Opinion: Making the case for liberal interventionism

I’ve just had the following article published in the “Rhode Island Provident” of all places:

You would be forgiven for having been taken by surprise by the revolution in Kyrgyzstan. A few Scrabble enthusiasts may have been rubbing their hands at the news that (now that Mattel are allowing the use of proper nouns) the tiny mountainous nation in Central Asia will earn you 80 points for just one vowel – more if you can snag a triple word score tile. However, for the most part Kyrgyzstan has been unnoticed by the rest of the world.

It is now the site of a full scale revolution, the second in less than five years. The first, now known as the Tulip revolution, came about through opposition parties’ refusal to accept an election result they saw as tainted by vote rigging and an unfair use of the state run media. The President, initially seen as a reformer and a democrat, was forced out by mass protests and replaced with a former minister around whom the opposition had coalesced.

This, the second revolution, seems to have followed an identical pattern. Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the opposition’s choice of 2005, had lost his lustre by 2010. Having once been seen as the man to lead Kyrgyzstan away from its authoritarian tendencies and towards a democratic future – he was now seen as every bit as controlling and antidemocratic as the man he replaced. The 2009 elections were widely held to be fraudulent and in due course he too is being shown the door – Roza Otunbayeva, with long experience as a diplomat and politician, is the new hope of the opposition.

Unfortunately the new revolution is not a carbon copy in every respect. The 2005 revolution was a largely bloodless affair, whereas 63 people are already dead in 2010. Moreover, the man in Bakiyev’s shoes in 2005 – former physicist Askar Akeyev – was left with no support base and, after much posturing, realised he had no choice but to resign. Bakiyev has been keen to ensure he is not left in the same position and has been carefully nurturing a support base in his native south of the country – to which he has now fled. This raises the frightening prospect of civil war. In 1992 when opposing forces in neighbouring Tajikistan mobilized their home regions on either side of a similar power struggle the result was 2 years of bloody slaughter in which 50,000 people lost their lives.

Russia is the dominant power in the region, but clearly Obama must exert what influence he can to make sure there is no repeat of the slaughter. But this is a region where the US must tread lightly to avoid its motives being misunderstood. Many in the region thought the Tulip revolution was of the CIA’s making (or at very least actively encouraged by western organisations) with the aim of introducing a pliant regime who would host airbases for ongoing operations in Afghanistan. Some are now delighted to see “America’s Government” unravel. But this is a misrepresentation; in fact the US Government has traditionally shown a complete, almost callous, disregard for who is in power in Central Asia – happily handing over hard currency for airbases to Governments of all types.

The sad lesson of Central Asia is that you don’t get the Government you deserve. Kyrgyzstan is traditionally thought to be the most democratic of the Central Asian nations – that in turn has made it the least stable. Whilst the inhabitants of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan can do little about the dictators who rule them, the door to democracy in Kyrgyzstan was left open a crack and it is a crack through which the Kyrgyyz people have repeatedly tried to force themselves. Events may well have changed again by the time you read this, but it looks very much like the Kyrgyz people will not easily abandon their search for a leadership worthy of them.

It got me thinking about something the Liberal Democrats are bad at – as a consequence of the fact that the British political system is very bad at it: talking about foreign affairs and global governance issues. We are responsible for one of the largest and best resourced Foreign Offices in the world. Our international policy matters, matters deeply, to many people on every continent. Yet I cannot remember the last time I heard a discussion of British Foreign policy which wasn’t about Iraq or Afghanistan. Over vast swathes of the earth’s surface the actions of our Government are having a very real effect and we, the public, don’t seem to care.

Whilst this is a sad but perhaps inevitable effect of the parochial outlook of our news media it is a pity that we, as a liberal progressive political party are following suit. I would have hoped that as a party which valued internationalism and cooperation between nations we would have developed a complex foreign policy which is tailored to each nation – and values the fact that each nation is very different. After all you wouldn’t expect our policy in Iraq to be the same as our policy in Afghanistan, so why should our policy in Somalia be the same as our policy in Sudan. But it appears our foreign policy doesn’t go much beyond (commendable) general principles and the old favourites of Europe, Iraq and Afghanistan. All parties are guilty of this – but as the most progressive party in Britain my standards for the Lib Dems are higher. And of course the result of political parties not caring is that foreign policy will continue to be dictated by bureaucrats – I happen to think for the most part remarkably well – but in a total absence of political input.

The problem of course is that if our manifesto does not set out our detailed ideas for what our foreign policy should be in every respect is it leaves our candidates to make it up as they go along.

