On liberal imperialism

Ryan at Beatniksalad is worried that senior British diplomat Robert Cooper believes in treating states with double standards depending on how liberal-democratic they are.

This isn’t a terribly controversial view – it’s been taught in International Relations courses for the last n years, where n is quite large: the system of order among “modern” states is maintained by balance of power (which can catastrophically fail, as in WWI), while postmodern states (broadly, Europe plus Anglosphere post-2003) rely on transnational institutions and shared cultural values.

This isn’t entirely daft – trusting France not to harbour murdering terrorists is broadly safe (notwithstanding what some of the more deranged people on the US right may think); the same is demonstrably false for Iraq (which doesn’t mean Saddam was involved in 9/11, but he did provide sanctuary for al-Qaida-ites afterwards) and certainly not something you want to leave to trust for Syria or Pakistan.

The difficult bit is dealing with states in transition from modern “we hate everyone who isn’t us and my enemy’s enemy is my friend” to postmodern “we don’t actually hate the rest of the world at all – hey, we’re all people” – like most of Asia (outside the ex-USSR, where things don’t really seem to be improving), like Iran, and maybe like China.

Irrespective of WMD or no WMD, al-Qaida or no al-Qaida, it’s difficult to feel sad about the Iraq war. One of the world’s nastiest bastards is gone, and at the very worst case scenario we won’t make things much worse than they have been. On the other hand, it’s going to be decades before Iraq is democratic (in the sense of a commitment to democracy, rather than in the sense of having elections to pick the next tyrant) and secure. There was no good option.

However, if we were to destabilise Iran’s transition to democracy so that Iranians felt it was being imposed by external imperialists, this would be a genuine tragedy. And that’s where liberal imperialism falls apart – you CAN’T force the Iranians to democratise; that will make everything a million times worse. Unless the bad government you’re toppling is as bad as or worse than Saddam’s, which is rare, the “yes, but they’re our bastards” reaction kicks in among the people.

So where does that leave liberal imperialism, outside of Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea? There isn’t anywhere else ruled by nasty enough bastards for an invasion to be welcomed even as grudgingly as the Iraq invasion. If we back democrats too strongly, then they’ll be discredited in the eyes of the people.

So whether you view the doctrine as scary or good, it’s not applicable in more than 2% of the world’s “modern” or “pre-modern” regimes anyway. Which is nice, or a shame, respectively.

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One thought on “On liberal imperialism

  1. If it was just treating countries with poor human rights/security standards as less reputable this would be OK.

    The problem is that we tend to treat countries we, for other reasons dislike, as if they had poor human rights etc records & then use this as an excuse.

    For example we attacked Yugoslavia (a country with a democratic electoral system & the rule of law) to support Izetbegovic’s Bosnian moslems & the KLA who demonstrably had neither & the Croatian nazis who had no rule of law.
    We clearly hold Israel to different human rights standards than the well-heeled Saudis. We defended the human rights of the victims of communism infinitely harder than those of the Chileans & virtually every other Latin American country except, naturally, Cuba. We helped America bomb Libya because they were supplying guns to the IRA but did not bomb Boston. We helped the Mujahadeen when they threw acid over Afghan schoolgirls in the Soviet era & now consider them terrorists.

    In a world where we were engaged in a life & death struggle with the Soviets (if we ever really were) such hypocricy may have been justifiable. If the intent now is to create a world where peoples can live in harmony it is both immoral & counterproductive. We must, for our own sake, respect a rule of international law that applies equally to all.

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