a civilised society. The focus is on saving lives rather than on building spheres of influence. It is as if traditional realpolitik has given way to the diplomacy of self-sacrifice and altruism. In reality the objective is to occupy the moral high ground. In this way the new hi-tech Crusade against selected barbarians can help the Western authorities to negotiate their problems of legitimacy at home.

The moral language with which Western intervention is justified today appears to contradict the aggressive spirit of militarism as much as the dogged zeal of the Victorian missionaries who went out to Africa to save the souls of the savages. But just as the activity of soul-saving a century ago had unpredictable consequences written in the blood of hundreds of thousands, so the humanitarian gestures of today will not end with the distribution of food packages. Unless the morality of the new imperialism is contested, the consequences for humanity will be no less barbaric than the effects of the colonialism of the past.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993

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