It may sound like I am getting overly obsessed with detail but I strongly believe that a liberal foreign policy has to be detailed. In the 90’s liberal interventionism – practiced badly – got a bad name whilst the mistakes of conservative isolationism (Rwanda) were not learned. This decade therefore, the debate seems to be framed in terms of two opposing sides: neo-conservative interventionism and liberal isolationism. The results have been disastrous and there is a pressing need for somebody to make the case for liberal interventionism: that is intervention that offers a helping hand rather than a hail of machine gun fire, and which appreciates that countries, like individuals, are different. They may have ways of working which, while different, are not wrong. A top-down one-size-fits-all approach will never work – indeed it is a hallmark of Orientalism. These are all classic liberal principles – let us start applying them in our dealings with the rest of the world.

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  • Great piece. I agree in principle with your conclusions here. There is a need to re-define Britain’s role and attitude to the rest of the world so that we aren’t seen primarily as a belicose power – this has been the unfortunate outcome of 40 years of post-imperialist foreign policy and more recent ‘adventures’ in Iraq and Afghanistan – these can be defended, but have massively perverted our international image, despite the ethics of previous action in the Balkans and Sierra Leone and to the detriment of real debate about the rest of our foreign policy . The upshot is that we need to learnt to lead with aid rather than force, and be seen to do so.

    That said, we also need to be ready to take action where required – you site Rwanda as an example, others could be Sudan. However, there is a fundamental difficulty in our doing so, because of our glorious, or perhaps inglorious past. It is easy for the UK and the west to be painted as villains regardless of our intentions. Aid missions almost inevitably need to be backed up with some form of protection, which means boots on the ground.

    The moment this happens, the mission becomes a target and has to be further militarised – Somalia’s UNOSOM missions are a case in point, and this hugely affected US policy throughout the 1990s, with the effect that they sat on their hands through much of the balkan bloodbath, as well as Rwanda.

    It is time for foreign policy to be re-defined – and i hope that the Lib Dem promise of a SSDR fits within this, so that our military posture fits and becomes an adequate tool of our foreign policy aims.

  • Craig
    i don’t want to mispeak for Fred, but i really don’t think that was what he was saying – the quoted article certainly doesn’t call for intervention in Kyrgystan, looking at the issues that the impression of such intervention has already caused.

    In any case, you can be support liberal and humanitarian intervention without being militaristic, and our foreign and defence policy needs retrenching to address that issue and how we are seen. This won’t be easy – we need to overcome the spectre of Iraq and address the issue of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

  • Andrew Suffield 18th Apr '10 - 1:32pm

    I would welcome a realignment of our foreign policy and military aims along the lines of large, well-protected aid missions (which can take large supplies without fear of looting by governments or desperate citizens), and police actions in support of (and at the request of) legitimate but weak governments.

    We don’t need to be interventionist to do any of that. Instead of trying to change other nations to be how we want them, why not find out what they want to be, and help the ones whose goals are acceptable to us?

  • Fred Carver 23rd Apr '10 - 7:34pm

    Blimey, being talked about in your absence is fascinating. I had to admit I hadn’t realised this post had gone up yet and had missed this thread.

    To set the record straight I wasn’t talking about military intervention, indeed I can think of virtually no circumstances where that would be warranted. Perhaps I misspoke, and it was certainly a mistake to evoke the spirit of Blair’s Chicago speech. My intention was merely to make the point that it would be disastrous if the consequences of our (entirely correct) opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (In my case I could also add Kosovo) were that liberal thought on foreign affairs became isolationist. We cannot allow conservatives to dominate the international policy discussion. Every time I read Foreign Affairs these days I become scared because I realise that policy makers think the way Craig assumed I was thinking.

    Whilst Clegg was mostly very good last night – by far the best – he did talk a little too much for my liking about only acting in the national interest overseas. For me a liberal is not someone who wants a liberal nation but someone who wants a liberal world. Fascinating as your discussion has been I’m afraid my point was no more sophisticated than to say we ignore the outside world at our peril.

    It was anyway more of a corollary to my main point which was that political parties need to get more sophisticated in their foreign policy. Manifestos have two audiences, the public who (at least in theory) have to choose between them and the civil servants who have to implement them. General principles and broad brush strokes may be enough for most of the former but they don’t give much of a steer to the latter. Craig, I’m sure you will agree that the manifesto of the ruling party didn’t have a huge impact upon the manner in which you did your job. You yourself give a perfect practical example of the sort of thing we should be saying. Imagine if our manifesto said “a Liberal Democrat government would open an embassy in Kyrgyzstan”

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