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
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.
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.
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